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The Difference Between Clean Wine, Sustainable Wine, and Organic Wine

Clean wine may be all the rage, but there are better terms to look for on your next bottle of wine. Here are the top three certifications.

Written by
Brightly Staff
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Whether you love buttery Chardonnays or velvety Pinot Noirs, a delicious glass of wine can be the perfect way to end the day. You've probably heard a lot about clean wine—it's all sorts of buzzy right now. But how do you know your wine aligns with your eco-friendly values? 

Unfortunately, there are tons of confusing certifications, standards, and regional practices to wade through. It can be overwhelming to find a wine that you like to drink and is environmentally friendly.

That's why Allison Jordan, who has served as the executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance since 2007, came on Good Together to help clear things up. Learn everything you need to know below. (And psst—sip some wine out of Brightly's handblown wine glasses while doing so!)

What Is Clean Wine, Exactly?

Currently, "clean wine" is one of the most popular terms that producers use to market wine. This buzzword encompasses everything from minimal intervention winemaking to the absence of fining agents. 

Wine and the winemaking process have evolved over thousands of years. At this point, wine is a strictly regulated and high-quality product; almost all ingredients that go into wine are measured against specific quality and quantity standards. 

Because of these regulations, most wine could be considered “clean.” Clean is a marketing buzzword that helps wine capture a part of the 52 billion dollar wellness industry. 

3 Certification Categories to Look For When Wine Shopping

Although "clean wine" is an unregulated marketing term, there are specific eco-friendly grape-growing and winemaking processes that are clearly defined. All of these practices can be marketed as clean wine, but there are some specific certifications to look for.

1. Organic

The first certification category is organic. According to Jordan, organically grown grapes come from vineyards that follow standards set by the National Organic Program. Producers can only apply National Organic program materials to their grapes. Wines that use grapes from these vineyards usually have the words “made with organically-grown grapes” on the label. 

"What that means is that only National Organic Program materials can be applied. Sometimes people think it means no materials are applied. That's not true," she says. "Organic growers also need to handle pests and disease and vineyards, but they must be using only materials that are approved."

For a wine to have the word “organic” on the label, it must also be free of sulfites. Sulfites are a naturally occurring microbial stabilizer in wine. Some people believe that sulfites cause common adverse reactions to wine, such as headaches, a red, flushed face, or insomnia."

"Wines that are labeled organic also can't add sulfites. Sulfates are naturally occurring, but they're also sometimes added to basically prolong shelf life," Jordan says. "So, if you see a wine labeled organic, it just basically means that no sulfites were added and the grapes are from certified vineyards."

Only 1% of the population is genuinely allergic to sulfites. If you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to dried fruit, which has up to 10 times the amount of sulfites as wine, you might be among this 1%.

Histamines are the commonly accepted cause of adverse reactions to wine. They’re present in all fermented products. Some examples of fermented products include wine, kimchi, tempeh, and aged meats.

2. Biodynamic

Another type of "clean wine" certification to look for is biodynamic. Biodynamic grape growers are farming organically, but they also really think about the vineyard as a closed-loop.

There's a calendar that biodynamic growers follow that determines planting, pruning, and harvesting days, and it's based on the lunar cycle. These grapes are naturally organic because they avoid pesticides and use compost in place of chemical fertilizers. 

"They use natural alternatives for promoting a healthy ecosystem for having healthy soil. They use compost teas and natural preparations to enrich the soil. They use insect trees to control pests," Jordan says. "It's actually something that sustainable growers often do to where you want to basically have those beneficial insects on your property. So they can help you naturally control pests in your vineyard."

It’s important to note that while biodynamic wines are organic, they're not vegan. Winemakers use animal by-products during processing.

3. Sustainable

Lastly, we have sustainable wine certifications. Of the three types, sustainable winemaking is the most holistic option that factors in numerous planet-benefiting approaches.

"Most programs in the sustainability realm address practices in the vineyard. Things like water and energy efficiency, soil health, responsible crop protection, wildlife habitat," Jordan says. "They also address wineries. That includes things like winery and water use efficiency, recycling, and sustainable purchasing. So you're thinking about your supply chain—not just what you do as a company."

In addition, some—but not all—also address social aspects of sustainability. Things like neighbors, employees, and contributions to the community. So, what should you be looking for in terms of certifications?

There are lots of certifications for sustainable wines, and most of them are regional. SIP Certified and Certified Green (the Lodi Rules) are two California-based certifications for sustainable wines, while Salmon-Safe and LIVE certify wines from the Pacific Northwest. 

Another California-based certification for sustainable wines is the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing label. Jordan says the certification measures "everything from soil management, energy, and water use efficiency" to "neighbors and community, and sustainable purchasing."

Regardless of which certification is on the bottle, you should know that it wasn’t easy for the winegrower or winemaker to receive it. Certification processes are usually very stringent and require an annual third-party audit. That's why it is so expensive to get these certifications.

Because of the cost, some wine producers follow all the rules without paying for the certification. They might market their wine as clean wine, so be sure to ask questions to find out about their sustainability initiatives.

Questions to Ask When You Go Wine Tasting

If you want to know more about the wine you drink, Jordan says that the best thing you can do is visit a winery and go wine tasting.

"I would encourage people to ask questions and do tours," she says. "A lot of wineries now offer eco-tours. You can really get an understanding of what's going on out in the vineyard and often have a glass of wine in your hand while you're doing the educational part of it."

While you're there, she says to ask:

  • What are your winery’s sustainable practices? 
  • Do you hold any sustainable, organic, or biodynamic certifications? 
  • How do you incorporate sustainability into your grape growing, harvesting, and winemaking?