Green Vino 101
||Master Sommelier Emily Wines
It’s easy using the term “green,” but I’ve never found it satisfying to use this definition for wine. When eco-consciousness began to really take hold a decade ago, it suddenly seemed that everything from jeans to detergent was “earth-friendly” and the wine world was no different. That’s why it is important to take a closer look at this growing category of eco wines to truly understand what it means to be organic, sustainable and biodynamic.
As Director of Wines and Master Sommelier for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, I spend a great deal of time at all of our hotels and restaurants educating consumers and staff about the importance of eco-friendly wine. In fact, through our Wines That Care program, we serve red and white wine from companies with a conscious at our hosted nightly wine receptions in each hotel. On the restaurant side, I travel the country teaching a little course I like to call Shades of Green. Let me break it down for you.
Probably the most widely used and abused term, but when in fact, it is arguably the most conscientious way to produce wine. Sustainability is a designation that refers to a system of agriculture that promotes the well-being of natural and human resources through emphasis on environmental, economic, and social factors. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to avoid depleting the long-term health of the land for short-term gain. Sustainable practices include reducing chemical use and embracing natural, biologically-based management strategies. The abuse of this term is mostly due to the fact that there is no certification or grade available
with regard to sustainability, and the practices under this umbrella vary greatly. A few examples of sustainable practices include:.
• Use of solar power
• Recycling water from the winery to be used for irrigation
• Crop rotation and no-till farming, which minimizes damage to soil
• Awareness of waterways in the vineyard
• Underground wineries that are naturally insulated from heat
• Supporting vineyard workers year around rather than just at crush
• Profitability, so that the farm is sustained
The buzz word of the decade! At its most basic level, organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Wines can be certified organic by the USDA. The ways in which wineries alter practices and processes to avoid the use of chemicals are unique and very often innovative. For example, wineries might:
• Allow different animals to graze in the vineyard to control weeds between the vines and simultaneously fertilize the vineyard
• Plant cover crops in between the rows of things like vetch, which is a legume that naturally releases nitrogen into the soil
• Build bird houses in the vineyard for pest management
• Plant wildflowers around the vineyard that encourage beneficial insects
• Weed mechanically or by hand rather than using herbicides
Not every winery pursues a USDA certification, which can be costly and time consuming. Some may even disagree with governmental standards. Whatever the reason, while a winery may employ sustainable practices, only USDA certified wineries are allowed to use the “certified organic” label on their products.
Biodynamic wine-making involves some of the most unique forms of eco-viticulture. Biodynamic wines are certified by Demeter, the international biodynamic regulating organization. Biodynamic winemakers treat the vineyard as a self-sustaining ecosystem. While biodynamic wine-making can be similar to some organic approaches, the use of astronomical sowing is what makes it unique. For example, the planting calendar includes water days and earth days on which only specific practices are performed. A couple of common practices might include:
• Combating weeds by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled using the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread over the fields and lightly sprayed with the clear urine of a sterile cow, which is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed that would otherwise make it infertile.
• Crushed powdered quartz can be prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and burying it in the ground in spring. Once removed in autumn, it is mixed with fermented cow manure and sprayed over the vineyards during the wet season to prevent fungal diseases.
• Yarrow blossoms can be stuffed into urinary bladders from red deer, placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring to be made into a fertilizing tea.
Sound wild? It is. And it works. This is by far the most labor intensive farming method and those who practice it are highly dedicated.
No matter what shade of green you choose, there are fantastic eco-friendly wines available at a wide range of retail price points. Look for the “certified organic” labels for USDA certified wineries, but also keep your eyes peeled for other stamps of certification, like SIP, Napa Green or Salmon Safe.