The difference between clean wine, sustainable wine and organic wine
Whether you like buttery Chardonnays or velvety Pinot Noirs, a delicious glass of wine can be the perfect way to end the day. You’ve probably heard a lot about clean wine – it’s very trendy right now. But how do you know that your wine aligns with your ecological values?
Unfortunately, there are tons of confusing regional certifications, standards, and practices to sift through. It can be difficult to find a wine that you like to drink and that is environmentally friendly.
That’s why Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Wine Alliance since 2007, joined good together to help clear things up. Learn everything you need to know below. (And pst– sip wine from Brightly’s mouth-blown wine glasses while doing it!)
What exactly is clean wine?
Currently, “clean wine” is one of the most popular terms producers use to market wine. This buzzword encompasses everything from minimal intervention winemaking to no fining agents.
Wine and the winemaking process have evolved over thousands of years. At this point, wine is a strictly regulated, high-quality product; nearly every ingredient that goes into wine is measured against specific quality and quantity standards.
Due to these regulations, most wines could be considered “clean”. Clean is a marketing buzzword that helps wine capture part of the $52 billion wellness industry.
Although “clean wine” is an unregulated marketing term, there are specific processes of green viticulture and winemaking that are clearly defined. All of these practices can be marketed as clean wine, but there are specific certifications to look for.
The first category of certification is organic. According to Jordan, organically grown grapes come from vineyards that meet the standards established by the National Biological Program. Growers can only apply National Organic Program materials to their grapes. Wines that use grapes from these vineyards usually say “made with organically grown grapes” on the label.
“That means only materials from the National Organic Program can be applied. Sometimes people think that means no materials are applied. That’s not true,” she says. “Organic growers also need to manage pests, diseases and vineyards, but they must only use approved materials.”
For a wine to carry the mention “organic” on the label, it must also be free of sulphites. Sulphites are a microbial stabilizer naturally present in wine. Some people believe that sulfites cause common adverse reactions to wine, such as headaches, flushed, flushed face, or insomnia.
“Wines labeled organic cannot add sulfites either. Sulfates are naturally occurring, but they are also sometimes added to extend shelf life,” says Jordan. “So if you see a wine labeled organic, that just means no sulfites were added and the grapes come from certified vineyards.”
Only 1% of the population is truly allergic to sulphites. If you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to dried fruit, which contains up to 10 times more sulfites than wine, you could be part of that 1%.
Histamines are the commonly accepted cause of adverse reactions to wine. They are present in all fermented products. Some examples of fermented products include wine, kimchi, tempeh, and aged meats.
Another type of “clean wine” certification to look for is biodynamic. Biodynamic winemakers practice organic farming, but they also really believe that the vineyard is closed circuit.
There is a calendar followed by biodynamic growers that determines planting, pruning and harvesting days, and it is based on the lunar cycle. These grapes are naturally organic as they avoid pesticides and use compost instead of chemical fertilizers.
“They use natural alternatives to promote a healthy ecosystem to have healthy soil. They use compost teas and natural preparations to enrich the soil. They use insect trees to control pests,” says Jordan. “It’s actually something that sustainable growers often do where you basically want to have these beneficial insects on your property. Thus, they can help you naturally control pests in your vineyard.
It is important to note that although biodynamic wines are organic, they are not vegan. Winemakers use animal by-products during processing.
Finally, we have sustainable wine certifications. Of the three types, sustainable winemaking is the most holistic option that takes into account many approaches that benefit the planet.
“Most programs in the field of sustainability deal with practices in the vineyard. Things like water and energy efficiency, soil health, responsible crop protection, wildlife habitat,” says Jordan. “They are also aimed at wine estates. This includes things like water use and winemaking efficiency, recycling and sustainable purchasing. So you’re thinking about your supply chain, not just what you do as a business.
Additionally, some, but not all, also address the social aspects of sustainability. Things like neighbors, employees, and community contributions. So what should you be looking for in terms of certifications?
There are many certifications for sustainable wines, and most of them are regional. SEP certified and Certified Green (Lodi Rules) are two Californian certifications for sustainable wines, while Safe for salmon and INHABIT certify Pacific Northwest wines.
Another California-based certification for sustainable wines is the Certified Californian sustainable viticulture label. Jordan says the certification measures “everything from land management, energy and water use efficiency” to “neighbors and community, and sustainable purchases”.
Whatever the certification that is on the bottle, know that it was not easy for the winemaker or the oenologist to obtain it. Certification processes are usually very rigorous and require an annual third-party audit. This is why it is so expensive to get these certifications.
Due to the cost, some wine producers follow all the rules without paying for certification. They might market their wine as clean wine, so be sure to ask questions to learn more about their sustainability initiatives.
Questions to Ask During a Wine Tasting
If you want to learn more about the wine you drink, Jordan says the best thing to do is visit a winery and do a wine tasting.
“I encourage people to ask questions and make visits,” she says. “A lot of wineries now offer eco-tours. You can really understand what’s going on in the vineyard and often have a glass of wine in your hand while you do the educational part of it.
While you’re at it, she says to ask:
- What are the sustainable practices of your vineyard?
- Do you hold any sustainable, organic or biodynamic certifications?
- How do you integrate sustainability into your viticulture, harvesting and winemaking?
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