October 6, 2008

How Green is Your Wine?



DURING THE 2007 Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, one seminar panel tried to define the meaning of "green" terminology as it applied to winemaking.

The panelists thought the best distinction was to divide the green terms into two categories -- vineyard agricultural practices and cellar practices.

To help fiesta-goers and readers understand some of the concepts used to characterize grape-growing and wine-making during this year's Wine & Chile Fiesta discussions, here is an abbreviated crib sheet.

Vineyard agricultural practices refer to the way the grape vines are grown and maintained. The terms organic farming and sustainable farming simply mean the farmer claims to use no synthesized pesticides or herbicides or fertilizers in the vineyards. Other environmentally friendly procedures may or may not be used. It is a matter of personal commitment.

To be certified organic, agricultural practices are first monitored for a specified period of time -- in California the period is four years -- then certified according to a set of organic standards set either by a state agency or by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets standards under the provisions of the 1990 Organic Foods Act with advice from the National Organic Standards Board.

After agricultural practices are certified organic, they are monitored by the certifying agency for compliance.

Biodynamic agriculture goes beyond organic. These agricultural practices are based on a series of eight lectures under the collective title, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, given in 1924 by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner (1863-1925).

Like organic farming, biodynamic farming uses no synthesized pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers in the vineyard. But unlike organic farming, biodynamic farming specifies methods for creating natural fertilizers from animal and plant material. It strictly adheres to seasonal rhythms. It considers the physiological effects of the waxing and waning of natural energy sources like gravity, light and heat. It dictates a growing season aligned with astronomical phenomenon like solstices and equinoxes, and it requires the creation of a biologically diverse and self-sustaining ecological system within the vineyard and surrounding the vineyard. Biodynamic practices are certified by the non-governmental organization Demeter.

Winery cellar practices relate to how the wine is made and what additional ingredients might be added to the grapes (like sulfites), and the use of cellar methods like filtration.

The National Organic Program of the USDA sets the standards and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulates the labeling of organic wines. Four categories are considered organic: 100% Organic; Organic; Made with Organic Ingredients or Made with Organic Grapes or Organically Grown; and finally, Some Organic Ingredients.

The use of sulfites is one of the most contentious issues among winemakers. It is an antimicrobial and antioxidant preservative added to help wines age without spoiling. Some people are sensitive to sulfites, so NOP requires a wine label to indicate the presence of added sulfites. A label may say "Sulfite Free" or "No Added Sulfites or "Contains Naturally Occurring Sulfites" or "Contains Sulfites."

Any use of added sulfites automatically disqualifies a wine from being labeled 100% Organic or Organic, even if all the grapes have been grown as certified organic. If a wine is labeled Made with Organic Ingredients or Made with Organic Grapes or Organically Grown, sulfites may be added, but only to the level allowed for naturally occuring sulfites. This is the same standard for 100% Organic and Organic labeling, which specifies a level of sulfites below 100 parts per million.Only the fourth category, Some Organic Ingredients, which allows for less than 70% organic ingredients, sets no standard for sulfites.

For more information on biodynamic growing practices, see Wine From Sky to Earth by Nicolas Joly. Also see the Sundance Channel program Big Ideas for a Small Planet featuring the Benziger Winery and the series of stories under the title "Wine Goes Green" in the June 30, 2007 issue of the Wine Spectator, both accessible at www.benziger.com.

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