The ins and outs of organic wine, why it’s good, what you need to know
BY MOLLY SMITH FOR GREENING OF OIL
When not referring to the 'nose' or color, green, or organic wines are a hot new item in the wine world.
In the current age of environmental awareness and sustainability initiatives, green wines are proving to be more buzzed about than conventionally produced ones.
"Awareness and consumption of organically produced wines continues to increase among core organic consumers and more importantly, among mainstream premium wine consumers as well.” Says John Tichenor, the brand manager for Bonterra Vineyards, an organic brand.
According to BIG, the brand saw a 17.5 percent sales increase in 2008. Even in the difficult economic climate, vintners are seeing an increase in wine sales and perhaps not unsurprisingly, in the organic wine sector. While wine sales increased 1.1% in 2008 over 2007, the sales for organic wines grew 3.7% in that same time frame.
With the trend evidence undeniable, it makes sense that vintners interested in taking advantage of this new market and making a profit should begin growing organic grapes and turning it into organic wines, right? Well, reality is never as easy. Organic and sustainable viticulture and enology is not easy, with many complex processes and certification protocols that deter a lot of potential organic wine vintners.
So, what even makes a wine organic?
When applied to wines, the term can either refer to the fact that the wine was made from organic grapes or that the finished product is 100%, USDA certified organic.
However, just because a wine was made from organic grapes does not necessarily mean it is 100% organic. For example, a wine may be grown from “organic grapes” (a labeling term designated to crops which meet a certain set of propagation standard criteria), yet the finished wine product may not be because of additives introduced during processing. In order for a finished wine to be 100% organic, it must have been grown organically (the term refers to the plot of land, soil, pesticide management and processing methods) from organic grapes and contain no additives or stabilizers.
These types of wines are tricky thing to make, as they are processed, fermented goods and unlike a produce item, require some sort of preservative to keep them from spoiling/souring. The alcohol helps prevent spoilage, but most vintners must resort to adding a small amount of sulfite preservative to ensure stability. Wines without the added sulfite characteristically have shorter shelf lives and rapidly turn brown, resulting in a sherry-like taste and vinegar aroma.
So unfortunately, 100% organic wines are difficult to make and are not commonly found in the marketplace. Much more common are wines which were made from just organic grapes, which, from a marketing perspective, is still a strong angle!
Hand in hand with organic is the term sustainable. Quite often, grapes that are grown organically are also produced sustainably. Sustainable agriculture refers to growing crops in a way that ensures the continued production of the crop without depleting the environment of its natural nutrients or otherwise damage the lands’ long-term productivity or yields.
However, as discussed above, growing grapes sustainably is not exactly easy, due to the complicated and complex nature of viticulture.
Firstly, grapes are susceptible to many pests and blights, which must be regulated with the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals may be quite harmful to the surrounding environment, or possibly even taint the quality or chemistry of the grape itself. Quite apart from the soil contamination and toxification of surrounding landscapes via run-off by rain or irrigation methods, the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides can be a danger to the workers applying them.
Grapes also require well-aerated soils and plenty of water. Maintaining a healthy soil is the basis of organic viticulture and the regular addition of organic matter in the form of cover crops, compost, or manure help generate a soil that is biologically active with good-quality structure and able to hold nutrients and water. The integrity of the soil must be strictly monitored and controlled, usually by chemical fertilizers and other substances, which may have long-term harmful effects
If the growing region is dry, water must be pumped to the grapes, requiring energy and appropriate landscape infrastructure (trenches, pipe, reservoirs). Not only is water a precious resource, but transporting it also requires a lot of energy in the form of electricity and/or fossil fuels. Machines that tend and harvest grapes further erode soil and leak gas, oil and air pollution into the environment.
Once the grapes have been grown, they must be processed, often using huge pieces of gas-guzzling machinery, as well as chemical additives in the form of stabilizers and flavor enhancers/controls. Even after growing and processing, the bottles of finished product must be shipped to their destinations, causing their ecological footprints to leave quite a dent in the landscape.
While the demand for organic wines is increasing, as indicated by the jump in the number of sales, what’s interesting to note is the fact that many of these vineyards producing the wines are not doing so strictly for immediate economic profit. Many recognize the importance of growing grapes in a sustainable way, so as to ensure continued fecundity of the soil and landscape for years to come.
For one thing, if a vineyard can control erosion and soil-nutrient depletion both by simply planting a cover crop between rows of vines, they may cut down on the costs of controlling both factors individually, and in ways which would harm rather than help, the environment. While still a controversial subject, the use of biocontrols to monitor things like pests and to some degree, fungi and blights, has the potential to be an effective control mechanism. The science is still disputable and there are no conclusive answers as to whether biocontrols are safe, but they are certainly an avenue for potential exploration, and easily applied to viticulture.
Wineries across the United States are coming to the realization that not only is sustainable grape propagation healthier for the planet and beneficial to the long-term prosperity of the vineyard, but it is also an affective marketing mechanism.
Buying an organic, sustainably produced wine is a win-win situation
The consumer not only has a lovely bottle of delicious wine, but the satisfaction of purchasing a product that was produced in a sustainable manner and also supporting an organic farmer who practices non-harmful propagation methods. The vintner benefits by making a profit from selling an item that was produced without excess harm to the environment or depleting the land of resources, thus ensuring more successful crops (and profits) for years to come.
As a viticulture and enology minor at Cornell, the idea of organic wines is very intriguing to me. I’m interested in starting my own vineyard someday and experimenting with different ways of controlling pests and blights. Right now though, I content myself with being sustainable while attending wine classes by bringing my own wine glasses to class (a plastic case lined with foam prevents breakage) so as to reduce the amount of disposable cups I would otherwise have to use. I also get inventive with my roommates when disposing of empty wine bottles. With help from norcalwine.com we've found many uses for empty bottles, including reassigning them as vases and candle holders. Empty beer and wine bottles have also been modified into drinking vessels, available at Windy City Glass.
It cannot be denied that organic viticulture is an important field with many potential benefits for both the planet and the consumer conscience.
While not yet as readily available as conventionally grown wines, sustainable viticulture is a huge and upcoming market. Forget your red or white. I’ll take my wine green thanks.
Links of interest
Norcal Wines: 6 ways to reuse wine bottles
Windy City Glass: drinking vessels made from your favorite brews
Pahlmeyer organic vineyard
Spann organic vineyard
Benzinger organic vineyard
About Molly Smith
Molly Smith hails from a small rare-breeds farm in Woolrich, Pennsylvania. Growing up she was an active participant in 4-H, Project Grass, Envirothon and Dairy Promotion. After her graduation from the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in 2007, Smith moved to New York to begin undergraduate work at Cornell University. As a Natural Resources major in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, Smith has found ample opportunities to develop her interests in sustainable agriculture, conservation ecology and wildlife biology. On campus, she is an active participant in Forword Women’s Literary Magazine, Society for Natural Resources and Conservation and the Developmental Fencing Club. When not working, Molly enjoys rock climbing, yoga, playing scrabble and discovering new music.
Contact Molly Smith at email@example.com
The following are comments from our readers. They do not represent the view of Greening of Oil or its owner.