Wine labels used to be quite simple - just the producer, the wine name (if any), the appellation, sometimes the vineyard and maybe a short description (if you were lucky). But as consumers become more health and eco conscious, there are all sorts of claims showing up on wine labels to appeal to our sense of consuming more consciously. What do these terms mean? Is there any truth to their claims? After all, definitions of these terms can vary widely and their use tends to not be well regulated. Let’s look at some of the more commonly found terms.
This term is meant to indicate that the wine was made without the use of synthetic pesticides or chemicals and/or GMOs. It doesn’t mean pesticide free – after all, there are allowable limits of pesticide and chemical use within the definition of ‘organic’. Fortunately, most governments have developed the standard of what organic means (just like with food) so there is one central standard (although not necessarily the same across countries) and several independent agencies to certify that the standard has been met. Just keep in mind, there are a lot of wineries that farm organically and don’t bother to get the certification because of the cost involved. Also, in most warm wine regions, almost all the wineries farm organic because the heat and dryness keeps away most of the vineyard pests (think Chile or southern parts of Europe like Spain, southern France, etc). Usually they’ll tell you if they farm organic but if it’s not labeled as such, it won’t be clear what their definition of organic is – could be higher than the standard, could be lower.
Every biodynamic wine is inherently organic but not every organic wine is biodynamic. This is like starting with organic and going beyond. This term means the wine was made in tune with nature, specifically in accordance with lunar cycles. This means everything from the vineyard to the winemaking is part of the natural cycle and all of the processes are timed according to the moon calendar. Animals are used to farm the vineyards with the idea that their manure turns back into soil. Plants are used in the vineyard to attract certain insects that feed off the unwanted pests. And so it goes. Hardly any machinery is used in the vineyard or the winery. It’s meant to be a true expression of nature. Sounds odd but biodynamic wines can be excellent in great vintages. The risk is in poor vintages when you are stuck with whatever results. Nonetheless, if you haven’t tried a biodynamic wine, definitely do so! There is a worldwide certifying agency for biodynamic wines – meaning there’s effectively one standard for biodynamic - but not all biodynamic wineries apply for the certification because of the cost.
This term is meant to indicate no animal products were used to make the wine. Most notably, during the fining process, when winemakers traditionally used eggs to removed unwanted particles from the wine. But it can also apply across the winemaking process. Just keep in mind that there is some variation on use of this term as there is no one central standard of what ‘vegan wine’ is. There are certifying bodies out there so if the wine has been certified vegan, it meets that particular organization’s standards. In some cases, a wine could meet certifying standards and the winery just didn’t pay for the certification. In others, the claim is being made based on their own definition of what a vegan wine is.
This term is meant to indicate the wine was made with more environmentally friendly practices to lower the winery’s carbon footprint. The focus here tends to be on water and energy conservation but there are other eco-friendly practices that tend to be used as well. There are a few different certifying agencies but as with other terms, there is no one central standard of what ‘sustainable’ means. So when you see a wine as certified sustainable, it means it meets that particular organization’s standards.
This term technically means that the wine saw no intervention in the winemaking process – meaning the grapes were fermented with the yeasts naturally occurring on the skins and the winemaker didn’t add or do anything in the process other than grow the grapes and bottle the wine. The wine is how it is – nothing was done to alter the look, taste or feel. That’s in theory though. In reality, there is no standard definition of what natural means as a wine label term so anyone could claim to make a natural wine based on their own definition of what natural is. And it does vary. Some winemakers do nothing. Some will intervene a little here and there. It can be pretty ambiguous. I haven’t yet come across any certifying agency for natural wines either. But if you’re adventurous, these make for some interesting wines to try. They definitely taste unique.
If you see this term on a label, be suspicious. There is no such thing as a sulfite-free wine since sulfites are a natural by-product of the fermentation process. Their function is to act as a natural preservative for the wine. Naturally occurring sulfites exist in very low quantities, which means they don’t provide a lot of protection. As a result, many winemakers will add extra sulfites to their wine to make sure it will be protected on the shelf and in a cellar during aging. Sulfite levels are heavily regulated and allowable limits are still pretty low. But if you want to avoid the extra sulfites, the term to look for is ‘No Added Sulfites’. This means the winemaker hasn’t added any extra. It also means you’re going to have to consume this wine sooner rather than later as it’s unlikely to have a long shelf life.