The Big Mood™ right now is sustainability – how can we eat, dress, shop, and exist with maximum environmental consciousness. I shared a post last month on reducing waste in the kitchen as far as cooking and dining goes, so I wanted to delve into the wine side. If you’ve been wondering what the best producing, bottling, and drinking practices for wine are as far as sustainability goes, read on.
I understand this isn’t always going to be the best option, as a huge part of the beauty of wine is terroir and different countries offer wildly different wines, but if you’re in a scenario that allows for flexibility – buy a local wine. For day to day when you’re just looking for a buzz from something delicious, seek out something from nearby.
Local can mean something different depending on where you live. Believe it or not, there is wine grown in all 50 states which helps as far as shipping emissions. Of course, an individual state will have limited varieties, so sometimes shopping local may mean buying a California Cabernet Sauvignon while living in a mostly Muscadine-producing North Carolina. As close as you can get to home will help reduce the environmental impact from transporting wines from overseas.
Natural wine is definitely having its moment if you haven’t already noticed. But what does “natural” mean exactly? There are three terms to consider when choosing an eco-friendly wine: Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural.
Organic wine is much like organic food. The label indicates that the wine grapes have been grown without artificial chemical fertilizers and no pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. A vineyard will need to get certified in order to label their wine as USDA Organic. However, keep in mind that smaller wineries may not pay for the certification because it can be costly, but they could still be organically produced.
Organic wine will not contain added sulfites for preservation, but it’s worth noting that naturally occurring sulfites are a byproduct of the fermentation process so all wine has some amount of sulfites present (and that’s normal and fine).
Biodynamic wine, while fitting the definition of an organic wine, takes things a step further. The intention is to produce wine by growing and harvesting wine grapes in perfect harmony with the Earth’s natural cycles.
Biodynamic wines are grown and harvested in a specific routine that aligns with the phases of the moon and astrological signs. Gemini wine, anyone? (I kid, it’s not anything related to horoscopes). The positioning of the planets and stars does however influence which days a grower will water, prune, and harvest the grapes. Using a handful of pseudo-science rituals, it’s a very energetically holistic approach to growing grapes. People who favor this method insist it provides the “truest expression of terroir” in a wine. Hippy voo-doo stuff? Maybe – but I’m here for it.
If none of that resonates with you, it essentially is just an organic wine that also does not allow for the use of commercial yeast (only naturally occurring yeast allowed).
Natural is not a regulated term like Organic. It refers primarily to the way the wine is made, rather than how the grapes are grown. This means that a natural wine can be made with traditionally grown grapes, though typically a natural wine maker is going to be using Organic or Biodynamic grapes for their wine.
A natural wine process involves zero assistance from machinery. No mechanical intervention. That means hand-picked grapes, unfiltered wine, and so on. Of course, this is an option only for smaller producers. A big name like Robert Mondavi simply wouldn’t be able to meet demand without the use of mechanical innovations. This method leads to inconsistency and a lack of standardization, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many traditional producers prefer to grow their wine this way because it can be more expressive of the process, terroir, and vintage. Additionally, a natural wine has no added sulfites or commercial yeast – if it’s not naturally occurring, it’s not in natural wine.
Drink, Reuse, Recycle
The first of the 3 R’s might be “reduce”, but I’m not here to tell you to drink less wine. Instead, be conscious about what is happening to the bottle after you drink the wine and what material the cork or cap is made from. Always recycle bottles, corks, and caps – and if you want to be creative, you can re-purpose a bottle as a flower vase or use corks for wine-inspired art – such as the tall cylindrical glass vase that I toss all of my corks into.
There is debate about which cap material is most environmentally friendly. It depends where that cap is going to end up. A synthetic cork seems to be the worst option. Difficult to recycle, and non-biodegradable, and questionable chemical use during production can lead to a variety of unwanted impacts. Natural corks and metal screw caps are both better options.
Metal caps, if recycled, can almost infinitely be melted down and reused. If they end up in a landfill, however, not so great. Metal caps also require more effort and energy from non-renewable sources to create and recycle. From a waste-reducing perspective, they can be a really good choice but when looking at the energy going into them, the choice becomes a little less ideal.
Meanwhile, harvesting cork from cork trees is actually a sustainable process. Cork trees are not cut down to harvest the material. Even better, the cork tree forests, grown for the purpose of stoppering wine bottles, can sequester nearly 15 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere per hectare over the course of a year. It can be obtained without harming the tree, and it’s a low impact process. You can recycle them, but if they do end up in a landfill they will at least biodegrade well before metal (and without question a synthetic cork).
Sadly, as with many things in a capitalistic society, if there was not such a demand for cork these forests would not exist. If wineries start opting exclusively for metal screw caps, there is potential for the forest and the animals that inhabit it to cease to exist. Though there are many points to debate about which option is “best”, my personal conclusion is that natural cork is the best move.
If you’re looking for a great place to recycle your corks, check out this company called Recork. You can find a Recork recycling station for wine corks at select grocery stores or wine retailers. Check out their website to see where you can find one near you.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any of your own creative ways to drink sustainably – leave them in the comments!