The difference between these two terms is a little bit about semantics and a lot about sulfites. Basically a wine can be made with organic grapes without the wine itself earning the organic label. For a bottle to be labeled organic legitimately, the winemaker must not add any sulfur dioxide (a preservative and an antioxidant) during the process of going from vine to shelf. Although sulfur is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, a wine with an organic label must have detectable sulfites in less than 10 parts per million or else it must include “contains sulfites” on the label, says Devon Broglie, the master sommelier and the executive coordinator of purchasing for the southwest region of Whole Foods Market.
A label that says “made with organic grapes” means that the wine was produced through a process with no pesticides or herbicides, but it may have sulfites added. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Without the addition of sulfites, wine is more susceptible to oxidation,” says Broglie. So your decision really boils down to how organic you want your red or white to be.
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You may spot this term on labels, but there is no legal definition of “sustainable” when it comes to wines. “But the general agreement [of the definition] is that the vineyard is farmed in a way that maintains the health of the land,” says Karen MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible ($20, amazon.com). “The vintners are making decisions that should make the land be the same or better 100 years from now.” That means the winemakers are careful about using any chemicals, making any changes to the land, and ensuring that any surrounding water is healthy. At the end of the day, they’re preserving the self-sufficiency of the winery.
Odds are, in a blind taste test, you wouldn’t notice a difference in quality between a sustainable wine and a similar wine without a “sustainable” label. “But all the little things do add up. And maybe if they didn’t do all these things, would it taste as good?” asks MacNeil. “Most vintners say they believe what they’re doing makes a difference in flavor.”
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If you prefer wine with a hint of mysticism, then you’ll want to hunt down a label that says “biodynamic.” Based on a philosophy that started in the 1920s, biodynamics is a set of agricultural practices that use the power of nature to maximize the health of the vine. “Biodynamics takes winemaking one step further by adding an almost spiritual aspect to it, by treating the vineyard and the grapevine as a living unit on its own,” says Broglie. This includes harvesting only at certain cycles of the moon, adding homeopathic potions to the vineyard, creating an ecosphere where animals roam on the land, and generally producing wine in keeping with “a belief in the rhythms of nature,” says MacNeil.
For a bottle to carry the biodynamic label, the wine must meet a long and specific set of requirements and be approved by an ecological certification organization. “Producers using biodynamics are more in tune with their property, their grapes, and the wine being produced,” says Broglie. “They’re committed to being more thoughtful, so their wines tend to have more character and be more interesting.” Keep in mind that since this is a more natural production process, there is also the potential for more variation from bottle to bottle.
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Estate Bottled vs. Estate Grown
Until recently “estate bottled” and “estate grown” were unofficially synonymous, says Broglie. But officially there is a difference between the two. To carry an estate-bottled label, a wine must use grapes grown by the producer on its own land or in vineyards that the winery controls 100 percent via a long-term lease, and they must be crushed and bottled at the winery. A wine with an estate-grown label comes from a vintner that controls all the grape growing on its land but that does not crush or bottle on its property.
The bottom line: These terms are meant to identify a bottle of wine as being from a specific winemaker or place—they’re not a true marker of quality. It’s really about the mental aspect of the wine-sipping experience. “The more expensive a bottle is, the more you want it to taste like a certain piece of ground,” says MacNeil. “And then it may matter to you that it’s estate bottled. Say you went to Mondavi and you stood in the vineyards and thought they were so beautiful. Now you want to taste the wine from this exact place.” On the other hand, if you haven’t been traipsing around Napa recently, you may not mind if your wine is simply estate grown.