How to Choose a Sustainable Wine, According to a Sommelier

If you're looking to go green with your grapes, kudos! Here's how to get started, according to a vino pro.

As smart shoppers, we're increasingly aware of the brands we support, from taking note of the ethical supply chains to supporting more local businesses. It should come as no surprise then that many of us are looking to apply this thinking to our beverage choices.

But when it comes to choosing an eco-conscious wine, things can get a little complicated. Unlike our fruits and vegetables, the FDA doesn't regulate terminology or certifications on wine, leading to confusing labeling and undefined language.

So how do you find a bottle that's up to your standards? First, you need to know the lingo.

There are four main terms used to communicate everything from how the grapes were grown to how the wine is made: Organic, Biodynamic, Natural, and Sustainable. "These terms often get conflated, but they actually have distinct meanings," explains Christopher Hoel, founder of Harper's Club and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co, and Luckysomm. Let's dig into the nuances.

Digging into the Differences

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Many of us are already familiar with the term "organic," so this is a good starting point. "Much like our produce, wines will only be certified as 'organic' if they are made from grapes grown without pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or GMO's," says Hoel. All ingredients, including additives like the yeast, must be organic as well.

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Biodynamic is similar to organic in that neither practice uses synthetic chemicals; however, biodynamic farming is more holistic and takes into account a vineyard's entire ecosystem, including astrological influences and lunar cycles.

In this category, Hoel explains that you might notice slightly different phrases on the label: "A 'biodynamic wine' is made with biodynamically farmed grapes and the winemaker didn't use any manipulations, like yeast additions or acidity adjustments in the winemaking process. A wine 'made from biodynamic grapes,' however, means exactly that—the vintner used grapes grown biodynamically but may have taken less strict practices in the winemaking process," he says.

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Natural wine looks at the other side of the process. While the above terms consider the ingredients used, natural wine focuses largely on how the wine was made. These wines may be made with organic or biodynamic grapes (and they are more often than not), but to be considered natural, they must be made using a "natural" wine-making process, which is generally intervention-free: no mechanical separation, filtration processes, or the like.

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Here's where it can get a bit confusing. "While all of these processes can be considered sustainable wines, they are not automatically sustainable," says Hoel. "On top of eco-friendly farming practices, vineyards must also practice other considerations like sustainable waste management practices, water consumption, energy usage, and employee health and safety, on top of utilizing eco-friendly farming practices."

How to Identify Eco-Conscious Wine

Now that we have the terminology out of the way let's talk about what we're all really interested in: How to look for them.

No doubt about it, the easiest way is to check the label. Wines that are organic, biodynamic, or sustainable will have a certification that verifies that fact—and, more often than not, they'll put that right on the label.

"I find it's most valuable, however, to do a bit of research about the vineyard and how the grapes were produced," Hoel says. "While certification labels are an easy way to find eco-conscious wines, you may find that a vineyard follows practices that meet your standards even if they don't have the official stamp."

Another way is to find a go-to retailer. Many local shops and online wine destinations have collections of organic, biodynamic, or sustainable wines that are clearly marked and easy to find. And you can usually sort by category to find options that match your exact criteria. "When you then find a wine you love, the chances are that all of the wines from that winery will follow similar standards, so you'll know what to keep an eye out for," Hoel explains.

Separating Good From Simply Green

As with any wine, we want to make sure that what we've found is going to be delicious. Opting for an eco-conscious wine won't automatically guarantee that. In fact, the general profile will often change depending on the process used.

According to Hoel, natural wines, for example, are often unfiltered and have no added sulfites, which can hinder a wine's stability. "Because of this, many people think natural wines taste 'wilder.' If you enjoy that in a wine, one of my absolute favorites is the 2019 Kabaj San Lurinz Hydra from Slovenia. If you don't, look for natural wines that are a bit more clear in appearance."

More vineyards are exploring organic farming practices, which means there's a slew of great quality wines at an approachable price. Italy, known for its sweeping vineyards and enormous varietal diversity, is a great place to start when looking for organic grapes, says Hoel. "Try the herbaceous Calvari Organic Syrah I.G.T. for a prime example."

Sustainable wines can be a bit tougher to find. "Because they have to be certified as sustainable from a third party, there are fewer examples. However, there are delightful sustainable wines that are worth hunting for. For example, the Cuvée Joëlle White Blend, composed of zesty sauvignon blanc and full-bodied loin de l'oeil grapes, is a well-balanced, approachable white blend that pairs wonderfully with a fresh summer salad."

As you explore your own favorites, take note of which you like or don't. "You may find you don't enjoy the taste of organically grown grapes or that you really prefer the unique flavors of natural wine," Hoel says. "As you begin to explore the landscape and better understand your own preferences, you may find that searching for your favorite eco-conscious wine will become like a treasure hunt, with endless prizes waiting for you."

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