What's In a (Wine) Label?

What's In a (Wine) Label?

Jane Braxton Little
Published: 03/16/2011

Bamboozled by wine bottle labels? Join the in crowd! Within the wine industry, the system regulating labeling is widely regarded as ridiculously confusing.

My exploration of winemaking for the current issue of Audubon raised as many questions as answers. Decoding the labeling system, I learned, requires understanding the three major approaches to eco-friendly agriculture, the government codes that enforce them and a generous jigger of patience. The reward is making an informed choice that endorses an environmental philosophy – and, of course, enjoying the wine itself.

SUSTAINABLE – Sustainable growers are committed to agricultural practices that are not only ecologically sound but also economically viable and socially responsible. Their vineyards use compost and cover crops to enrich the soil. They limit but do not prohibit chemicals. Some practice organic farming both with and without official certification. The wines contain sulfites, added for stability and consistency. Labels include "naturally farmed" and "sustainably grown." Wines that use sulfites below 100 parts per million may use the label "made with organic grapes."

ORGANIC – Organic growers use no synthetic fungicides, herbicides or pesticides. They also prohibit all sewage- or sludge-based fertilizers. Their vineyards are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after three years of chemical-free production. Organic certification is limited to growing and production; it does not include requirements for recycling, packaging or employee relations. Wineries earn organic certification by using only organically grown grapes and approved processing aids. No sulfites may be added. Labels include "organic wine," "USDA organic "and" 100 percent organic."

BIODYNAMIC – Biodynamic farmers view the land as a living organism, an approach developed at the turn of the last century by German philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Growers emphasize building soils and biodiversity through an interrelationship of plants and animals on the land. The Demeter Association certifies growing and producing biodynamic wines in a three-year process that involves the entire farm, not just the vineyards. Sulfites must not exceed 100 parts per million from crush through bottling. In addition to "biodynamic wine," labels include "wines made from biodynamic grapes" and "wines made from Demeter certified grapes."

Cheers! Skaal! Kampai!