Organic and sustainable are some of the key words increasingly adorning wine labels.  Although these terms have commonalities, they are not synonymous. 

Organic Wines 

In the European Union (EU), “certified organic wine” is produced from organic grapes, grown without synthetic chemicals or pesticides, and made using only products and processes authorized by the EU regulation. This includes limits on preservatives used during wine making, particularly sulfites.   

While the addition of sulphites, albeit in lower amounts compared with conventional wines, is permitted in the EU, it is not permitted in the United States (US).  As such, EU organic wines exported to the US must be labelled “made with organic grapes”, even if sulfites have not been added.  

Practices to build and support soil health and the vineyard as a natural and integrated eco-system, as well as, the use of natural products for viticulture and wine making is at the core of organic wines.  

Sustainable Wines 

Neither sustainable viticulture nor wine is defined in the EU, however, some countries and wine regions have developed their own sustainability certifications for viticulture, wine making and/or both. For example, Portugal adopted a national sustainable wine certification in November of this year.  Outside the EU, New Zealand, South Africa and California are examples of well-established sustainability certification programmes. 

Sustainable wines reflect a broader approach to wine by considering environmental, social, and economic factors.  This goes beyond the vineyard and winery and includes the surrounding habitat and ecosystems; employees and the neighbouring communities, and for some producers, all the way to the final consumer. 

Environmental considerations may include reducing carbon footprints through the use of solar energy and/or alternative packaging; responsible water usage, or re-establishing natural eco-systems.  Social considerations may include workers’ labour conditions, health and safety, fair wages, and gender equality; and economic considerations include contributions to the local economy and job creation.  

A path for universal reference standards

Depending on the region/country, sustainable wine certifications vary in the level of rigour in their requirements and standards. To create international alignment, the Sustainable Wine Roundtable, an international wine membership organization, is attempting to develop a universal reference standard for sustainability in the wine industry

Some may argue organic producers lack a broader understanding of social and environmental issues beyond the vineyard and winery.  A concern in organic wines is the permitted use of copper.  Used since the late 1800s for the treatment of fungus and bacteria in the vineyard, it is a non-degradable heavy metal that can accumulate in the top soil, and leach into underground water systems or run off into water sources.  While amounts are tightly controlled, it remains a concern; the EU is currently financing research into copper alternatives.  

Additionally, the prohibition of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard may result in the more frequent use of tractors thereby increasing the carbon footprint.  Conversely, sustainable certifications skeptics argue they are not rigorous or prescriptive enough, nor equal across wine regions/countries. 

While organic producers may adopt broader sustainable practices, and sustainable producers may grow grapes organically, one is not a prerequisite for the other.  Both organic and sustainable wines have their merits. Ultimately, the choice remains with you, the consumer. 

Which wine will you choose for your next purchase?

Photo by Thomas Schaefer

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