Welcome to the
World of Sustainable Wine
The Wine Ship is dedicated to championing a wine industry that can withstand the test of time. This means working to educate our Cru on what it means to practice sustainability in wine. We're supporting producers who focus on earth-friendly initiatives in the winery and beyond.Discover Our Favorite Sustainable Producers
Your roadmap to the world of Sustainable Wine
Sustainable Wines on
The Wine Ship Podcast
Join Montana for an intro to the world of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wine production! In this episode, she covers the big picture, and need-to-know info on these categories. With this foundation in place, continue your experience in the sections below!
We care what we put into our bodies and the earth
A lot of us are interested in our health and well-being and we pay attention to the foods we eat. We shop for organic veggies and ethically raised meat products, but when it comes to wine, there seems to be a disconnect. We think over time, this will change. After all, it was just 30-40 years ago that organic food wasn't mainstream, and look at us today! Now it’s the rule rather than the exception.
- In a Nielsen Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey in 2016, 64% said they follow a diet that limits or prohibits the consumption of at least some foods or ingredients and 68% said they were willing to pay more for foods without undesirable ingredients.
- With these trends in consumer behavior, we've seen a growing "better-for-you" wine category with brands like Skinny Girl, Fitvine, and others.
- More mainstream grocery chains and wine/liquor stores are carrying products in these health-conscious categories.
Many of these brands dedicate their marketing narratives to what is NOT in their wines, focusing on features consumers are most comfortable with such as sugar, calories, carbohydrates, and other information we're used to paying attention to on nutrition labels. This approach is effective because consumers are familiar with the significance of these data points. But there's more to the story!! Together, we're going to explore a more complete story. Knowledge is power!
How did we get here?
The emergence of "conventional" agriculture & viticulture
What we now refer to as "conventional" agriculture are mass farming methods that became widespread following World War II. According to the US Census Bureau, the US population grew from 150 million to 180 million between 1950 and 1960. As the population surged, it became necessary to increase the production on American farms. This brought on the emergence of widely used fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, pesticides, soil fumigants, bird repellents, and fertilizers.
These new developments in agriculture worked quickly and effectively and led to mass production but also toxicity and some scary biological effects like inhibited yeast activity.
Sustainability in wine is a broad umbrella covering vast criteria of practices. The meaning of the term varies from region to region and producer to producer. While growing and production practices for organics and biodynamics are stringent and well-defined, the same can't be said for sustainability. Instead, growers and organizations local to specific areas take it upon themselves to adopt and maintain sustainability commitments in their production.
When practiced in earnest, sustainability can represent the most holistic approach to wine production possible. But, because the term is not globally regulated, there may be instances where the message gets manipulated for marketing purposes.
Producers who take the concept seriously consider every aspect of their impact on the planet. They look beyond just what’s happening in the vineyard to all the other impacts that their production has on our environment and society.
While sustainability may not be broadly defined, there are some key principles that are generally considered to be components. These standards and practices emphasize healthy ecology, economic viability, and social responsibility.
A few practices that might be involved are things like:
- Not using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers
- Planting cover crops to help avoid erosion and naturally aerate soil
- Using livestock to maintain biodiversity
- Energy conservation and efficiency practices
- Water quality management and reclamation systems
- Dry farming (see section below!)
- Wildlife habitat protection
- "Green" or renewable materials used in winery construction
- Solar-powered wineries
- Recyclable packaging and other materials
- Not using capsules to cover corks
- Use of screwcaps instead of corks
- Not using heavy bottles unless for sparkling wine where they are necessary
- Using non-toxic Ink for printing labels
- Ethical business practices
- Social support and wellness programs for workers
Sustainable Wine Certifying Bodies
While there’s no broad certification, there are dozens of organizations operating in specific regions. These groups work to regulate and uphold local sustainable wine standards and support the work of their member wineries while holding them accountable.
Check out a few of of the leaders in sustainability!
Don't Panic! It's Organic!
Food products that have been certified organic by the USDA are commonplace in today's grocery stores. For many of us, shopping for food with this seal of approval is a daily practice. But what about when we visit the farmer's markets during the summer months? We often purchase produce, meats, cheese, and other products that don't hold the certification. We know the quality is there because the farmer shares their story with us. Perhaps they are a small family-run farm that only grows enough to share their yield with a few lucky markets each summer. The same can be true in wine!
Let's start with understanding what it takes for a wine to become Certified Organic:
- The wine's entire production cycle is assessed from vineyard to bottle
- No synthetic pesticides or chemical herbicides may be used at any point
- Only naturally occurring sulfites (up to 100 parts per million) are allowed, so no added sulfites during winemaking.
- The wines must be produced and bottled in a certified organic facility using 100% authorized cleaning agents and processes.
- No GMOs, enzymes, or yeasts may be added.
Various countries and regions have their own certifying bodies, each with its own standards.
Wines labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” must use Certified Organic grapes but may come from a winery that is not certified.
It takes at least three years to convert to Certified Organic status
There are thousands of wineries that have adopted organic growing practices but choose to forgo certification. Sometimes the label will state this, other times we need to do a little research.
Practicing Organic Producers:
- hold themselves to organic standards whenever possible
- may wish to avoid the time and expense of formal certification, or elect to use non-organic treatments in cases of emergency
- may simply not feel a need to "prove" their efforts with certification
Biodynamic farming and winemaking follow the cycles of the moon/planets. The practice uses a series of ‘preparations’ applied to soil and plants in homeopathic doses and utilizes estate farm-generated outputs like composted manure.
Biodynamic wines are certified by an organization called Demeter which allows a maximum of 100 parts per million sulfites for dry wines and 150 parts per million for sweet wines. Biodyvin is a well-known organization of European Biodynamic producers.
Certified wines meet the Organic standard (prohibition of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides) but take the commitment even further. A farm is viewed as a holistic system and living organism that can be self-sustained.
- "Root, shoot, flower, and fruit" are linked to earth, water, air, and fire, so treatments that affect various parts of the plants are performed in conjunction with zodiac signs that relate to a given element
- Elemental sulfur and Bordeaux Mixture are allowed, while agrochemicals and fertilizers are not; this is all the same as Organic.
- So does it work? We see objective proof in increased microbial life, thicker/longer/stronger roots, higher organic matter in soils, higher microbial biomass and earthworm populations, and other key indicators in farms treated this way.
- An entire farm must be certified, not just a segment of the land or vineyard, and 10% of the total farm acreage must be set aside as a biodiversity preserve.
- Wines can be Biodynamic or Made with Biodynamic Grapes (for wines not made in a Demeter-certified winery)
- Farms are inspected annually.
- Farms transitioning from Certified Organic to Biodynamic must practice one year of Biodynamic cultivation before Biodynamic Certification can be considered.
- Want to learn more about Biodynamic Gardening? Check out this book from Amazon!
- The viticultural practice of withholding irrigation from a vineyard, usually after it has been sufficiently irrigated and established in its first 3-5 years.
- Considered environmentally responsible in that it conserves water and can help alleviate water shortages, though some who practice dry farming will utilize irrigation in emergency situations.
- Encourages a vine’s root systems to dig more deeply for water and thereby protect it from drought.
- Proponents say the practice produces more intensely flavored grapes, leading to more intensely flavored wines.
The Scoop on Sulfites
- NSA (No Sulfites Added) wines are produced without any added sulfites but may contain up to 10ppm of naturally occurring sulfites which are an unavoidable by-product of fermentation.
- NSA wines may contain language on the label such as “Contains No Detectable Sulfites,” or “May Contain Naturally Occurring Sulfites,” and most are USDA Certified Organic.
- Sulfites have been added to wine for centuries to help prevent bacterial spoilage and oxidation; about 1 in 100 people have sensitivity to sulfite according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
- Sulfites frequently get blamed for headaches but these are more often the result of allergens or histamines that have settled on the grape skins, or overindulgence.
- Sulfites are used in products like dried fruits, bacon, orange juice concentrate, cornstarch, and wines.
- Red wines have fewer sulfites than white because tannin acts as a natural preservative.
- US legal maximum for sulfites in wine is 350 ppm, for dried apricots, it’s 2,000 ppm.
Did you know that not all wine is vegan?
- Vegan wines are produced without the use of animal-based substances that are sometimes used as fining agents; these agents are commonly used to improve wine clarity, adjust the character of a wine, reduce sediment, and hasten the production process.
- Casein, isinglass, egg whites, gelatin, and milk are some well-known animal-based fining agents.
- Some vegan wines will state ‘Certified Vegan’ or ‘Vegan Friendly,' but many vegan wines do not get certified and do not have label terms identifying them as vegan.
Looking for a great resource for finding vegan wines? Check out Barnivore.com for vegan wine, beer, and liquor
Want to learn more? Check out this article from Decanter
What's the deal with "natural wine"?
- No regulated definition
- Additive-free (no enzymes, cultured yeasts, sulfites, etc.) wines made with sustainable, organic, or biodynamic practices.
- ‘Pet-Nat’ and ‘orange wines’ are popular subcategories.
- Nielsen Data: In a recent 4-year period (March 2017 – March 2021) retail sales of ‘natural’ wines in the U.S. increased 21% in value and 17% percent in volume to $154M per year (U.S wine market: $68B)
Shopping for Sustainable Wines
Small production and slightly higher prices, largely due to labor-intensive techniques (hand-harvesting, specialized vineyard, and production practices) and the cost of achieving and maintaining certifications
- MANY wineries operate with these production techniques but are not certified due to expense and/or emergency viticultural situations, so information is not easy to find on labels
- Develop a relationship with a quality local wine shop
- Use the internet and research ‘technical sheets’ and trade sections of websites
Sustainable Producers we love
With so much variation depending on region and practices, shopping for earth-friendly wines can be a challenge. There are numerous brands on the market that take a fear-based approach to marketing. Over time, we hope to see more clarity and transparency from producers around what they are doing in the vineyard. Until then, it's our responsibility to become as familiar as possible with the practices of the brands we recommend. We've curated the below list of wineries whose practices we in the vineyard, winery, and beyond set them apart as stewards of the land.
Got a producer we need to add? Send their info to us at [email protected]