Sustainable wine explained – learn to navigate between the labels

Sustainability is top of mind for leaders in every industry. Brands change their communication to satisfy the growing demand for honesty and transparency from consumers. Take a wrong step and risk blow back or even the dreaded “cancel” word. However, stakeholders are not all cut from the same cloth. Last month, Apple, a beloved 40+-year-old consumer tech company, dedicated 5+ minutes to sustainability during its annual keynote. The segment received both praise and ridicule, depending on the differing expectations and interests of the audience. What is sustainable to one is greenwashing to another. The lack of clarity around its exact meaning causes both disagreement and confusion.

There is a similar predicament in viticulture where the wine industry struggles to indicate how a wine can be sustainable today, and for future generations. This encompasses the plantation environment for the vines, how the grapes grow, and what sort of production and packaging wineries use. The whole spectrum from environmental (water, energy, pesticides) and social responsibility (fair wages, community engagement) as well as economic viability (commercial scale) need to be taken into consideration to conform with the term sustainable, it’s not enough to communicate carbon emissions. As this is a herculean task, quit a few specific labels have popped up to guide consumers. It might be a bit of a jungle, but at least there is movement in the right direction.

A bottle of organic Prosecco with two glasses on a sunset beach.

Organic bubbly sunset

A sustainable wine overview – labels and terms explained

You’re at the store, scouring endless racks and shelves to find the perfect bottle for tonight’s dinner. You notice the increasing frequency of green stickers and terminology touting the sustainability credentials of the wine or winery. Some you might recognise; organic and natural. But what do they mean? The industry keeps adding new words to an already term laden field, but there is no hierarchy between them. Here comes a quick cheat sheet for the major sub-categories of sustainable wine you can memorise for next time you feel for red, white, rosé, or orange.

Organic – the grapes grow in soil without the use of artificial and chemical fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides. Think of organic farming for vegetables and fruit and you get the picture. In truth, it’s more complex since different wine-growing regions and countries have varied standards and allowances.

Natural – the original method of making wine, fermented with natural yeast and no additives like sulphites. It has detractors who don’t consider it true wine, more like fermented grape juice. A way to increase your social capital, or the real deal? Judge for yourself. Orange wines are often natural, but not always, so be sure to check the fine print if this is a deal breaker. Also called naked, raw, or low-intervention wine to make it a bit more confusing.

Biodynamic – an idea where the wine-growing is a self-sustaining, circular ecosystem, the vineyard an organism of sorts where each part feeds into the other. Like the organic label, is means no fertilisers and pesticides but it goes further, using animals to help with natural fertilisation, and the grass, flowers, and soil as aids to protect the vines and biodiversity, the foundation for great wine.

A glass jar filled with wine corks

A mix of labels

In a previous article, I met with Swedish wineries and spoke to a young oenologist who said it best. “Sustainability starts in the vineyard.” She described how they carry out endless experiments to find out what works for their specific microclimate, adhering to biodynamic principles.

There are more subsets, like cannabis-infused wine (I swear), but no need to complicate it further. The reality is there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to making sustainable wines. Every climate has its unique traits, which mean standards of sustainability may vary. There are some guidelines and best practices, but no label to rule them all. How should you approach the matter as a consumer? Let’s turn to the experts.

The educator’s view

Earlier this month, I took a course at WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) in London. One of my teachers, Sam Povey, named as Harpers 30 under 30 Education Champion in 2023 for his educational work with consumers and the trade, is also the co-founder of the Provisions Wine School. They dedicate themselves to educating enthusiasts about organic, biodynamic, and natural wine.

During the 3-day course, I noted Sam had obvious passion about the topic as he often talked about the importance of packaging and shipping in relation to sustainability. He also discussed how the traditional wine industry are coming up with new ways to become more sustainable in small yet significant steps.

I reached out to Sam to dig deeper.

A wine tasting course with glasses lined up on a table.

Learning the trade

From a consumer view: what should I consider when I want to buy a sustainable wine?

Very simply: be open to drinking wine transported, stored, and served in containers other than the normal glass bottle. It is the single most effective way of dramatically improving the sustainability of a wine. The energy used in producing and disposing of glass cause most of the wine’s carbon emissions.

The humble Bag-in-Box has a carbon footprint between 1/3rd to 1/10th of an old-fashioned wine bottle. People are right in their aversion to the plastic lining of these containers, but the options for recycling have improved.

There are plenty of other alternatives: restaurants and bars have started to use kegs, supermarkets stock it in cans, and even paper bottles are making an appearance. All are excellent methods of serving the vast majority of wine destined to be drunk within a year of production. A century ago, the glass bottle implied a guarantee of quality because it prevented unscrupulous merchants adulterating wine. Improved regulation means this is no longer a risk.

Is the phenomenon of sustainable wines here to stay?

This is complex to quantify, given the myriad of sustainability aspects. However, a greater awareness of the impact of grape cultivation on the local environment is a fact. We see an increase in the proportion of vineyards that are certified as organic, a form of agriculture which prohibits many (but not all) agrochemicals.

However, many criticise organic viticulture for permitting the use of fungicides such as copper-based sprays which can harm the biodiversity of the soil when overused.

Sustainability schemes, which take into account factors like water usage and energy efficiency, are also becoming much more popular, although some argue these don’t go far enough. For instance, how sustainable is wine really if bottled in heavy glass and shipped halfway around the world?

What country/countries or vineyards are paving the way in sustainable winemaking?

I would look at France and its Haute Valeur Environmental system and South Africa’s wine sustainability certification. There are also certain regions leading the charge. Faugères, in Languedoc, France has banned the use of herbicides for all its growers, organic or not. Corpinnat, a group of sparkling wine producers in Catalunya, requires all their members to work sustainably.

Keep it simple

It’s obvious good intentions are plenty, both in the old and new world of wine. Increased transparency and adaptation of sustainable practices in agriculture, production, and packaging, move the industry forward. Consumer-facing certifications and labels try to capture the shift, but remain opaque for the average shopper. To truly learn how a particular wine and vineyard confirm to your preference of sustainability, you have to go deeper. Websites, social media, and reviews are additional avenues to consider. This requires a lot of effort from us as individuals, therefore a more uniform and global labelling system would be a welcome development.

A poster with a glass of red wine and text saying Sustainable Wine Explained

Sustainable Wine Explained

I am a fan of wine, but also with simplifying things, so here’s a simple way to guide yourself when choosing a sustainable wine.

  • Mainly concerned about chemicals and grape growing? Go for the organic label.

  • Sulphite hater? Purist? Trend setter? Choose natural wines for that raw touch.

  • You want sustainability across the board, protecting biodiversity? Biodynamic wine is your best bet.

     

There. Sustainable wine explained. Quick and easy, and for added green vibes, why not try different packaging if it’s a wine you are going to consume within a shorter timeframe? I still love the look and feel of the glass bottle, and with better recycling schemes, my hope is it won’t get cancelled.

What’s your favourite type of wine? Have you tried any sustainable wines? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.

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