On a recent trip to the wine store, I was tempted from my standard of big French reds to their shelf of ecological wines. I picked up one bottle after the other, flipping them over and trying to learn what I could from the labels. There were the usual notes on origin and grape, as well as declarations of environmental credentials – organic, biodynamic or natural. After peppering the staff with questions, I settled on a biodynamic bottle of Mas de Gourgonnier les Baux de Provence, but resolved to find out exactly what separates this new wine from my beloved French Margaux.
First, let’s define what it means for a wine to be organic, biodynamic or natural. Calling a wine natural implies that the grapes are organic, harvested by hand and fermented with wild yeasts. The wine should have little to no sulfites. Sounds good, but ‘natural’ is a somewhat controversial term – there is currently no established process certifying that the wine was produced with limited technological intervention.
Organic is a term loaded with many meanings and connotations. Wines labeled organic are simply made with organically grown grapes, which is only one step of the wine-making process. Although this guarantees that you have no unwanted added ingredients to your wine, such as pesticide residues, there is no certainty that the environment surrounding the vineyards has been cared for.
Biodynamic is a stricter organic standard developed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Growing, harvesting and production techniques revolves around the central tenet that the farm itself is a living being. Any wine claiming to be biodynamic must follow strict regulations laid down by the Demeter Association, which incorporates a wider range of growing standards beyond simple organic methods. This standard means that native plants and animals are included in the vineyard environment, ensuring that the well-being not only of the vineyard itself, but the entire ecosystem that it is connected to.
But is all of this additional time and effort really necessary when picking out a bottle of wine? According to a recent report by Dr. Magali Delmasat at U.C. Santa Barbara, eco-labeling is more of a marketing strategy than an indication of which vineyards are organic and which are not. The study asserted that many wines are not labeled organic, despite the fact that they adopt organic practices. Surprisingly, this is due to the negative perception that many consumers have of an organic or biodynamic wine. Because wine is often associated with a specific region, which is embodied in its taste (terroir), consumers believe that if organic is the main focus, taste will be abandoned in favor of maintaining organic standards. This leads to a negative bias against organic wine and even a rejection of wines that bear the organic label.
After reading the study, I went back to the wine store and bought two wines from similar regions — one biodynamic and the other conventionally produced. I paid about twenty dollars for each wine. While both were good quality, the biodynamic wine, full of lush dark fruit and a hint of spiciness, won out in taste. None of the flavors overpowered the wine and I fell in love with the first sip. Several factors besides being biodynamic could have made the wine better. Maybe the terroir was simply superior, the vintage was particularly good, or the production more skilled. But the point is that just because a wine is labeled eco-friendly, doesn’t mean that the taste will suffer.
The protracted process of certification – known to take between three and seven years – and cost a substantial fee, is a lot to of work for a label that may make a wine less marketable and perhaps even diminish its price. It is hardly surprising that some vineyards opt to keep their status a secret.
Wine-making traditions that extend beyond the relatively new trend of organic labeling can make certification unnecessary by implication. Certain regions in France and South America have historically used minimal pesticides and have been making organic or almost organic wine long before it was a marketable concept. Yet a recent study by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) showed that the temptation of yield-enhancing pesticides can trump traditional practices. Out of 40 wines tested, the only wines that had a minimal amount of pesticides were those labeled organic.
Another thing to consider is the distance between you and the vineyard the wine comes from. In a country as vast as the U.S., for example, a wine shipped from California to New York actually uses more energy for transport than a wine that comes from France. A study by the American Association of Wine Economists found that the cut-off for Californian wines is approximately Ohio. East of Ohio, you’re better off drinking a wine from Western Europe.
A good wine is hard to find, and a label is more complicated than it looks. If you want to make sure that your wine is organic or biodynamic, eco-certification is the fastest way to know. However, your favorite wine could already have organic standards and could simply be uninterested in marketing themselves this way. The bottom line is to look into the vineyard practices to get a better idea of what their policies are, or look past its bad reputation and use that handy eco-label.
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Leading image: Steve McQueen and Neile Adams enjoying a sulphur bath and glass of wine in Los Angeles, June 1963. (Photo by John Dominis for Life magazine)