Organic, Sustainable + Biodynamic Wine: What's the Difference?

A lesson in eco-friendly wines, just in time for Earth Day.

We've heard all the buzz words: organic, natural, sustainable, environmentally-friendly. But what do these terms actually mean? And how do you know you're choosing the right "green" product? Let's break it all down in relation to wine and wine making. After all, Earth Day should be a reminder that our planet is precious. And the simplest way to take care of it is to be responsible, conscientious consumers.

Organic: Organic wine simply means that the grapes and all other ingredients used to make the wine (like yeast) must be certified organic. In other words, no synthetic pesticides or chemical herbicides may be used on the vines. In the U.S., organic wines also cannot contain added sulfites. Since sulfites occur naturally in wine (they're in grapes' skins), it's impossible for a bottle to contain no sulfites. However, other countries allow a small amount of added sulfites, so check the label before purchasing. Organic certification requirements vary from state to state, too. Organic wines are the only wines that can receive a legal certifcation from the USDA.

Biodynamic: This farming process holds the highest respect for the land and all living things within the vineyard's borders. It respects nature and the grapes as a complete ecosystem where all living things serve as integral parts of the winemaking process. Growers don't use synthetic chemicals, herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides or growth stimulants. Biodynamic vineyards also take into account lunar cycles and astrological events. Biodynamic wines don't contain added yeast or acidity adjustments. Biodynamic vintningis the most holistic approach to wine production.

Sustainable: Wines labeled as "sustainably-grown" are made on vineyards where sustainable farming practices are used. Sustainable wines are not necessarily organic and some pesticides may still be used. The vineyard itself, however, follows sustainable practices that, for example, reduce waste, use solar power, encourage biodiversity and manage run-off. Sustainable vineyards are not regulated by government agencies. However, there are independent organizations that offer certifications and promote sustainable practices.

Natural: Don't put much stock in wine or other food products labeled as "natural," as this term is not regulated. Natural basically means the product was handled and processed as minimally as possible, not organically, sustainably or biodynamically grown.

Because certification is costly and time-consuming, many wine makers don't complete the certification process. Other vintners have simply been growing grapes organically or biodynamically for so long that they don't feel a certification is necessary. Check winery's websites for detailed growing and harvesting information. Or, talk to your local liquor store's wine consultant about trusted vineyards with environmentally-friendly practices.

NOW, TRY THESE:

ORGANIC

Fonesca — The Terra Bella Porto ($21.99) is Fonesca's first port that is certified organic by the USDA. This Porto is plump, juicy, velvety and smooth with flavors of cherry and plum.

Ritual — Ritual is currently undergoing the organic certification process, which is expected to be complete this year. Their vineyards prioritize biodiversity and harmony between grapes and the native landscape. The Sauvignon Blanc ($16) is perfection. Scents of jasmine, peach and mango will transport you to a tropical paradise.

Azimut — Certified organic by the Spanish organization, CCPAE, Azimut's Negre ($16) is a bold, expressive red wine with strong campfire aromas (think, smoke, musk and toasty graham cracker). It has smooth leather, tobacco and licorice flavors with a hint of cranberry on the finish.

Gallica — This small, family-owned venture grows organic wines and sources grapes from other family-owned vineyards. The Albarino ($36), sourced from a vineyard situated north of Yosemite National Park, is delightful with crisp, stone fruit flavors and refreshing acidity. Gallica's Petite Syrah is harvested and grown on site and is certified organic.

Maison Matisco — The Saint-Veran Chardonnay ($25) displays delicate peach flavors with a pleasant tartness and smooth finish.

Domaine de la Patience — Grown organically in Bezouce, France, the Nemausa ($12) gives off smoky, booth-leather aromas with tannic, earthy, licorice flavors on the palate.

SUSTAINABLE

Newton — Well-known for its unfiltered wine varietals, Newton prides itself on using sustainable farming practices that maintain the integrity of the grapes and the land. The 2014 Chardonnay ($60) is an excellent option from their unfiltered offerings. With an oaky, vanilla aroma, this well-rounded, unfiltered chardonnay displays fantastic flavors of butterscotch and white peach with depth and subtle acidity.

Crocker & Starr — The Crocker & Starr vineyard is devoted to sustainable and organic farming practices. Their Sauvignon Blanc ($34) is smooth and refreshing with pear, vanilla and lemon flavors — a great, easy-drinking summer wine. 

Broadside — Broadside Wines uses sustainable techniques, like solar power, to reduce environmental impact and uses as little chemicals and water as possible. The Wild Ferment Chardonnay ($18) imparts mellow flavors of pear and graham cracker with a creamy finish.

Ca' Momi Winery — Ca' Momi's new bottle design for the Rossa di Napa and Bianco di Napa ($19) varieties uses less glass, which means it uses less resources and takes up less space in shipping.

Indaba — Not only does Indaba use sustainable farming practices, but the vineyard donates a portion of the sales to support early education for winery workers' children. The Chenin Blanc ($12) gives off a lovely honeysuckle aroma with a green apple flavor.

Demorgenzon — A certified member of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, Demorgenzon produces a lovely Cabernet Rosé ($12) that tastes like ripe and juicy strawberries and watermelon.

BIODYNAMIC

Onward + Farmstrong Wines — Onward sources from vineyards that are certified organic and follow biodynamic farming practices. The Malvasia Bianca Petillant Naturel ($24) bursts with effervescent apricot, peach and lemongrass aromas. It's a great spring wine that's quite dry with crisp, pleasant tartness and green apple and citrus flavors.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht — One of the most renowned producers of biodynamic wines, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht makes a delightful Riesling ($27) with exotic citrus aromas and pleasant acidity.

Bonny Doon — With aromas of magnolia, white peach and and sweet, green grass, this Gravitas ($16) white wine blend from Bonny Doon's biodynamic vineyard captures the essence of summer in a bottle.

Cooper Mountain Vineyards — Cooper Mountain produces organic and biodynamic wines on its Oregon vineyard. The acclaimed 2014 Pinot Noir ($18) is expressive, boasting elegant berry flavors with spicy notes.

Bonterra Wines — Bonterra is committed to organic and biodynamic farming. They use biodynamic techniques on three separate ranches, certified by Demeter. The McNabb ($50) captures the terroir of its namesake ranch, boasting soft tannins, hints of cedar and vanilla with flavors of raspberry and plum.

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