Wines Go Green: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Wines

By Fabiana Santana

But with all the choices out there, how can you tell what is what? Is organic different than sustainable? Is biodynamic really organic? Alexis Kahn, Associate Director of Advanced Wine Studies at the French Culinary Institute, and Thierry Gasco, Cellar Master for Pommery Champagne, and Thomas Lambert-Laurent, Vice President of Vranken Pommery America, have helped break the world of green wines down for us and introduce us to a brand new green champagne.

What makes a wine organic?
Kahn: The specific regulations vary by country, but essentially, an organic wine is made without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.  Once in the winery, the wine is made with minimal intervention.  This might mean using native yeasts, not adding any artificial flavorings or not filtering the wines.

Pommery champagne has always been a little greener than the rest. Pommery was the first chapagne house to obtain 14001 environmental certification over  a decade ago for their sustainable growing practices, energy and water conservation, and waste management. Now you have introduced Pommery POP Earth to your family of champagnes. What makes it greener than the rest of your products?
Gasco: It’s important to understand that the process of making POP EARTH is the same as the process used for all of Pommery’s Champagnes .   POP EARTH is the celebration and result of Pommery’s environmental initiative over the past 12-14 years.  POP EARTH is typical of the Pommery POP range, with a dosage of 10g.  POP EARTH brings attention to the principles of ethics, as well as corporate and environmental governance.

How important is the ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certification when making a sustainable product? And what had to change at Pommery in order to be certified?
Gasco: It’s a rigorous process to obtain the double certification (ISO 9001 and ISO 14001). There are strict guidelines regarding the whole process and you always have to follow the Statutory constraints in terms of the environment.
Lambert-Laurent: In an effort to create an even smaller carbon footprint, Pommery uses ‘green’ energy supplied by French producer EDF. This energy supplier is contractually obliged to produce an identical amount of ‘green’ electricity, created by wind turbines, for every kilowatt consumed by the Champagne house. Furthermore, Pommery is actively working to reduce the number of transport trucks it uses—a challenge, considering the demand for Champagne has continually increased each year. Since the beginning of 2008, Pommery has also encouraged staff to commute by train rather than by car.

Can you tell us about the bottle/packaging?
POP Earth isn’t sold in a box like many of our other Champagnes , so not to waste more resources. To be kinder to Mother Nature, the new bottle uses lighter glass (1.85lbs) than conventional champagne bottles (2lbs), which in turn reduces pollution and energy costs during shipping. The bottle features a label made from some recycled materials and is printed with water soluble inks.

What is the difference between Organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and natural wines?
Kahn: Biodynamic wines are controlled by a certifying agency called Demeter. Biodynamics is the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, literary scholar, educator, architect, playwright, social thinker and esotericist (busy man!). The four basic principals are: a closed system of nutrients (composting, recycling), biodiversity on the property (plants, predators, prey – no monocultures), specific field sprays and composting, and the idea of creating a holistic system where they manage the environment and let the plants take care of themselves. So, yes, they follow the moon cycle, bury cow dung in horns, which is weird, but the ideas are based on hundreds of years of traditional farming techniques.

Natural wines have no official certification. The general rule for natural wine is minimal intervention, but the catch is: what is practiced in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily reflect what is being practiced in the winery. To formalize things, some winemakers have banded together and created loose standards: small quantities of wine made by independent producers, handpicked grapes, no added sugars or foreign yeasts. As a result, their wines are more sensitive to changing temperatures and must be stored with care.

Adam Morganstern of the Organic Wine Journal once made the joke that sustainable means “organic until something goes wrong”. The trouble with sustainable is that there are no set standards. The decision to be sustainable could reflect sincerity or part of a marketing plan. One person’s sustainable could include solar power and being carbon neutral while another person’s sustainable is simply changing to a more efficient light bulb.

Do they taste better than “regular” wines?
Kahn: Tasting is a very subjective business. On the one hand, if you can find great wines that have been produced in an earth-friendly way, why would you drink anything else? Some also claim that organic wines reflect a greater sense of terroir (the expression of a place in a wine). It’s important to keep in mind that some producers may be following organic, sustainable, natural or biodynamic winemaking, but don’t want to be labeled for it. They want to be known for the quality of their wines, not for the method in which they were made. Like in cooking, a chef wants you to enjoy your meal, not worry about whether it was prepared using an aluminum or cast iron pan. Some producers might also disagree with some of the government’s standards (too low, dumbed down). Plus, it can also be expensive to get certified, particularly if you’re certifying in multiple different countries.

To be fair, not all organic, natural or biodynamic wines are good. Many are the product of bad winemakers. Others suffer from quality issues that result from natural winemaking – there’s a reason most winemakers use sulfites. Consistency can also be an issue – there is often bottle variability within one case of wine. Some may enjoy not knowing what to expect when opening a bottle, but those of us in the hospitality industry serving these wines to our guests may not feel the same.

What are some tips for shopping for organic, biodynamic, sustainable wines and for ordering them at a restaurant? for example, is there a seal or stamp that readers should look for or is it as simple as asking?
It’s always best practice to ask. Again, not all winemakers want to be labeled. Many stores have dedicated a separate section or shelf in their store for these types of wines to make it easy for consumers. I’ve started to see some restaurants make a notation for these wines on their wine lists as well.

It sounds like buying Pommery is one way to secure you are going green when it comes to choosing wine. Is every bottle of Pommery is doing its part in helping save the environment?
YES. Pommery believes that taking proactive measures such as recycling most of the waste, reducing packaging at the source and minimizing the use of pesticides is just part of their duty as an ethical company. And, Pommery is proud to say that their commitment to the environment began long before it was fashionable to go ‘green’. Go Green and Drink Up!

Can you suggest some pairings for the summer season?
Rosé and just about anything you find at the farmer’s market in the spring/summer season will work together. Most rosés are fairly light in body and they also tend to have high acidity, making them a very versatile food partner

Gasco: Cuvee Louise vintage paired with scallops.

Great Earth friendly wines:
Pommery POP Earth Champagne ($55)
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005 ($65)
Frey Vineyards Petite Sirah Organic Wine, No Added Sulfites, Mendocino 2006 ($14)
Raptor Ridge’s 2007 Pinot Gris ($18)
Albert Mann’s 2006 Gewurztraminer ($24)