Going Green (again)
For thousands of years, wine was produced by what we would today call “organic techniques.” With the growth of the modern agrichemical industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries, commercial agriculture turned to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to manage disease and undesirable weed growth, and to increase yields. These chemicals do help increase yields, and can be cost effective, but they slowly kill the soil and its microbiome, which is largely responsible for the soil’s water retention, its ability to break down organic materials into natural fertilizer (fallen leaves, for instance), poison nearby waterways and groundwater, and eventually, the animals and people that depend on the soil and water. That roughly 100-year “experiment” has now come full circle, with an ever-growing list of growers and winemakers returning to more natural methods of growing. Many, of course, never left- Chateau Beaucastel in the Rhone, Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, and many others simply never introduced modern agrichemicals into their vineyards.
Today, we’re in the paradoxical situation where hosing down your crops with toxic chemicals is deemed “conventional” agriculture, while people using techniques perfected over thousands of years need to “certify” that their products are “organic.” Many of course do not, both because they feel it’s unnecessary and an intrusion into time-honored practice, and because the certification process itself can be hugely expensive, often tens of thousands of dollars.
Sustainable, Organic, Biodynamic…
So many terms, and so little clarity on what each means. Of the three, only “organic” has formal government-issued rules governing its use, while “biodynamic” is regulated by a private organization, which then licenses others to provide biodynamic certifications. Here’s a bit of clarification:
Sustainable: Sustainable agriculture refers to farming that can be maintained without harming the environment over the longer term. It has three main goals: (1) environmental stewardship to pass the land down to the next generation as healthy as it was received, (2) to operate profitably (or by definition the operation is not sustainable), and (3) to facilitate prosperous farming communities. It may include minimal use of chemicals (which impact the vitality of the soil and its organisms, and also are costly); capture and reuse of water to prevent extractive use of aquifers/streams/lakes, use of renewal power, interplanting with other cash (vegetable) crops, and other techniques. Some regions, notably California, have independent associations that certify sustainability.
Lutte Raisonnee: In France, many growers subscribe to the philosophy of Lutte Raisonnee - the “reasoned fight” - an embrace of sustainability, minimal use of chemicals, planting of cover crops and introduction of beneficial insects, but not a full committment to never, ever, using phytochemicals. It’s another level of respect for the soil and the life within it, without fully tying the vigneron’s hands in the face of a major infestation.
Organic: Organic agriculture indicates farming that avoids the use of any synthetic chemicals that may negatively impact the soils, the overall ecosystem, and the people living on and working the land. It relies on natural ecosystem services such as beneficial insects, natural fungicides extracted from plants, and grass cover and cropping by animals rather than herbicides to keep weeds at bay. Only natural fertilizers (manures, tinctures of manures) are used. Organic winemaking carries this a step further and ensures that no minimal synthetic chemicals are used in the cellar to adjust acidity, prevent oxidation, or other adjustments to create the wine as intended. Note that sulfur is widely used as an additive both in the vineyard and cellar. Under EU rules, this still qualifies as organic, while under US rules, the addition of sulfur dioxide is not permitted in wines labelled as organic. This is the primary reason many wines are labelled as “made from organically-grown grapes.”
Biodynamic wines are produced according to the principles of biodynamics originally established by Rudolf Steiner, and first outlined in a series of lectures in 1924. This includes viewing the farm as an integrated organism that should be fully self sustaining, completely organic vineyard work and winemaking, the use of natural tinctures in he vineyard to control various pests and introduce micronutrients, and a vineyard work cycle that aligns to various lunar and solar cycles. Some biodynamic growers adhere only to the organic practices and natural materials, others go further and incorporate the astronomical cycles into their work, while some take it to the final degree which includes such things as burying an ox-horn filled with ground quartz in the vineyard to “harvest cosmic forces from the soil.” Biodynamic certification is provided by various local agencies in each host country, most of which are members of the international biodynamic-standards organization Demeter.
Vegan wine? Really?
So, yes, not all wine is vegan. In fact, most wine is not. Why? Because to clarify wine (by removing very fine solids in suspension without resorting to aggressive filtration and stripping flavor and body), winemakers rely on a process of “fining” - the addition of a material that causes those fine solids to clump together into big enough particles that gravity can grab them and allow them to settle out as sediment. The wine is then racked off into another container (or the bottles) bright and clear.
Fining can be accomplished with a wide variety of materials, including bentonite clay, certain vegetable proteins, or, quite commonly, egg white. Which is most definitely not vegan. Other frequently-used materials include gelatin (again…) or milk proteins, or, oddly, isinglass, which is produced from fish bladders.
So, yes, vegan wine is actually a thing.
Whats the deal with Sulfites?
WHAT ARE SULFITES ANYWAY?
Sulfites, most commonly in the form of sulfur dioxide, are present in almost every wine. They’re a naturally-occuring component of most soils, are also produced naturally during the fermentation process, and sulfur is widely used as an antibacterial and antioxidant throughout the vine-growing and winemaking process.
WHAT DO THEY DO TO ME?
Contrary to common belief, sulfites do not cause headaches. For a small percentage of people, who have both a sensitivity to sulfites and have asthma, the presence of excessive sulfite can trigger an asthmatic reaction. It’s quite rate, but because “contains sulfites” appears on the label of virtually every wine sold in America, consumers often assume that any adverse reaction to a wine is due to those sulfites. Headaches, on the other hand, are most often caused by (a) the alcohol itself- ie drinking too much, or (b) the tannins present in the skins and pips of grapes. Congestion, also often blamed on sulfites, is generally caused by histamines that are naturally present in grapes, particularly in the skins of red grapes.
HOW ARE SULFITES USED IN WINE?
Sulfur dioxide is an effective antifungal/antibacterial, and also a very good antioxidant. Bordeaux Mixture, a solution of copper sulfate and lime in water, was developed in the 19th century in the Bordeaux district to control mildew, and is used worldwide. In the US, Bordeaux Mixture is considered an organic fungicide, and is part of the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program.
Barrels are often fumigated after washing by burning a sulfur stick inside the upturned barrel to prevent bacterial infection of the next wine in that barrel. This technique, which dates back at least 3,000 years, is especially effective at preventing acetomycetes infection, which causes the production of acetic acid (vinegar) during fermentation.
Finally, small amounts of sulfur dioxide gas are added during bottling to absorb oxygen and keep the wine fresh.
HOW MUCH SULFITE IS IN WINE?
Typical numbers for wine are 25-250ppm depending on the origin of the wine and the winemaking techniques used. For comparison, Britain limits sulfite in other foods to 2,000ppm, Australia limits foods to 3,000ppm, and the USA has no formal limit. Dried fruits, especially lighter colored ones (golden raisins, apricots) are typically in the range of 500-2,000 ppm.
Baked goods are often fairly high in sulfites, and prior to 1986, sulfites were commonly sprayed on fresh vegetables (think, salad bars) to prevent oxidation/browning. When you see “potassium metabisulfite” in an ingredient list, think “contains sulfites.”
EU rules restrict the total sulfite in a wine to 150ppm for reds, 200ppm for whites (and a variable higher scale for sweet wines). The allowed amounts for organic wines are 100ppm (reds) and 150ppm (whites) . (for comparison, US law restricts total sulfite in wine to 350ppm (again, higher for sweet wines) and requires all foodstuffs to indicate their presence on the label if the sulfite content is above 10ppm. Under American regulations, sulfur use in the vineyard is acceptable for “organic grapes” provided the final sulfite concentration in the wine is below 100ppm.)
Who decides what’s Organic?
Generally national governments (and in Europe, the EU), along with partner organizations that handle the certification work on the ground. For example, in France, the government authority is Agence-Bio, but certification work is handled by EcoCert and others. In addition, some winegrowing regions have their own standards (ie “Lodi Rules” for California’s Lodi AVA).
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established regulations for “USDA Organic Wine” and for “Wines Made with Organic Grapes. Wines that are certified USDA Organic may use the official seal on their label.
Australia has 7 certifying organizations; Canada has devolved certification to the Provincial level (although there’s still a national seal for products in interprovince commerce). It’s a complicated, and imperfect, system, but growers worldwide are embracing respect for their terroir as a key part of making great wines, now, and down through future generations.