The wine industry, in general, is confusing. I’m all, “White Burgundy? Always Chardonnay – except that it isn’t because Sauvignon de St Bris is in Burgundy and is Sauvignon Blanc.” And you’re all, “What in the world are you talking about? White Burgundy? Is that from California? Chardonnay – is that red? Sauvignon what? Waiter – bring me a beer!”
No matter how much you learn about wine, there is always something else around the corner ready to throw you off your game. After studying it in the US and the UK for several years (not counting 15 years in the restaurant biz) and a healthy appetite for the collection of the stuff, the very best lesson I ever had was taught by Kevin Zraly under whom I studied and with whom I worked and whom I call a friend: “It’s grape juice. Stop being an *sshole.”
So. Here we are. We have an extremely confusing product that evokes feelings of sophistication, celebration, joy and terror (lots of terror) and now…now we have three more things to add into the murky midst: the addition of organic, biodynamic and natural to the already unhelpful wine labels.
It may surprise you to know that there are very clear-cut rules for labeling a wine as organic, natural or biodynamic.
The labeling of something as “organic” is regulated by the US government and the European Union – which includes France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (along with 14 other countries but these are the main wine-producing ones). Within that there are two options: Wines can be made from organic grapes or wines can be labeled as organic wines. Wines made from organic grapes are made from grapes grown with only natural intervention, no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc. Organic wines, on the other hand, are made from those same organically grown grapes but also without the addition of sulfites – like sulfur dioxide – which are a preservative, in the wine making process.
Biodynamic, on the other hand, is to organic what Jack Bauer is to Columbo: they both solve mysteries but Jack Bauer has a whole lot more going on in his day. Biodynamic viticulture kicked off in 1924 with the mystical-scientific teachings of Rudolf Steiner. It is organic winemaking but with a holistic approach to the agriculture. The theory is that without the addition of additives including sugar, tannins or cultured yeasts the wines instead show a truer expression of terroir orplace. If you can only nurture the naturally occurring product it forces the distinct flavor of that place through – good or bad. There is both a certification for biodynamic viticulture (by Demeter International) and a widely accepted “biodynamic approach” which is not regulated but relies on people who label wines as such to be truthful in their claims. To be certified, however, there are nine biodynamic principles which must be followed. One example is burying cow manure in cow horns in the soil over winter, then digging them up, stirring in water and spraying the vineyard with that water, and another is that oak bark is “buried sheathed in the skull of a farm animal, the skull is buried in a watery environment over winter, then dug up. The skull’s contents are removed and inserted in the compost (the used skull is discarded)”. And then there are also some funky ones involving cow intestines.
And “natural” well, there is no legal definition of “natural” but it is generally accepted as an indication that the producers implement organic farming practices but haven’t yet gone through the lengthy and expensive certification process. Considering it can also be broadly interpreted to include any winemaking because grapes are, after all, natural, you are best advised to research producers making this claim if it is important to you.
So, does all of this make the wine any better?
Danielle Price, former Executive Director of Wine for Wynn Resorts, winemaker and current proprietor of Maison du Prix wines says that she believes farming organically and biodynamically makes a difference in the quality of the wine but that it completely depends on the producer. “Like non-organic wines, there are organic producers making exceptional wines and some just mediocre. Quality wines come from quality vineyards. Many of the greatest wines in the world and my personal favorites are organic/biodynamic but most people don’t even know it because they do not make a big deal about promoting it. Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Araujo, Beaucastel, Comte Lafon… “
And there is another issue. It turns out that consumers don’t think they like wines labeled with the big “O.” So even though wine makers may believe in it and some consumers may swear they taste better, the numbers don’t lie: Magali Delmas, a professor at UCLA’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, studied the effect of eco-labels on California wines from 1999 to 2010. She found that when an producer advertised, by including on their label, “made from organic grapes,” “certified by California Certified Organic Farmers,” “USDA Organic” or “Demeter-certified” the wine prices dropped. By nearly 7%. Wines labeled as organic bring about strong feelings in consumers – that they aren’t as good.
So where does that leave us? Maybe we are already drinking more natural, organic, biodynamic, environmentally friendly wines than we thought –without having any idea that we are doing it. Chances are pretty good because some of the more popular certified organic producers include Domaine Zind Humbrect in Alsace (who is also biodynamic), Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, Peregrine in New Zealand, La Perrin & Fils in Rhone, Bodegas Muga in Spain and Frog’s Leap in the US. Some pretty big name producers are currently in conversion to organic certification include Yarra Yering from Australia, Chateau d’Yquem in Bordeaux, Chateau de Puligny Montrachet, and Qupé and Ridge Vineyards in the US. In addition some popular biodynamic producers include Qupé in the US and Château de Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy.
So in the end the facts are these: There are official certifications for organic and biodynamic viticulture and wine making. There are also general practices. And these eco-friendly practices and certifications do not make or break wines – that is up to the producer. If it is important to you to drink wines that are eco-friendly, your best bet is to do some research and find a few go-to producers you like and trust, as not all are alike. If taste is the driving factor in your decision-making, then don’t select a wine for being eco-friendly or decline it but rather let the producer have the wine speak for itself.
This article first appeared here on FoodPolitic.com an online journal I am honoured to contribute to on occasion. The grape photo and the handsome man drinking wine….those are stock images. Their use, however, does remind me that I am waaaay overdue a trip to Wine Country so I can compile my own little collection of wine topic pics!