“Green” Wines: Marketing Novelty or Eco-friendly Choice?

For more than 40 years, advances in the modern environmental movement have pushed product development towards a more sustainable future, and the wine industry is no exception. According to the National Restaurant Association, environmental sustainability was listed one of the top food trends of 2016. But are sustainable wines, sometimes casually referred to as “green wines,” the real deal, or just marketing hype?

To scratch the surface of that question, we have to start by getting clear on what we mean by the terms. Although we may casually refer to wines as green, that’s usually a catchall term for biodynamic, organic, or sustainable.

Biodynamic Wines

Biodynamic wines are made from vineyards that follow a holistic biodynamic calendar for all agricultural operations. The approach treats the farm as a self-contained, self-sustaining living organism that focuses on soil health and biodiversity with crop rotation, cover crops, natural pest management, planting of complementary vegetation, and no use of chemicals. Once the grapes are harvested, the resulting wine is made using naturally occurring yeasts. Typically biodynamic wines have the same aging potential and shelf life as “conventionally” made wines.

Organic Wines

Organic wines are made with organically grown grapes, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture and made into wine using certified processes. Fining agents, yeast, and other additives must be certified organic and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are allowed. In particular, no sulfites, commonly used as a preservative or flavor stabilizer, may be added, although some sulfites are naturally occurring. Organic wines must also be made certified by both the USDA and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (for labeling). Although organic sounds like a synonym for “natural” wine, the catch is that without preservatives, wines have a much shorter shelf life and little to no aging potential. (As a side note, many of the people who presume they are allergic to sulfites are actually allergic to nitrites or other substances present in wine. But that’s a story for another day.)

If that isn’t all confusing enough, wines can also be certified as made with organically grown grapes without being deemed organic. This distinction allows more flexibility in the additives that can be used, specifically the permitted addition of sulfites.

Sustainable Wines

Sustainable wines are made from grapes grown with environmentally responsible practices. These practices could include reduced use of energy or water, recycling of materials in the tasting room, and reuse of spent grape skins and seeds as fertilizer or animal feed. As most sustainable practices are voluntary, vineyard and winery owners are free to select from the ones that make the most sense for their operation.

But with the multiple choice options of sustainability, how can you tell if the results mean anything at all? That’s a tough question to answer. There are about as many certification standards as there are oaky chardonnays. In the United States alone, there are multiple state standards, the most well-known of which are Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing (Lodi Green), Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW), Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certification, Low Input Vineyard and Enology (LIVE) Certified Sustainable, Salmon Safe, and Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing. Additionally, larger production states such as Virginia, New York, Vermont, and Texas have sustainability guidelines (Virginia Green, VineBalance, Vermont Fresh, Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)) if not full-blown certification programs.

Do Sustainable Wines Taste Better?

Sustainably grown grapes alone aren’t a guarantee of a “better” tasting wine, but like most agricultural products, starting with exceptional ingredients increases the opportunity to create spectacular bottles. With certifications being relatively new, there’s no single definitive authority on the subject, but many growers and winemakers believe that healthier soil leads to greater expression of terroir and ultimately, wines that better reflect the flavors of their origin. Wine critics are beginning to take notice as well, with recent studies by UCLA and the Kedge Business School in Bordeaux finding that sustainably produced grapes produce better tasting (i.e., higher rated) wines.

Undoubtedly time will provide more data from which to draw conclusions. Until then you’ll find me conducting my own taste testing “research.” Cheers!