Natural. Biodynamic. Sustainable. Organic. Low-intervention.
Confused? You’re not alone. Read on to understand more about sustainable wines, and see how healthy, thriving vineyards work with the environment, not against it.
FIRST: WHAT’S A TERROIR?
It’s relevant, we promise.
Wine is the direct result of its environment. When grapes grow and ripen on the vine, a delicate interplay between region, climate, soil, vine and local wildlife, down to the microbe level, gives each crop its own unique flavour profile. Winemakers call this the terroir.
The terroir sounds like some mystical thing, but it’s really a microbiome. Some things, like soil minerality, contribute to flavour but are still not fully understood even today. Because of it, no two vineyards are the same. That’s why even wines from the same vineyard taste different year on year.
WHO MAKES WINE?
It takes years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom to make halfway decent wine, and even more talent to make great wine. Terroirs encompass many complex factors, and any tweak changes the final product (hopefully delicious wine).
Where do you find an expert with intimate knowledge of viticulture but also of the region, land and climate? It’s not your average job board listing. That’s why it’s no surprise that so many vineyards are still family affairs.
Handed down from generation to generation, until knowledge becomes instinct, the best winemakers are embedded in their local region, and understand how their crops work with the climate and surrounding ecosystem. They take a holistic view, knowing the long-term viability of the vineyard relies on the overall health of the environment.
In fact, many of the world’s traditional vineyards are still quietly organic – but because many vintners are very old school and take a dim view of anything ‘natural’ (you’ll see why below), they rarely mention this on the label. Watch out though: organic grapes do not mean organic wine, as the finished product may contain chemicals and preservatives.
The vineyard is always at the centre of a thriving ecosystem, with a gentle, give and take with nature.
WHAT’S ORGANIC WINE, THEN?
Organic, natural and low-intervention, and biodynamic wines all come from vineyards where the grapes are grown without the use of pesticides and where nature is taken into consideration.
Natural and low-intervention wines are not bound by any legal definition, but generally are made with grape juice and grape juice only. The addition of yeasts and sugar, normal parts of the wine-making process, are prohibited. So is filtration or aging in oak barrels. This leads to a cloudy product with a brash, almost wild taste, that bears little resemblance to wine as we think of it. Some people love it, some people hate it. Traditional winemakers? They tend to hate it. In their view, there’s a reason wine’s been made a certain way for so long!
Organic wines are grown without the use of pesticides or fertilisers, but still permit the use of the traditional methods of adding yeast and sugar to facilitate fermentation. Organic winemakers still filter the wine and age it in oak casks, but the winemaking process follows strict organic controls. Traditional, non-organic wine can have high levels of sulphites to it, and animal products are used to clarify the wine. Organic wine does not use these chemical additives in the finishing process, meaning the organic wine is low-sulphite and vegan-friendly.
Biodynamic winemaking is derived from the writings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It’s an eccentric process that refers to the cultivation of the vineyard. Beyond high organic standards, biodynamic winemakers tend to their vines using rules that are not proven to make a difference scientifically, such as moon phases.
In all of the above cases, the wine is sustainable. The vineyard is always at the centre of a thriving ecosystem, with a gentle, give and take with nature. In contrast, a conventional field clears this all away.
Conventional growers looking to maximise yield will try to troubleshoot in the most cost-effective way possible. Rather than considering the underlying soil and environment, they will fix any problems that come up with fast-acting pesticides, fertilisers, and other chemicals like fungicides and herbicides. These chemicals’ manufacture and transport rely heavily on fossil fuel use, contributing to climate change before they even hit the field.
Pesticides kill harmful intruders like mites, but they also harm natural pollinators and wipe out the insect life that birds and small mammals feed on. Larger predators hunt those mammals, so pesticides can impact the food chain all the way to the top. Similarly, herbicides clear away weeds, but also kill beneficial plants that enrich the soil and feed insects, like wildflowers.
Vines usually thrive in poor, rather than super fertile soil. But many growers still decide to do away with organic fertilisers like manure, and instead use chemical fertilisers to turbo boost the growing cycle and increase yield.
But heavy fertiliser usage nukes the natural microbes that make organic soil teem with life. These fertilisers also seep into our waterways and oceans, causing, among other things, algal blooms that kill aquatic life.
What’s bad for the plant is also bad for the planet: fertiliser use means the plant is no longer motivated to dig deeper into the soil for its nutrients. This, in turn, can worsen erosion and prevents the soil from capturing carbon. And again, the manufacture and transport of fertilisers worldwide are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
Read more on how organic is better for wildlife.
Many factors contribute to an individual bottle’s overall environmental impact. Once you take into account things like packaging and shipping, GHGs vary hugely by bottle of wine. So it’s hard to make any blanket statements about any one bottle. But the farming methods are a good place to start.
Choosing a sustainable wine means the difference between a (mostly) closed, local agricultural system that relies on minimal inputs such as local manure and rainwater, and a system that demands the intensive application of costly chemicals year on year, transported from all around the world.
Sustainable winemakers are committed to long-term environmental practices, preserving their vineyards for the future, and nurturing the environment that is their home and livelihood. The choice of organic, natural or biodynamic is more down to taste and how you feel about the finishing process.
We realised there was a gap in the market for high-quality, affordable organic wine that tasted great while being gentle on the planet. That’s why, fifteen years ago, we launched Terra Organica.
We work directly with producers who are proud to go organic – and even shout about it ON-label! Not only are the grapes grown organically, the wine is also made following organic rules. Energy and water conservation is an important part of our producers’ sustainability programs too, as is caring for the local communities.
Read more about about us.
In Argentina, the Zuccardi family was the first to plant organically in the famed Mendoza wine region. They’ve been growing for 3 generations and are constantly improving on their sustainability, looking not just at their farming methods but also packaging, energy consumption and water usage. They use a gigantic wormery to compost grape skins and stems into fertiliser.
In the Rioja region of Spain, the Navarrsotillo family coaxes 70 hectares of organic vineyards into yielding high quality grapes that are extra flavourful from the region’s hot summers and chilly winters. Throughout winter, they leave the land untouched to encourage the growth of natural vegetation.
In Italy, Casa Vinicola Botter remains a family-run winery that has been growing since 1928. They champion organic growing methods, not only avoiding the use of heavy fertilisers, but also running entirely on renewable energy. And on the Adriatic coast, winemaker Stefano manages his 40-acre vineyard completely organically, using composted animal manure instead of chemical fertilisers and encouraging natural insect predators instead of chemical insecticides.