Is organic wine better for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 22 2011 7:11 AM

Vinho Verde

Is organic wine really better for the environment?

I've been seeing more and more wines labeled "natural," "organic," and "biodynamic." And just when I finally learned the difference between pinot noir and petit syrah! Are any of these wines demonstrably better for the environment?

Zinfandel Grapes. Click image to expand.
The environmental benefits of organic wine are hard to measure

The Lantern sympathizes with your plight. Reading a wine label is about as easy as deciphering a Mayan hieroglyph. Unfortunately, there's no simple solution for oenophiles looking to minimize their eco-footprint. Many factors contribute to an individual bottle's overall environmental impact, including growing practices, packaging size and type, and shipping distance and method.

First, a basic overview of the terms. There's a difference between organic wine and wine grown with organic grapes. Wines carrying the "made with organic grapes" label constitute the majority of certified wines in the United States. It means the viticulturalist—the person who grew the grapes—used no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. But the winemaker may have added sulfites, which kill off unwanted wild yeast and bacteria, and chemical clarifiers. Wine that is labeled simply "organic" is made with organic grapes and has no added chemicals.

Winemakers can also obtain "biodynamic" certification through Demeter, a company that has trademarked the term. Biodynamic wines must satisfy the same requirements as wines made with organic grapes. Unlike the "organic" label, however, biodynamic certification is not backed by the federal government. Demeter also imposes a variety of other standards. Biodynamic winemakers use natural pest controls, like ladybugs, and must supply a certain amount of their fertilizer from within the farm itself. The idea is to make the vineyard a biologically active, self-sustaining operation. Biodynamic wines may contain sulfites, but not synthetic clarifiers. (They're also fermented using wild yeast, for terroir enthusiasts.)

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"Natural" wines have earned a certain cachet in the wine world. They're supposed to involve as little human intervention as possible. However, because the term is completely unregulated, it's very difficult to determine what role synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or winemaking chemicals played in the growing, fermenting, or bottling processes.

With all other factors held equal, wine that is organic, made with organic grapes, or biodynamic is better for the environment than its industrial shelf-mate. But the impact difference is smaller and more variable than you might think—and somewhat difficult to measure.

Organic winemaking practices have only a small impact on greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 paper in the Journal of Wine Research—in large part because organic growers still need some kind of fertilizer. Instead of synthetics, they use composted manure or plant matter, and a lot of it. Researchers at UC-Davis compared organic and conventional chardonnay grapes planted in Sonoma Valley. They found that the organic vines required about 80 times [PDF] as much fertilizer, by weight, as their conventional ly-grown counterparts [PDF]. All of that material has to be shipped in from beef and dairy operations or nearby farms, which usually takes as much or more energy as manufacturing and delivering the synthetic stuff. (Because biodynamic winemakers can import only a certain amount of fertilizer, they may have a lower carbon output. Unfortunately, there has not yet been a systematic study, because there are only around 70 certified producers.)

There's more to organic farming than minimizing greenhouse-gas emissions, though. And organic techniques do offer some substantial environmental benefits—they're just tough to quantify. The Michael Pollan fans out there know that an organic vineyard supports a thriving ecosystem of birds, bugs, and other critters, while a conventional field has been cleared of anything but the precious grapes. Conventional wine growing can also expose local waterways—as well as farm workers—to fungicides, fertilizers, and pesticides. Unfortunately, because it's tough to put a number on these effects, greenhouse-gas benefits tend to dominate environmental analyses.

The most reliable way to minimize wine-related emissions is to avoid bottles that have traveled by air. If possible, choose bottles that spent more time in a boat than in a truck. Since container ships handle most intercontinental wine transport, Americans who live east of Nebraska are better off buying a wine from Bordeaux than one from Sonoma—the California wines would have taken a very long overland journey. Magnums are better than standard-sized 750-milliliter bottles, because there's less packaging mass per mouthful of wine. For the same reason, try to find producers that ship their wines across the ocean in bulk stainless steel containers and bottle close to the point of consumption. (If your local wine merchant can't identify these vintners, ask for the distributor's contact information.)

The good news it that many of the world's wine grapes are produced organically, even if the bottle doesn't say so. Traditional vineyards in places like Burgundy, Languedoc, Piedmont, Mosel and elsewhere often stay in the same family for generations. Many of these vintners have stuck to organic farming practices, but don't bother with the expense and bureaucracy of certification.