The Low Down On Green Living
December 14th, 2007
As the nights grow colder and darker, there are few things I enjoy more than sipping a glass of good red wine in front of a warm fire. If you’ve followed our advice from this post, then that fire is eco-friendly, but what about the wine? Are there eco-friendly wines that are also high quality? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “yes”! Read on if you’d like some tips on how to pick some real palate-pleasers that are also eco-friendly.
People have made wine for almost as long as there have been, well, people! It is one of the oldest beverages around. The advent of non-eco-friendly wines is a relatively new phenomena caused by the “green revolution”. We’re not talking about our kind of green here, but instead the incredible crop productivity that resulted from the development of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and modern irrigation in the 1950s. Increasing demand for wine, increasing land prices, and the transition of winemaking from independent farmers to large industrial conglomerates have all led to the industrialization of winemaking.
Increasingly, though, there’s a backlash against these techniques, driven by the smaller winemaker / farmers of Europe and also the high-end estates of the New World. It turns out that wines made from grapes that receive little or no irrigation, natural nutrients and pest management techniques, and minimal processing in the winery make truly outstanding wines!
So, what should you look for? There are several “levels” of eco-friendly in the wine world. Most common here in the US are wines made from organic grapes. The grapes are grown in the same manner as other types of organic produce – natural fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – under practices adopted by the US Department of Agriculture. However, there are still some limited chemicals used in the winemaking process itself (see below).
Next is true organic wine. What’s the difference? Well, 99% of wine uses sulfite as a preservative – it’s been this way for hundreds of years. Wines without sulfite can be highly unstable and also might not age as well. However, the US Department of Agriculture forbids the use of ANY sulfite in a wine labeled organic, but wines labeled “made from organic grapes” can have a small amount. There are very few pure organic wines out there, and almost none in the top echelons of the wine world. Don’t fret too much, though. You may have heard that sulfites are what give you headaches from drinking red wine. This actually isn’t true! For one, white wines often have higher sulfite levels (the tannins in red wines are a built-in preservative). There are many other possible explanations but no definitive cause of those red wine headaches (except for drinking too much!).
Last is a category called “biodynamic” wine. Grapes grown through biodynamic practices are ultra-organic – the goal is to not only use natural materials, but to synchronize the growing process with nature’s rhythms. Biodynamic growers will, for instance, plant and harvest based on the phases of the moon while also following typical organic practices. Some of the world’s top estates, including Domaine Leflaive of Burgundy (shown plowing their vineyards by horse at left), follow biodynamic practices. There’s quite a bit of debate about whether this truly affects the quality of wine, but if you do find biodynamic wines you can rest assured that they are grown and made in a planet-friendly fashion! (note: because “organic” is a US government-regulated labeling practice, not all biodynamic wines will be labeled as organic).
Where can you find great organic and biodynamic wines? Here are a few sources:
- The Organic Wine Company (a LIL advertiser) carries hundreds of organic and biodynamic wines, including organic wines that are also vegan (some winemaking processes involve using egg yolks and other animal-based products to remove sediment). They also have more details on organic practices.
- Also, check out the Organic Wine Journal for more articles and information on organic wines and organic winemakers all over the world.
- For biodynamic wines from all over the world, check out this amazing list from Fork and Bottle, and then go to the Organic Wine Company to order online or to Wine Searcher to locate them in a wine store near you. You can also check out more options on the Low Impact Living website.
What about some specific recommendations? Here are some of my very favorite eco-friendly winemakers:
- Tablas Creek Winery. Tablas Creek is located in the Paso Robles area, and is a partnership between the Perrin family (of famed Chateau Beaucastel in France) and the Haas family, their US importers. The have a wide range of delicious Rhone-inspired white and red wines for reasonable prices. And, it’s a great place to visit if you are in Paso – great, informative tours and a very wide range of wines to taste.
- While we’re discussing Tablas Creek, you might want to look for the wines from Chateau Beaucastel itself. They make a Cotes du Rhone for about $25 (called Coudoulet de Beaucastel) and several versions of Chateauneuf du Pape starting at $70. Not inexpensive, but amazing Old-World wines for a special occasion. You can probably find them at fine wine shops near you.
- Casa Barranca is a relatively new organic winery in the Santa Barbara / Ojai area of California. They make a range of reasonably priced Rhone wines (syrah, grenache, etc) and pinot noirs that are very natural and vegan. In Northern California, check out Barra Winery for a similar range of well-priced wines, and Girasole for good organic pinots and cabs.
- What about sparkling wines? For Champagne, search out anything from Larmandier-Bernier or Jacques Selosse. They might be a bit hard to find, but they will be an experience.
- Try some amazing sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs from the Loire Valley. Crisp and minerally, these are the perfect accompaniments to a New Year’s shellfish or seafood dinner. Noted biodynamic winemakers in the Loire include Domaine Huet and Didier Dagueneau.
- Love pinot noir? Try some from Oregon’s Maysara Winery, who grow their grapes on the biodynamic Momtazi Vineyard. Also look for wines using grapes from the Temperance Hill Vineyard, including versions from St. Innocent and Lumos Winery.
- For some more day-to-day options, the following wines should be relatively easy to find and from organic or biodynamic grapes:
o Grgich Hills
o Yorkville Cellars
Oh, and one last shout-out. Some winemakers go above and beyond, integrating sustainability into not only their wines but their businesses. Shafer Vineyards makes amazing, award winning, hard-to-find (and expensive) wines. But, they are a model for sustainability at a winery (or a home, for that matter). They have installed solar panels that provide 100% of their annual power. They have built and installed nesting boxes for owls and perch poles for hawks, all of which provide 24/7 natural rodent control. And they have installed a bat roost and songbird houses, providing homes for critters who feast on insects and other smaller pests. And, they use natural cover crops in-between rows rather than herbicides and fertilizers. (Shafer also has a great website with a fun solar power gizmo that shows all of this).
Another example is Medlock Ames. They farm organically, use solar PV for electricity, and employ the local critters for pest control. In addition, they’ve left most of their land covered by stately native oaks and native flowers, and they use horses to cultivate their vineyards. In addition to making good wine, it’s a beautiful place to visit (but you need an appointment!).
If you’ve made it this far, you can tell I have a passion for this particular subject! Jessica (my wife and co-founder of Low Impact Living) and I spent a year in France a few years back, and spending time with winemakers there who cared so deeply about their land made a lasting impression on me. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions via comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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