Food & Drink

Greener vineyards: The 3 kinds of organic wine

You've had red, white and pink, but the hot new wines today are green.

Chefs are buying local and farmers' markets are busier than ever. People want products that are grown in an environmentally friendly way. Wine is no exception, and sales of organic wines have increased exponentially.

What does it mean for wine to be green? Sharron McCarthy, a wine educator with Banfi, recently met with Harris Teeter wine consultants and explained the three major approaches to environmentally sound agriculture:

Sustainable: The underlying principle of sustainable agriculture is that the farmer meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. The point is to be good stewards of the land their children and grandchildren may someday farm. In general, these farmers recycle, practice good water use, use native birds and beneficial insects to control pests, and use cover crops to maximize nutrients in the soil.

While the term “sustainable agriculture” has no legal definition in the United States, many regions are developing lists of best practices and even certifications for the farms in their area.

Organic. Organic farmers, like sustainable farmers, recycle and conserve water. In addition, organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other additives. Since 2002, this has been regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A farm must go three years without using any prohibited chemicals before it can be inspected and certified.

Wineries can use the term “organically grown grapes” on the label as long as 70 percent of the grapes used are grown organically. The label “organic wine” takes it a step further, using organic grapes but also monitoring the additives, particularly sulfur, used during the production of the wine.

Biodynamic. Biodynamic farmers are organic farmers, but to an even more intense degree. Biodynamists see the farm as a living whole entity, using a unique approach of treating the soil and compost with homeopathic preparations, and planting and harvesting based on the astronomical calendar.

Biodynamics was invented by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Adherents believe in spiritual connection with the land, and believe that grapes grown biodynamically create wine that is a true expression of the place it was grown.

If it sounds a little woo-woo, McCarthy reminded us of the accuracy of the Farmers' Almanac, which uses the cycles of the moon and stars to predict weather and recommend planting times. Although there is no U.S. certification for the category, biodynamic farms are certified by the Demeter Association and can use the term biodynamic on the label.

For wine lovers, good wine is an expression of the place it is grown. All the better if that place is a healthy vineyard that will grow delicious grapes for centuries to come.