Did you know? Wine can also be made in an eco-friendly way. Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper provides everything you need to know about “green wine”:
I remember trying an organic wine more than 20 years ago. I said to myself, “Does that make a wine not listed as organic inorganic?” How can the earth’s most natural alcoholic beverage be inorganic, when, after all, grapes crushed with the natural yeast on their skin is what makes wine? Trying organic wine and assessing its quality was even more confusing because it simply wasn’t that good. Now two decades later, organic wine presents a totally different experience as it relates to quality and protecting the environment.
There are several types of “green” wine, or wine made through eco-friendly agriculture, including sustainable, organic and biodynamic. These three methods of farming grapes are different but share two things in common: taking care of the environment and making quality wine. The following paragraphs provide a brief primer on this trio of methods as it relates to vineyards.
Conventional farming follows a predictable system. It is either time to spray pesticide to prevent a potential problem or mitigate an existing one. Conventional farming has negatives in that it can be harmful to the soil and the environment. Sustainable farming is about using what works best by considering what the vineyard really needs and what is the best way to treat the situation with the environment in mind, not simply resorting to spraying chemicals. The French phrase lutte raisonée (“reasonable prevention”) makes the most sense. Sustainable farming includes taking care of your employees; being socially responsible; recycling; having animal habitats (like installing owl boxes rather than poisons for rodent control); conserving soil, water and energy; and using alternative energy sources, including solar power.
Organic may be the easiest to explain. Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as chemical-based fertilizers, on or around vineyards. The vineyard owners use natural substances to fight vine problems and beneficial insects and birds to control pests. Genetically engineered crops are forbidden.
Labeling terms include “made with organic grapes” or “made with organically grown grapes,” and wines labeled with these terms allow low levels of sulfites to be added – less than 100 parts per million – in the completed wine. Wines labeled “organic” may not add sulfites. All wines contain sulfites, as it is a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation and harmless unless you are hyper-allergic to them.
When looking at most non-organic vineyards, you will often see nothing between its rows of vines – a complete monoculture – whereas with organic vineyards one might find yellow mustard, birds, insects, hawks and sheep grazing between rows, among other things.
Biodynamic farming is a little bit harder to understand, but it is essentially organic taken up a few notches. It follows the philosophy of 1920s Austrian scientist-philosopher Rudolf Stein. Biodynamic manages the farm as a comprehensive ecosystem; it is holistic, self-sustaining and self-regulating. Biodynamic farming utilizes renewable natural methods to reinvigorate the soil and attempts to not deplete the earth’s resources. Planting animal horns filled with herbs and other compost in the vineyard and planning vineyard work according to phases of the moon have left some thinking biodynamic practices are viticulture voodoo, but these practices have been proven to help and improve the vineyard and certainly do no harm.
So “green” wine is better for the environment, but does this growing category make better wine? When you talk to most winemakers they will say that wine is made in the vineyard, which speaks to how important the quality and purity of the grapes used to make wine are. You can make great wine from great grapes, but you cannot make great wine from mediocre grapes.
It is generally accepted that vines are more balanced and are able to fight issues better because they are healthy and produce more consistent harvests when they are farmed “green.” Long-term costs are similar to conventional farming, despite initial conversion costs being higher. Some wineries may make the change in order make better wine, take care of the environment and/or provide a point of differentiation from a marketing standpoint with organic or biodynamic certifications, but many wineries do not even list that they produce their wine “green.”
Whatever the reason a chosen winemaker chooses to produce “green” wine, they are certainly leaders in a move toward greater sustainability, and we are all the benefactors of it.
WHITE GREEN WINES
Nikolaihof is one of the oldest wine estates in Austria, dating back to Roman times. Today the Saahs family operates the vineyard in accordance with the regulations of the Demeter Association, one of the strictest control systems of organic agriculture. This Grüner Veltliner is straw/pale yellow, dry and medium-bodied and very crisp with Myer lemon, green apple, white grapefruit and a slight herbaceous tone with copious minerals. It is a refreshingly, delicious wine that goes well with oysters, cheeses and veal and is certified biodynamic, as listed on the back label.
In 1987, Simone Santini planted 15 acres of organically farmed vernaccia, an ancient white grape variety, at Le Calcinaie, his Tuscan estate near the famous town of San Gimignano. He has since doubled his acres, and the winery is certified organic by ICEA, the Italian Institute for Ethical and Environmental Certifcation. Tis wine is pale yellow with green highlights. Te wine is dry, crisp and very linear. Tere are favors of citrus, apples and almonds, all in a compact medium-body that is quite tasty. Try it with roasted chicken and Milanese dishes. Made with organic grapes as listed on the label.
RED GREEN WINES
Les Baux De Provence Mas de Gourgonnier 2011 (Provence, France)
Operated by Nicolas Cartier and his sons, the Mas de Gourgonnier employs biological farming methods, and grapes are harvested by hand. Tis wine is medium-purple with a nice smell of leather, earth, black currants, black cherries and Herbs de Provence. Te wine is dry, with medium tannins and a full body. Try with grilled meats or short ribs. Made with organic grapes as listed on the front label.
Monastrell Tarima 2012 (Alicante, Spain)
With an opaque purple color, this wine is big and rich with ripe fruit of strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. The favors of espresso, spice and licorice are found in this forward wine that is delicious with oven-roasted ribeye. Made with organic grapes as listed on the front label.
Cabernet Sauvignon Honig 2012 (Napa Valley, California)
The Honig Vineyard and Winery employs sustainable farming methods such as planting cover crops to nourish the soil; installing owl boxes for rodent control; mechanical tilling in lieu of spraying herbicides; using “sniffer dogs” to detect vine mealybug; powering their operations with solar energy; and drip irrigation. Tis Cabernet Sauvignon is dark purple with favors of blackberry, cherry, plum, allspice, vanilla and oak, all in a full-bodied frame with well-integrated tannins. Drinks well now but will improve with a few years of additional aging. Sustainably farmed as listed on the back label.