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Sustainability in wine explained

While sustainability has become common-place in the wine industry, the term is often misused and rarely fully understood. With a myriad of certifications now seen on labels, we offer an overview of organics, biodynamics and other certification programmes to help you understand what it all means.

Organics

Organic are a set of farming and food production standards to which producers must abide to be granted organic certification. These aim at reducing the environmental impact, promoting biodiversity and ensuring animal welfare.

Among the fundamental guidelines of organic farming and production, in the context of wine, are:

  • Strictly no use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or fertilisers (of the 300 or so pesticides permitted under EU law, just 20 are permitted under organic standards, all of which derive from natural ingredients)
  • Use of natural fertilisers only
  • Strictly no use of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) yeasts
  • Sulphite addition is permitted (in the EU) but the total levels allowed are lower than those for non-organic wines: 100 mg/L for red wines (vs. 150 mg/L for conventional wines) and 150 mg/L for whites and rosés (vs. 200 mg/L)

Organic practices must have been in place for at least three years before certification is granted.

Organic certification is regulated by government bodies although the certification process itself is, in many countries, outsourced to external approved agencies. Still, the requirements to be met are those inscribed in the law, which means that a product classified as organic in a given country might not automatically receive the corresponding stamp across a border. For example, in the USA, in contrast with the EU regulations outlined above, organic wine cannot have any added sulphites if sulphites are added it can only carry the ‘Made with organic grapes’ mention.

[Note that any wine might be produced using organic grapes but not be itself organic if the production standards in the cellar do not follow the required guidelines.]

Biodynamics

More than a set of agricultural practices, biodynamics is a philosophical approach to living, ultimately reflected in the work in the fields and cellar. The principles of biodynamics are based on the theories outlined in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) which defined a holistic, homoeopathic approach to agriculture. His work emerged in response to a request from farmers observing degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting, they believed, from the use of chemical fertilisers. But it is also imbued with a strong level of symbolic meaning, sometimes criticised for compromising the scientific validity of biodynamics, not least due to Steiner’s connections with German nationalism. This is why many producers adopt the farming practices associated with biodynamics, acknowledging their clear beneficial impact on soil and plant health, while remaining critical of some of its philosophical aspects.

The biodynamic calendar divides days according to the elements and the plant components (root, fruit, flower, leaf) as a guideline to all tasks in the vineyard and cellar

Biodynamics are based on the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected through shared energy forces which emit a universal resonance. All things, animated, inanimate, as well as celestial bodies (planets, comets, stars, meteors, ..), are, according to the theories of biodynamics, constantly pulsing and influencing each other with these energies. The farmer and winemaker therefore needs to work with, rather than against, these universal energies by understanding their natural flow and cycles. The tasks in the vineyards and cellar (planting, pruning, ploughing, picking, fermenting, and bottling) need to be timed according to the biodynamic calendar to harness the vital forces of earthly and celestial cycles (namely planetary, solar, stellar, and especially lunar).

From a purely technical perspective, biodynamics is stricter than organics. For example, while in organic winemaking the use of cultured (non-GMO) yeasts is allowed, a biodynamic wine can only be fermented using natural ambient yeasts. It also only treats the vineyards with specific homeopathic preparations.

Overview of biodynamic homeopathic preparations © Raventós i Blanc

Biodynamic certification is not government regulated. It is overseen and granted by private institutions, notably Demeter International and Biodyvin (more details below).

Sustainability

Sustainability is a wide term that refers to the awareness of the long term impact of human activities on the planet. As such, organics and biodynamics make use of practices that have sustainability at their core, in that they are concerned with minimising the negative environmental impact of farming and food production, promoting soil health and guaranteeing animal welfare.

However, while looking mostly at the work in the vineyard and cellar, with a particular attention to environmental consequences, there are wider aspects they do not touch upon.

On the other hand, there are sustainability programmes which take a broader look at how companies operate, looking not just at farming and production but also at the impact of the whole supply chain, energy consumption and even social responsibility. As an example, the International Wineries for Climate Action are a group of leading producers with a shared strategy to become carbon neutral across all the whole wine value chain, as shown here:

There are different sustainability programmes around the world (see below), that set strategic guidelines across all the different facets of production and operations. Some have a clear environmental focus (therefore often overlapping with government organic certification) while others are more holistic, touching, for example, on corporate responsibility, long-term energy saving goals or carbon neutrality.

Most of these programmes are state regulated and/or recognised and therefore the certification is legally defined and can be displayed on the labels.

A word on natural wine

At this point you might be wondering what natural wine is. Is it organic? Or biodynamic? It can be either or neither. “Natural wine” is not a legally or technically defined term and is used in different ways by different people, therefore not indicating any particular set of practices or requirements.

The so-called “Natural wine movement” refers, loosely, to a style of low-intervention winemaking popularised by different groups of producers, sommeliers and consumers. Some of these wines are organic and biodynamic certified but not all and not necessarily. In general, “natural wines” are spontaneously fermented, bottled unfined and unfiltered (hence often looking cloudy). However, many commercial, large-scale conventional  producers have used the term ‘natural’ on labels to try and position some of their ranges differently and attract a specific audience, without this being reflected in any specific “low intervention” winemaking.

On the other hand, many producers who follow organic and/or biodynamic practices might not have certification due to either the complexity and cost of the certification process(s), making it even more difficult to really know what’s inside the bottle.


An overview of sustainability certifications and the symbols you can expect to find on the wine bottle/label:

EU Organic certified
The certification granted by the European Union, through control agencies or bodies, under the same rules across all member states.
More info

USDA Organic Certified
The American government’s certification organic certification standards.  In contrast with EU-certified organic wine, USDA-certified organic wine cannot have any sulphites added. If it does it should be labelled as “Made with organic grapes” and sulphite levels kept under 100 mg/L.
More info

Demeter International
The first biodynamic certification organisation to be created. It certifies all practices and products, not just wine.
More info

Biodyvin
A biodynamic certification body for European wineries only.
More info

Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE)
Certification created by the French Ministry of Agriculture. It recognises environmentally-friendly approaches to farming.
More info

Terra Vitis
The Terra Vitis certification is similar to HVE but was created by a group of producers and industry associations and is independently regulated.
More info

Respekt
Austrian-based, self-regulated association of Austrian, German, Hungarian and Italian producers following biodynamic practices.
More info

Sustainable Wines of Great Britain
Sustainability certification for WineGB members only. The stamp may only be used on the labels of bottles if the wine is made in a scheme-approved winery from fruit grown in a scheme-approved vineyard.
More info

Sustainable Wine South Africa
A joint venture between the Wine and Spirit Board (WSB), the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme and Wines of South Africa (WoSA).
More info

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand
An industry-wide certification programme led by New Zealand Winegrowers.
More info

Sustainable Winegrowing Australia
A relatively young program created to help grapegrowers and winemakers demonstrate and improve their sustainability credentials through the environmental, social and economic aspects of their businesses.
More info

California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
A San Francisco-based  nonprofit organisation created by the California Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.
More info

LIVE
Independently certified the sustainable practices of winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest.
More info

Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile
A cross-section certification program (environmental, corporate, commercial) created by Wines of Chile
More info


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Biodynamic wines explained

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