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What is the difference between organic wine vs. organic grapes?

Organic wine standards: what to trust

If you’ve spent any time reading labels in your local wine shop [something we highly recommend] you’ve no doubt encountered various claims and certifications on labels: organic wine, made with organic grapes, biodynamic, sustainable, natural. What do these terms mean, and how do they differ from each other? Essentially, there are two categories: certifications and claims. 

Certifications vs. claims

Certifications are sets of standards established and verified by a third party. These can be government organizations, such as the USDA, or private companies, like Demeter. New standards and certifying agencies spring up from time to time, so keeping track can be a little challenging, but we’ll outline a few of the most common certifications to understand. Claims, on the other hand, are unverifiable statements made in wine marketing or labeling.

Organic certifications for wine

The term “organic” is everywhere. Definitely the most common certification, and not just for wine. Organic food is in nearly every grocery store in the country. Organic is, first and foremost, a soil standard. Certification is focused on soil testing, which reveals any chemical pesticides or fertilizers used. Typically, but not always, that are certified by one of these agencies will have a logo on the label, called a “bug.” When it comes to wine, there are three main ways you’ll see “organic” used:

  • Organic Wine: These wines meet the standard of one of the certifying agencies, such as the USDA or EU (European Union). The grapes are grown in vineyards whose soil has been certified, and the wines meet a few additional standards for production. Notably, the USDA does not permit any added sulfur in certified organic wines, while the EU and similar certifying agencies around the world do allow for added sulfur.
  • Made With Organic Grapes: Primarily found in the United States, this language on a wine label means the grapes were grown in a vineyard that is certified organic, but something in the winemaking process [usually the addition of sulfur] does not meet the standard to be called “organic wine”. 
  • Practicing Organic: You won’t see this on a label, but you may hear it used in wine shops or at tastings. Producers will tell you that this means the winemaker is adhering to organic production standards, but the cost of certification is too much for them to take on. I think this is an excuse, as organic certification is not that expensive

Biodynamic wine vs. organic wine

You could almost think of “biodynamic” as “organic plus,” since all biodynamic farmers practice organic methods of production–it’s a requirement of biodynamic farming. The biodynamic standard was first established in 1924, so it actually predates the term “organic farming” by about 15 years. Focused on creating healthy ecosystems, biodynamic farming allows even fewer pesticides and fertilizers to be used than organic farming. There is also a less scientific side to biodynamics, involving moon cycles and various “treatments” that must take place at specific times throughout the year. Now, a lot of those requirements can seem like voodoo, but the overall goal of maintaining a balanced ecosystem is incredibly beneficial, so who am I to question the wine gods?

There are several certifying agencies for biodynamic agriculture, but Demeter is by far the largest and most well recognized. How can you tell if the wine you’re drinking has been certified by Demeter? Sneak a peek at the bottle and look for this logo (the “bug” we referred to earlier). You’ll see it on future vintages of all of our varietals. We’re proud of the recognition, and while we have to pay a little extra to use the logo on our bottles, we think it’s a crucial step for full transparency.

Is regenerative agriculture the new organic?

The new kid on the block is regenerative agriculture, or RegenAg for short. This is a modern, science-based approach to creating healthy, balanced ecosystems. While this standard has amazing potential and, in my opinion, the best focus, there are a few requirements that may make it prohibitive to many grape-growing farmers. Notably, RegenAg’s requirement to integrate livestock into fields requires produce farmers [including grape growers] to learn to be ranchers. 

Claims made in wine marketing

Aside from certifications, there are many claims you’ll see on wine labels and in wine advertising. Terms like “sustainable,” “green,” and “eco-friendly” are three commonly seen claims. These should raise your suspicions, as there is no way governing agency or way to verify what “green” truly means to the wine producer. The biggest, most chemical-dependent wineries in the world can claim to be sustainable, for example, if they put some solar panels on the roof of their tasting room. 

Until recently, many brands were using the questionable term “clean wine” to insinuate their product was somehow healthier for you [any health claims around wine are a big red flag]. Recently, the Tax and Trade Board (TTB) finally drew a line and said such claims are not allowed. Even the word “natural” can be a red flag, although there is some movement towards establishing a recognized standard for natural wine.

It’s important to remember that a lot of this language is used to intentionally confuse customers. Disingenuous brands are hoping to make it difficult to separate the truth from the noise. At the end of the day, third party certifications are the only reliable way to know if your wine meets expectations. Organic, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture are all excellent standards that come with third-party verification you can trust.