If It's Eco-Friendly, It Just Tastes Better
Climate change has the global wine industry terrified. The rise in average temperatures threatens to make it difficult, if not impossible, to produce balanced wines in regions that have defined quality for centuries. That delights British winemakers, who dream of supplanting Bordeaux or champagne. And Virginia winemakers wouldn't mind a few more vintages like the 2007. But it does not bode well for hotter climes, such as Napa Valley.
So wineries are trying to save the planet. A group called the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance announced last week that 359 energy-saving projects at the state's wineries had eliminated more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the past four years, the equivalent of removing more than 4,200 cars from rush-hour traffic. We can all applaud that. But "sustainable winegrowing" means more than saving electricity; it means protecting the land, and here's where an "Earth-friendly" winery can influence us as consumers: by making better wine.
Are wines better if they are produced in an Earth-friendly manner? I think so, but I cannot prove it. I believe wines taste more vibrant when they are grown without pesticides and herbicides; they express a sense of place, an individuality that cannot be conveyed by a simple label of "cabernet" or "merlot." I'll admit I want to believe that, but it makes sense. Earth-friendly farming should produce a better crop, whether it's local lettuce or Carneros chardonnay.
There are three shades of green winegrowing: sustainable, organic and biodynamic, or what I like to call S/O/B wines. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition for any category, so there's a "buyer beware" aspect to this discussion.
Sustainable, simply put, means the grapes were grown with few or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, so the soil is nurtured and not depleted of nutrients. Sustainable viticulture differs from organic mainly in its lack of a formal definition or certification and oversight by an outside body. Sustainable growers maintain the freedom to use non-organic chemicals in dire situations when their crop is in jeopardy.
Organic is the most problematic category because of confusing legal definitions. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regulations a few years ago defining "organic" agriculture, it characterized organic wine as that grown in organically certified vineyards and made without added sulfites. Sulfites keep wine from spoiling, and the wine industry typically refuses to sell you a product that is likely to go bad before you have a chance to enjoy it. So you are more likely to see a U.S. wine labeled "made from organically grown grapes" than one labeled simply "organic." Or there will be no mention of the "O" word at all on the label. European agencies such as Ecocert will certify a wine as organic even if sulfites were added. And many Mediterranean wineries have been farming organically for generations because they don't need chemicals, and don't trumpet that on labels.
Biodynamic winemaking goes way beyond organics: It views the vineyard as a holistic ecosystem and prescribes vineyard practices according to phases of the moon. I'll discuss biodynamic winemaking in greater detail next week.
S/O/B wines are getting noticed in stores such as Whole Foods Market and My Organic Market, and on wine lists at eco-restaurants such as Founding Farmers. Some distributors are specializing in Earth-friendly wines.
D.C.-based Calypso Organic Selections even distinguishes some of its wines as vegan or vegetarian. A vegan wine uses no animal products (such as egg whites or gelatin) to fine, or clarify the wine before bottling, while a vegetarian wine might use egg whites for fining. Of course, such ingredients don't end up in the final product, so the distinction might seem odd. On the other hand, being "unfined" has long been considered a plus, as it supposedly means more flavor is retained.
It might feel good to buy an Earth-friendly selection, but what ultimately matters is how the wine tastes. Try one with an open mind, and be prepared to have your conceptions of how the wine should taste challenged: That's terroir, a sense of place, the flavor of a healthy vineyard.
Dave McIntyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.