If you’re not a wine connoisseur, it’s hard to keep up with all of the different flavors of wine, let alone the intricacies of the production process that organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines entail. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested — according to research by the Pew Research Center, 71% of Americans are making purchasing decisions based on nutrition and ingredients labels. Furthermore, 68% of Americans have purchased organic food products within the past month.
Who doesn’t want to pair their organic food with an equally clean and responsibly produced glass of wine? That’s what motivated us to hash out the details of organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines — so you can educate yourself on the differences among the three and find the perfect drink to pair with your organic food. Before we get into the specifics of each of these types of wines, it’s important to understand a few simple steps in the winemaking process:
- Growing and harvesting: Grapes are grown in a vineyard and harvested for use in winemaking.
- Adding ingredients and fermenting: Yeast and other agricultural ingredients are added, in addition to non-agricultural ingredients, in this part of the winemaking process.
- Storing and transporting: Wine is stored until it’s ready to be transported to a distributor.
In the simplest terms, organic wines, sustainable wines and biodynamic wines are different because of the way the vineyards grow and harvest the grapes to create the wine. The added ingredients differ as well.
What Is Organic Wine?
If you’ve done any research on organic wines, you know that the emphasis is almost always on what organic wine does without — pesticides and other chemicals. But have you ever wondered what takes the place of these chemicals to keep the pests off of the grapes used to make your wine? The answer is animals and insects. By introducing beneficial insects to the crop, growers can control their number of harmful bugs. Chickens and sheep may also be left to roam a vineyard to help fight not only the bad insects but also the weeds.
Organic vineyards also have natural alternatives for creating healthy soils. To replace synthetic fertilizers, they rely on compost and cover crops, which add nutrients to the soil over time. The cover crops are planted in between the rows of vines. They attract insects that are good for the soil and plants and provide additional support against erosion. Combined, compost and cover crops provide a nutrient-rich soil that’s perfect for growing grapes.
One of the main factors to consider regarding organic wines is that they are not permitted to have any sulfites added. Sulfites are extremely common in winemaking. The term refers to sulfur oxide, a preservative with antioxidant and antibacterial properties that is often added to prevent oxidization. The bottom line is that sulfites play a key role in the aging of wine. Without it, you have an organic wine with a short shelf life.
The next logical question is “what if I like the organic, but don’t want to lose the flavor that comes with aging?” There are wines “made with organic grapes” that could be the perfect solution for you. While these wines don’t carry the USDA organic certification, to be able to make this claim on the label, the winemaking process must be the same. The only difference is the addition of sulfites, which gives you the aging flavor and shelf life that many wine enthusiasts love.
To fully understand organic wine, you need to know the creation process:
- Growing and harvesting: Grapes are grown in a vineyard that is free of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — and has been for three years before the harvest of the organic grapes. The grapes are not grown or handled using any genetically modified organisms (GMO). Organic wines are certified by the USDA and face the same strict regulations as any food products that carry the USDA organic certification. Since it is an alcoholic beverage, it’s also subject to regulations by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
- Adding ingredients and fermenting: All yeast and other agricultural ingredients added to the wine are organically grown as well. Non-agricultural ingredients are not permitted to make up more than 5% of the product and must be included on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. No sulfites can be used.
- Storing and transporting: Wine and all ingredients and equipment used in the winemaking process are stored in an area that has been certified by the USDA to ensure there is no exposure to any non-organic products that could jeopardize the certification.
What Is Sustainable Wine?
Sustainable wine companies are focused on minimizing the effect their winemaking process has on the environment. They prioritize conservation, preservation, social responsibility and economic feasibility.
It’s great to think that the vineyard your wine originated from was utilizing sustainable practices, but what does that look like for a vineyard? Perhaps the most obvious is in the use of water and energy. In dry seasons, irrigation may be needed to ensure the grapes are growing to their full potential. In those cases, a drip irrigation system is used — giving the grapes just the water they need and no more, minimizing water use.
Energy efficiency comes in all shapes and sizes in a vineyard. One example is the use of solar energy to power everything from irrigation pumps to the vineyard entrance gates. Another is night harvesting. By harvesting at night or in the early-morning hours, in the cooler temperatures, there’s less need for energy-intensive refrigeration. As a bonus, night harvesting helps grapes retain their shape and acidity, which are essential for your glass of wine.
Winemakers vary their process when it comes to creating sustainable wine.
- Growing and harvesting: Grapes are grown in a vineyard that prioritizes water and energy conservation, ecosystem and wildlife preservation, and soil, air and water quality. The process may be organic, but it may not be.
- Adding ingredients and fermenting: Sustainable winemaking places a focus on environmentally friendly and socially responsible processes balanced with cost and economic sense. Sometimes the ingredients are organic, but they don’t have to be.
- Storing and transporting: Facilities and transportation in this winemaking process place a focus on energy efficiency and social responsibility.
Not all vineyards that produce sustainable wines have the same practices. You could have two different sustainable wines sitting side-by-side and find out that their farming, winemaking, storing and transporting processes were completely different. One may be organic, and another may not be. The restrictions are much more subject to individual preferences. You won’t find one sustainable wine certification, but rather several different associations and certifications, each with its own set of rules.
- EMS Environmental Management System (ISO 14001 / ISO 14004): As one of the most common certifications, this international certification focuses on minimizing waste and improving overall waste management. The International Organization for Standardization is continually making updates to its sustainability guidelines, which is reflected in this certification. It is popular in several wine regions, including Bordeaux (in France), Chile and Australia.
- Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW): This certification was developed by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). There are over one hundred criteria for the certification that fall into three main categories: environmental soundness, economic feasibility and social equality. For you to get certified, a third party must conduct an audit. They will check metrics in water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen use. To give you a niche example, wines in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho located near rivers with salmon populations can become “Salmon Safe.” Being “Salmon Safe” means that wines with this indication were created with the salmon in mind — special procedures were put in place to minimize runoff into the rivers and more.
While we’re able to give a general overview of the types of priorities in sustainable winemaking, the best way to get your hands on the specifics is to look up some of the sustainable practices that are most important to you and then find wine certifications and associations to match.
What Is Biodynamic Wine?
Biodynamic wines are like organic wines, but to earn this label, they abide by a few more regulations. They follow all the USDA’s regulations for organic products while adding biodynamic practices, which focus on soil treatments and timing planting actions that coincide with lunar cycles.
According to an article in Imbibe UK, these processes came from Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, in the 1920s. He believed that instead of focusing solely on the grapevines, we should consider every organism in the area as well as astrological impacts on the vineyard.
To help biodynamic farmers put this big picture into practice, he developed a list of several soil preparations — some of which seem pretty bizarre. For example, Steiner gave the following soil treatment to prevent disease: Sheath oak bark in the skull of a farm animal and bury it in a watery environment over winter. Then, dig it up. Remove the skull’s contents and insert them into the compost. Discard the used skull.
If you’re new to biodynamics, it probably seems a little strange — but the results overwhelmingly show superior soil quality and vineyard health. Don’t forget, however, that because biodynamic wines are organic, their shelf life is shorter due to their lack of added sulfites.
Finally, you’ll want to know the growing, fermenting and storing process for biodynamic wines:
- Growing and harvesting: Grapes are grown following all of the organic farming and harvesting practices, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, several soil preparations are used. The sun, moon and planets lead all parts of the farming and harvesting process.
- Adding ingredients and fermenting: Ingredients and fermenting are the same as organic wines — all agricultural ingredients used in the winemaking are organically grown. The non-agricultural ingredients must be included on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and cannot make up more than 5% of the wine. No sulfites can be used.
- Storing and transporting: The storing and transporting process for biodynamic wines is the same as that for organic wines — storage areas for ingredients and wine are certified by the USDA. To get the USDA certification, there cannot be any exposure to non-organic products.
It’s not always easy to find a biodynamic wine. Only two organizations certify them internationally — Demeter and Biodyvin. Aside from those, you can look for a wine with the USDA organic certification paired with the mention biodynamic practices — for various reasons, many biodynamic vintners are not officially certified.
What’s the Difference Between Regular, Organic, Sustainable and Biodynamic Wines?
You’ll find similarities and differences among organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines. All of them must follow laws, regulations and guidance stated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The majority of these rules are related to labeling and selling wine. The primary difference between each wine type is in the growth and harvest of the grapes, ingredients and winemaking process.
In simplest terms, organic winemakers are focused on a purer process — less exposure to chemicals. Sustainable winemakers place a priority on being environmentally friendly, socially responsible and economically sound. Biodynamic wine creators make organic wines using farming processes that align with the lunar calendar and involve specific soil treatments.
The certifications for each type of wine are very different. While there is a single certification for organic wines, the other kinds have several available recognitions. When you compare regular wines to each of these, you’ll want to be aware of several differences.
Regular Wines vs. Organic Wines
The main difference between organic wine and regular wine is the list of chemicals and ingredients each is exposed to. A USDA-certified organic wine is subject to tight rules and regulations, and as a result, mixes with fewer chemicals throughout the entire process — a more natural process, you might say, but one with a lack of sulfites. Sulfites are one of the keys to preserving and aging wine, so this purer process of producing organic wines means a shorter shelf life. The cost of organic wine is usually higher.
Regular Wines vs. Sustainable Wines
When you’re comparing ordinary wines to sustainable wines, the difference is in the vintner’s emphasis on the environment. Sustainable wine companies make an extra effort to minimize their impact on the environment. They spend time focusing on waste management, water conservation, energy efficiency and wildlife preservation. In addition to environmental impact, sustainable wines also focus on social responsibility — placing an extra emphasis on making sure their employees are treated and compensated fairly.
Regular Wines vs. Biodynamic Wines
The differences between regular wines and biodynamic wines are in the farming of the grapes. Biodynamic winemakers follow some of the same processes used to make organic wines but take one step further. Biodynamic wines add another dimension to the differences that exist between regular and organic wines. They’re produced using grapes that have been grown through particular processes — matching every aspect of the grape growth with the lunar calendar, for instance — to achieve superior soil.
Which Wine Is Best for Me?
The wine you prefer depends on what you’re passionate about. If you are looking for the purest wine in its most natural state, free of chemicals and preservatives, an organic wine will be the perfect match for you. These wines are also great for those who prioritize buying foods and other products organic —you’re likely to want to pair these with an organic wine.
If you’re enthusiastic about the environment, sustainable wines will taste even better when you think about the reduced environmental impact. Whether your passion is for overall sustainability or a particular niche, like alternative energy, energy efficiency, water conservation, wildlife preservation, etc., you can rest assured knowing that vintners who share your passion created sustainable wines.
If you’re a fan of focusing on winemaking as a part of a much larger ecosystem, in tune with the sun, moon and planets, biodynamic wines will give you peace of mind of knowing every possible element was incorporated, with Mother Nature leading the way for planting and harvesting times. The vintners behind biodynamic wines make sure to consider every aspect of their vineyard ecosystem — to the moon and back — when they’re growing the grapes to create your wine. How cool is that?
If you’re just passionate about a good glass of wine, we recommend trying a variety to see what you like the best. You know the differences among the three types and a regular glass of wine, so get a bottle of each and give them a try. Does a glass of wine without the use of chemicals taste better? Or does the wine made with grapes grown with the lunar cycles have an edge? Can you notice a taste difference in the wine that was created with a focus on water conservation and energy efficiency? How does your favorite glass of regular wine compare to each of these?
There are so many questions to answer. Let’s be honest — who doesn’t want an excuse for a wine tasting?
How Can You Find the Perfect Organic, Sustainable or Biodynamic Wine for Your Next Event?
If you decide to take advantage of hosting an impromptu wine tasting to test each wine category, Marketview Liquor is here to help you get the best bottles for the occasion. Regardless of whether you’re searching for organic, sustainable, biodynamic or regular wine, you’re sure to find what you need in our diverse, affordable selection.
We have a selection of organic wines online that range in price from under $10 to $50+. You’ll discover a variety — everything from a sweet Riesling to a bottle of dry red. Our extensive selection includes wines from regions around the world — you’ll find options from certified organic vineyards located everywhere from California to Spain.
If organic wine isn’t your favorite, we have several non-organic options for you to choose from that come from equally diverse regions of the world. We’re sure we have something to satisfy your palate and your wallet. Each week you can see our specials in our weekly ad, and we always have a section called Great & Under $8. Visit our website to browse our extensive inventory — if you find something you like, you’ll see how easy it is to order our wines online.