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Sustainable Wine: What is It and Why is it Popular?

I had no idea what sustainable wine really meant so I did some research. Keep reading to learn the nitty gritty details about wine and its effects on you and our planet.

Written by
Anna Shuster

Eating consciously and looking for “cleaner” options is becoming more and more common in all parts of our diet-- even alcohol! Opting for organic or clean wines in the grocery aisle comes as almost second nature to us now. But, just how healthy is “healthier” wine? Like I talked about in this article about greenwashing, how do we know if this recent development in winemaking is actually comparatively sustainable for our bodies and the planet?

The Sustainable Wine Market is Booming

There is a financial incentive for wineries to look into more sustainable wine-growing techniques. However, it is kind of ambiguous for the average consumer who is not an expert to find out what exactly they are buying.

Clean and sustainable wine made a large entrance into the market around 2008-2009 as a way to appeal to a larger health-conscious audience as there seemed to be a significant drop in interest of wine. To no surprise, people liked the idea of clean wine and began to seek it out! A “clean” wine made $20 million in its first year and in Australia, the organic wine market had grown by 120% in just three years!

What specifically are the more health-conscious and eco-friendly consumers looking for? Transparency. In the United States of America, wine bottles don’t have to list their ingredients. This creates a lot of room for ambiguity, and even space for health concerns for those with allergies or food sensitivities that they need to watch out for. 

There also is concern over unlisted additives in wine whose bark may at times be worse than its bite. While there is an obvious benefit to knowing what is in your wine, additives are responsible for developing the different flavors in the wine. The fear of these chemicals with long names that are hard to pronounce is quite frankly not the reason to go for a sustainable or organic wine. These chemicals are also the kind you would see, for example, in aspirin which many of us don’t hesitate to take when we need it in our day to day lives.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be skeptical at times of some additives because they are fairly unregulated in America. A particularly shocking example of what used to be a common additive: animal blood. While it is banned now, it was able to be used as an additive until 1997.

One more shocking reason that people are swearing by organic wines right now-- they claim organic wines lead to lighter hangovers. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence backing this up. But if you notice your body reacts better to it, stick with it. Why not?

How Sustainable is the Wine Industry in the First Place?

Sustainable farming practices look at land, treatment of workers, and water usage which are all important aspects to highlight.  With something as popular as wine, it’s important to be aware of what it took to get the glass in your hand. For example, the growing of grapes actually intakes carbon dioxide, but it does give off significant amounts of an even stronger greenhouse gas: nitrous oxide.

When looking at sustainable wineries, a classic case study to draw upon is Bodegas Pirineos, a winery in Spain. After committing themselves to all the aspects of sustainability, their workers were “more motivated,” their income didn’t fall, and their relationship with the investors and consumers improved. However, the issue is much more complex than just deciding to switch to a sustainable model and letting your buyers know you’ve done so. This healthy wine trend can come with various shortcomings involving economic and ethical burdens.

The initial switch to a sustainable model is incredibly pricey. Wine changes with every growing season so they would all of a sudden have to budget for those ingredient labels which winemakers have never had to do before and would be especially costly for smaller wineries. 

Even a switch to an organic label is economically costly on the winemakers. A lot of wine growing practices are organic but wineries choose to not get the official organic certification because it’s a pretty pricey process that they don’t think is worth it. However, interestingly enough, experts rate organic wines higher.

The Intricacies of Sustainable Wine Options

So when a winemaker goes through the trouble of organic certification and labeling, what exactly does that entail? One of the main features of organic wine is the limiting of sulfites, a type of preservative,  which can affect the taste and managing of bacteria. These sulfites have nothing to do with the cause of hangovers and so sulfite-free wine will not alleviate or allow for lighter hangovers like some influencers will claim. 

Therefore, organic wines may not always be the most sustainable option or even better tasting option. Many wine experts claim that finer wines need a hands-off approach anyways so opting for those wines instead of an organic label may serve you better in the end. 

Sustainable Wine Options

You can look into buying wines sourced in drier areas or created with only using rainfall as a source of water. Grapes from drier areas are likely to have less additives because they are less prone to disease and dry wines are also supposed to taste better. Furthermore, by ensuring the wine you bought was created with less water, this can be super helpful for states struggling with droughts and water conservation like California. In fact, a lot of winemakers believe dry farming makes for better wine as it’s thought to make stronger roots. The Deep Roots Coalition is a great resource to look more deeply into this claim.

What other sustainable options are there? Biodynamic wines. Biodynamic wine practices are pretty standard across the globe. If a wine is labeled as biodynamic, it follows century-old traditions around farming in relation to the calendar day and composting. They often follow organic farming practices, but allow for much more sulfites than allowed by the USDA Certified Organic Requirement.

Demeter USA and Demeter International is a certification that classifies biodynamic wine and is also a resource to learn more about them.

Finally, if you still like the idea of organic wine, I’d recommend looking into the SIP requirement beyond just the organic certification. Getting SIP Certified combines the requirements of organic and biodynamic wines.

At the end of the day, drink and eat what makes you happy. If that'll make you happy is aligning your drinks with the rest of your sustainable lifestyle, go for it! Feel that extra satisfaction of having that knowledge of what you're putting into your body, whether it's sustainable or not.