We love wine, so we often take for granted that this fermented goodness can have some hidden items that might not be so desirable, while also having an impact on our environment. It makes you think, if conventional grapes are on the Dirty Dozen, where do our wine grapes stand? We certainly aren’t trying to scare you away from our favorite adult beverage, but lets just say the amount of pesticides and chemicals in varying levels of toxicity found in conventional wine can be astounding. And it’s not solely left to the grapes, but leaches into the soil, ground water and so forth. Therefore, in an effort to make better choices, we’re going to try and simplify what it means when a wine is organic, biodynamic®, sustainable… and even vegan – all good things to look for. Then we’ll share some of our favorites. When in doubt, check the labels just like you would your skincare products (and not just the pretty ones!)
In the same fashion that fruits and veggies are certified organic by the USDA, same goes for wine, because after all, they’re grapes. Truly USDA Organic wines are hard to come by and often have a steeper price point because the certification is expensive, but that means that the growing of the grapes and the entire fermentation and production process follow the USDA code. In the US this means that grapes must be grown organically (without synthetic pesticides or GMOs) and cannot add sulfites in the winemaking process. In Europe this means wines are organically grown with the same standards, but can add sulfites. As we know, the European Union (EU) has higher regulation and has banned many of the chemicals used in the US, so the sulfites they add are held to a much higher standard.
Often, a wine will say the grapes are “organically grown” on the label, in which they are grown under the standards of organic, but during production they use additives (sulfites), which is not allowed in a 100% organic wine. However, the grapes were not grown using synthetic pesticides or GMOs, so that’s a plus.
Wines that claim to be biodynamic® are grown without synthetic chemicals or GMOs as well, in fact, 100% organic growing and winemaking practices are the foundation of the practice. But with biodynamic® it’s taking the process of growing grapes and making wine to the next level. This process considers every element as one, so a very holistic approach. Earth, vine, it’s all connected as an ecosystem that follows astrological influences and lunar cycles like the sunrise, sunset, solstice, equinox, etc. They also allow animals to graze and trim the vegetation and fertilize the soil, instead of introducing man made interventions. Winemakers producing biodynamic® wines do not add yeast to induce the fermentation process or adjust acidity levels.
So why aren’t they certified organic? Well they chose to certify biodynamic® (Demeter is the certifying agency, you cannot be Bio without their approval), which is an “elevated version” of USDA Organic, it’s pretty much the highest level as it stands.
A wine produced under the term sustainable honors ecological, economical and social impact – in short, they’re more green than conventional brands. Commonly, wines produced sustainably honor organic and biodynamic principles, just without forking over the hefty sum to certify organic, but not all, so it’s always worth checking out a company’s website. Aside from the production, these operations also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources, lower waste and emissions and the social responsibility of caring for their workers.
Sustainable wine is not regulated by any government or entity unless the vineyard/winery is part of a third-party agency or certification that develops specific standards like SIP Certified or California Certified Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
Some of you out there may be really upset at us for this next statement (we’re just the messenger!), but no, most wines are not vegan (or even vegetarian). Yes, it was a shock to us too, but here’s the lowdown.
Grapes are grown, we know that, then they are produced/fermented which is the winemaking process. If you were to see a young wine straight out of the barrel or stainless tank, it’s murky and cloudy, so its final step is to go through a clarifying process. This helps refine the proteins, tannins, tartrates and phenolics (all fine, none dangerous) so that the wine is more aesthetically pleasing, more clear. Some wines will do this on their own if able to stabilize, however, larger productions who need to ship out quite a bit of wine add fining agents to help this process along.
To do this they might add gelatin (animal protein), casein (milk protein), isinglass (fish bladder protein) or albumin (egg whites). This attracts the smaller particles into larger particles making them easier to eliminate.
So… trace amounts shouldn’t be left in wine, but there’s no way to tell and likely animal products have been used, so it depends on where you draw your vegan or vegetarian line. UNLESS you find a wine that uses items like activated charcoal or bentonite (Frey, Bonny Doon), which are out there. It’s just not extremely popular yet, so you may have to do your research (try Barnivore for a little help).
If you have any questions, let us know! Amanda, our Editor, has worked in the wine industry for quite some time and she’s happy to find you answers, and new, delicious, better brands to try. Remember, vote with your dollars! Tired of sorting through your Whole Foods selection bottle by bottle? Try some of our favorite online retailers: Natural Merchants, Organic Wine Exchange or the Ecovine Wine Club.
Wait, what are sulfites? I’ve heard they’re bad.
Sulfur (sulfur dioxide, sulfites) is naturally occurring when grape juice goes through the fermentation process (aka. what gives it it’s alcohol content). Over the years as wine consumption has grown, winemakers started adding more sulfites as a preservative, it’s pretty common. But it’s also become a little bit of a scape goat. You know, your friend who can’t drink red wine, she’s allergic to sulfites? Well, we hate to burst the bubble, but sulfites are in ALL wine either added or natural, so it’s another allergic reaction all together (re: histamine, in which white wine has less). If additives aren’t your thing, you can source out NSA wines, or no sulfites added, but they aren’t very popular. We say stick to certified USDA Organic or biodynamic®.