A "Green Wine" Guide from the Wine Curmudgeon (No This Isn't a St. Patrick's Day Thing)

As if choosing a bottle wasn't overwhelming enough already.
As if choosing a bottle wasn't overwhelming enough already. Photo by Pier Demarten on Unsplash
Confused about whether a wine is organic, sustainable, vegan or natural? You’re not alone: green wine is so confusing that it even makes the experts’ heads hurt.

“The reason why you need to understand the differences between all the terms, besides the obvious about knowing what you’re putting into your body, is that these terms are used to sell you wine,” 55 Seventy: Wine Club and Cellar operating partner Jeffrey Gregory says. “Sometimes, they’re more of a market tool that trades on the term organic.”

In fact, worldwide organic wine consumption is less than 5% of all the wine made, and it’s likely no more than a couple of points in the U.S. despite recent signs wine drinkers want to be more green. That’s because of confusing terminology; some organic wines are not, technically, the same thing as an organic tomato.

Knowing this, there are broadly six kinds of green wine:

Made with Organic Grapes
These wines are similar to organic produce since the grapes used to make the wine must be grown according to federal regulations and certified by a third-party organization. This method, though, doesn't guarantee that other parts of the winemaking process, like the yeast used for fermentation or the wood barrels used for aging, are organic.

Organic Labels
These wines are made with organic grapes, as well as things like organic yeast. Plus, sulfites are not allowed to be added. Sulfites occur naturally in all wines and act as a preservative, and winemakers usually add more sulfites to the wine before, during or after fermentation to keep the wine from spoiling. This term is regulated by the federal government and requires third-party certification. So, what’s the difference between the two in terms of quality? It all depends who you ask.
click to enlarge The grapes used to make a wine may be organic, but the wood used for barrels may not be and let's don't even get into yeast. - PHOTO BY DAVID KÖHLER ON UNSPLASH
The grapes used to make a wine may be organic, but the wood used for barrels may not be and let's don't even get into yeast.
Photo by David Köhler on Unsplash

The next step beyond organic is based on principles established by European philosopher Rudolf Steiner some 100 years ago. Biodynamics includes guidelines for crop diversity and planting and can be quite practical. But it’s biodynamic's “aesthetic” side that has garnered the most attention, including practices like burying a cow horn filled with manure in the vineyard. Biodynamic wines are certified by the private Demeter Institute.

Natural Wine
This is perhaps the most controversial of all of the categories. According to its advocates, natural wines are made in much the same way that wine was made before industrialization: just grapes, natural yeast, and the winemaker’s skill. Natural yeast is the wild yeast present on the grapes and in the winery; it’s not the industrial yeasts used in almost all beer and wine production. Why controversial? Its adherents argue that non-natural wines aren’t really wine, but a product of post-industrial technology.

Vegan and Vegetarian Wine
Most wine is vegan or vegetarian. The confusion comes because federal rules allow producers to use egg whites and dried fish bladder, called isinglass, to fine (clarify) or filter their wines. These products are rarely used anymore; they’re too expensive. Almost all wine is filtered or fined with bentonite, a clay made from volcanic ash. Plus, there isn’t one standard for defining these wines.

Sustainably Farmed
This certification is part of a project by the Wine Institute trade group and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, established in 2003. The goal is for growers and wineries to use “vineyard and winery practices that are sensitive to the environment, responsive to the needs and interests of society-at-large, and economically feasible to implement and maintain.” Make of that what you will in terms of how green the wines are.
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Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, is a Dallas wine writer and critic who specializes in inexpensive wine that most of us drink. He is the author of The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine (Vintage Noir Media) and oversees the award-winning Wine Curmudgeon website. He has taught classes on wine, spirits and beer at El Centro College and Cordon Bleu.
Contact: Jeff Siegel