Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Organic, Sustainable, Biodynamic, Natural Wines … A Primer for “Green” Wines

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with Werner Michlits from Weingut Meinklang in Pamhagen in Austria. Weingut Michlits is at the Forefront of Biodynamic Winemaking

A few weeks ago in Pamhagen in Austria in the stone cave below the winery with Werner Michlits, where Werner showed us his magic cow poop and other ingredients for biodynamic farming, I was really at the forefront of winemaking with an ecological mindset. There are many others on this route. But these “green” winemakers come in different colors. I just tasted the Santa Julia wines of Familia Zuccardi, who produce mass wines in Argentina with organic grapes. Argentina, in general, is very well suited for organic winemaking. “We practice sustainable agriculture in the vineyard” said Yann-Leon Beyer when I visited Domaine Leon Beyer in Alsace in France. The Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley produces wine according to the natural wine concept in the midst of the city of Berkeley without owning any vineyards. Researchers have found out that from a point of view of minimizing the carbon footprint, New Yorkers should drink Bordeaux instead of domestic wine from California. The following tries to shed some light on the different concepts of “green” winemaking.


Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals. Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Pictures: Conventional and Organic Vineyard

Unfortunately, while there is a broad consensus what organic vine growing means, there is no agreement on what organic wine making implies. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process and the disagreement is between the US and Europe. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with no added sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with from Familia Zuccardi, who Produce Mass Wines in Argentina with Organic Grapes

Sulfites are generally considered a required addition to a fine wine before bottling for two reasons: to prevent oxidation and prevent bacteria from running wild. This is a time-honored process. The Romans practiced it over 2,000 years ago. So, as a rule all wines produced in the world have been stabilized by adding sulfur, with a few exceptions. One of these exceptions are organic wines made in the US, such as the wine of Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County in California. Frey Vineyards uses other, innovative methods to stabilize wine, which others would consider outside of “green” winemaking.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with one of Oregon's Pioneering Winemakers - Myron Redford - with his Amity Vineyard Wines in Washington DC. Amity Vineyard also Produces Wines Without Adding Sulfur.

Alternatively, in the US, wine made from organically grown grapes is an organic wine a la Europe: Organic in the vineyard, but probably sulfur added in the wine cellar.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Owner/Winemaker Lotte Pfeffer-Müller, Weingut Brueder Dr. Becker in Germany. Lotte Pfeffer-Mueller is the President of "Eco-Vin".


Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as a closed circuit. Thus, farm animals are an integral part of biodynamic winemaking; they should consume the cover crops left between vines and their waste should be then replaced between those vines to rebuild the soil.


Sustainable farming means farming in a way that will allow for continued farming throughout the ages. In its broadest interpretation, sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Although nowhere defined by law, there are many certifications available for “Sustainable Wine.”

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Yann-Leon and Marc Beyer at Maison Beyer in Eguisheim in Alsace. Maison Beyer follows the Concept of Sustainable Winemaking.


The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for Mother Nature. Natural wines are hands-off wines produced with as little intervention as possible. Generally, the concept of natural wine relates more to what happens in the wine cellar rather than what happens in the vineyard. Again, nowhere is the term defined by law; it is left open to interpretation. Typically, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Commercial yeasts are one of the great culprits in today’s homogenization of wine, imparting their own aromas over those of the grape.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with Jared Brandt from the Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley, California. Donkey and Goat Produces in the Middle of Berkeley Natural Wines, where I recently spent a couple of hours with Jared talking about what natural wines is all about.

Carbon Footprint

The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activities have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide. Belgrave Park Winery in Australia, for example, is a completely carbon neutral vineyard and winery. But the concept of cabon footprint should not stop at the gate of the winery. Researchers have found out, for example, that from a point of view of minimizing the carbon footprint, New Yorkers should drink Bordeaux instead of domestic wine from California.

Water Footprint

A new thing is water footprint, reflecting the concern that the planet is moving into a period where water becomes more and more scarce.


Vegan refers to the process of fining the wine - eliminating undesirable items - with fining agents made from animal products, such as fish bladders and egg whites. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines.

schiller-wine: Related Postings

The Natural Wines of the Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley, California

Visiting Jared Brandt and his Donkey & Goat Winery – Natural Wines Made in Berkeley, California

Excellency and Ecology: The Wines of Gebrueder Dr. Becker in Rheinhessen, Germany

Wine Event: President Obama and the First Lady eat at the "Green" Restaurant Nora and have a "Green" Spottswoode Wine

The Millesime Bio 2010 in Montpellier, France: A Discovery of Organic and Biodynamic Wines at the one of a Kind Wine Trade Show

Benzinger Wines Served at the 2010 "Green" Annual White House Correspondents Dinner

The Natural Wines of Terroir in San Francisco

Skype and Biodynamic Winemaking - Winetasting in the US with Winemaker Werner Michlits, Weingut Meinklang, in Austria

At the Forefront of Biodynamic Winemaking: Visiting Werner and Angela Michlits and their Weingut Meinklang in Austria

Julia Zuccardi from Familia Zuccardi in Argentina Visited the US to Introduce New Santa Julia Wines

One of Oregon's Pioneering Winemakers - Myron Redford - with his Amity Vineyard Wines in Washington DC

Visiting Yann-Leon Beyer at Maison Leon Beyer in Eguisheim in Alsace

1 comment:

  1. Christian,
    Thanks for the good words and a good picture of both you and Myron. I understand the wine bloggers conference is in Portland, Oregon in 2012 hope we see you here in wine country. Myron and I would love to show you our winery and the new organic vineyard, orchards and olive grove at our home farm. Keep in touch.
    Vikki Wetle (Myron's wife)
    VP/owner Amity Vineyards