It’s Only Natural
People pursuing healthy lifestyles often turn to organic and natural foods in order to avoid chemicals and additives that just don’t seem healthy to ingest. And wineries are starting to meet that demand, too, offering organic, sustainable, biodynamic and even vegan wines at every price point.
Improved availability doesn’t mean you won’t get confused when seeking out a more natural vintage, however. Wineries can pin many modifiers on their farming practices and selections, and some terms are more strictly defined than others. Let’s break down a few of the terms you might soon see on labels.
Organic wines are made without herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. Organics also typically avoid the use of added sulfur in bottling, meaning that those with an allergy to the near-ubiquitous preservative can drink many selections with a reduced risk of getting a blotchy complexion or more severe reaction.
Sustainable farming goes a step further to indicate that the winery’s practices minimize environmental impact by using organic methods while conserving energy, water and other resources. Beyond sustainable is “biodynamic,” meaning growers use natural methods to control pests, maintain soil health and protect the ecosystem.
What Makes It Vegan?
Many organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines can’t be considered vegan. Wineries have long used (natural and organic) animal proteins such as isinglass, albumin, casein, gelatin and chitin to remove impurities and sediment from wines. Vegan wineries instead use charcoal, diatomaceous earth, and bentonite and kaolin clays as “fining” agents, or produce unfiltered and unfined (“raw”) wines.
USDA’s “Certified Organic” seal is the best indicator that a wine is organic. To qualify, wines must be made up of 100 percent organic ingredients and be processed only with organic aids and no added sulfites. The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification parallels USDA’s, and certified growers are allowed to use either seal.
Wines can also bear the USDA seal and the word “organic” if they include 95 percent organic ingredients and achieve naturally occurring sulfite levels under 100 ppm—just a fraction of what a conventional wine might contain. Beware: Wines labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” and no seal can contain as little as 70 percent organic produce and added sulfites.
Certified vintners say that organic, sustainable and biodynamic processes deliver purer flavors, better revealing the true nature of the grape, crop and terroir. One drawback? Since they don’t contain added sulfur as a preservative, some organic wines may not cellar well. And unfiltered/unfined vegan wines—even reds—are best stored upright in the refrigerator.
The number of organic and vegan-friendly vineyards is growing fast. Here are just a few around the country that produce superior vintages.
Benziger Family Winery
was the first Sonoma vineyard certified as biodynamic, and Tribute, its robust Cabernet blend, was the area’s first certified biodynamic wine. Benzinger also now offers Joaquin’s Inferno, a full-bodied, berry-forward blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Grenache named for the vineyard’s head grower.
in Mendocino County is a longtime leader in organic and biodynamic farming, and is known for creating vegan-friendly and gluten-free wines with no added sulfites. Frey has more than 20 organic and biodynamic blends, including a spicy organic Sangiovese and smooth Petite Sirah.
is CCOF-certified and avoids all conventional pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage, bioengineering, and ionizing radiation in wines such as its medal-winning 2014 Pinot Noir. The biodynamic producer plants clover, peas and vetch among the vines, then turns them to nourish the soil of its Mendocino vineyards.
are certified 100 percent organic, and planted and harvested in tune with the earth’s natural cycles. The vintner is known for its biodynamic Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel—a quintessential, pungent Sonoma red with black cherry aromas—and a fruity, refreshing Rhône-style rosé.
was founded in 1974 by winemaker Myron Redford, who claims to be the first in Oregon to produce a world-class organically grown, sulfite-free Pinot Noir.
Badger Mountain Vineyard’s
USDA organic blends feature a “heady balance of fruit, floral, spice and earth” with no added sulfites. And Portland vintner Jasper Sisco makes Gratus Bynum, a smoky semi-sec blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat, from organic grapes grown on the banks of the Columbia River.
La Cruz de Comal
wines “practically make themselves,” the Texas Hill Country vintner says. Grapes are hand-harvested and hand-bottles with nothing is added—not even yeast. The winery creates vintages that reflect the terroir including Pétard Blanc (firecracker white) and savory Troubadour. Most aren’t filtered or fined.
Al Weed, vintner at
Mountain Cove Vineyards
in Nelson County, Va., says “the best winemaking uses as little inputs as possible.” Virginia’s oldest winery adds only a slight amount of yeast to spur fermentation, but no egg whites or animal byproducts, so vegans can imbibe Chardonnay with a clear conscience.
Look for the circular USDA Organic or CCOF seal when looking to buy organic wines; other organizations such as Demeter audit and certify producers’ environmental practices. There is no official seal or certification that proves vegan-friendliness, however, so ask your cellarist for vegan, “unfiltered and unfined,” or “raw” recommendations. Enquire ahead when seeking an onsite tasting. Many organic wineries produce on a very limited scale, making their wines not only tasty and unadulterated choices, but true finds. Here’s to your health!