Six Ways to Buy Wine Sustainably

This holiday season, drink green and be merry!

Two glasses of white wine are lit up by lights in the background.
Photo by Sandra Cunningham/Stocksy

Whether you’re popping open some champagne at a holiday party or enjoying a glass of red while wrapping presents, for many, wine is an integral part of the holiday season. But, as booze flows at festive get-togethers, thinking about your ecological footprint can fall by the wayside. In fact, finding sustainable wine can be difficult at any time of year, because there are no standardized, global regulations or certifications for wine sustainability. However, there are small ways you can make wine shopping greener. Asparagus did the research to bring you six tips for buying wine sustainably this holiday season and beyond.

Check the labels

While there is no one global standard or label for wine sustainability, you can look out for regional certifications. Sustainable wine labels exist all over the world. We recommend researching regional labels and certifications to identify ones that set high standards on issues you care about.

For example, Sustainable Winemaking Ontario certifies winemakers and grape growers that adopt environmentally sound practices, in addition to meeting standards around workplace safety and equity. Similarly, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s Certified Sustainable label helps consumers identify wine from California wineries that have adopted environmentally friendly practices, and met standards related to social issues (like workplace safety), and grape quality.

Further North, Sustainable Winegrowing BC helps winemakers in British Columbia prevent pollution, minimize waste, and reduce their use of water, energy, fertilizers, and pesticides. They don’t currently offer a label, but plan to launch a certification in 2020. Those buying wine from the Pacific Northwest can also look for the Salmon Safe certification, which certifies farms that implement practices to preserve rivers and watersheds used by salmon.

Up until 150 years ago, what is now seen as organic was conventional.

Buy organic

Buying organic wine — that is, wine made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic chemicals — is a great way to green your wine consumption. Though synthetic fertilizers and pesticides help prevent grapes from contracting diseases or attracting pests, they often have a negative effect on the environment. They can contaminate the soil and water, and inadvertently harm birds, fish, insects, or helpful plants.

“Up until 150 years ago, probably since 1889, what is now seen as organic was conventional,” says Bill Redelmeier, owner of Southbrook Organic Vineyards in Ontario. “Grapes are a domesticated product. It requires a lot of pruning, cultivation, management. It’s either a high-chemical or a high-labour crop.” Redelmeier sprays his grapes with herbal tea that acts as a natural fertilizer.

Two of the most common organic certifications are USDA Organic and EU Organic, meaning they’re made with 100% organic grapes. Wines can also be labelled as “made with organically grown grapes,” which is a less stringent label than an organic certification, and means different things depending on your location. In the US, this label indicates the wine is made of 100% organic grapes. In Canada, it means the wine is made of at least 70% organic grapes.

Look for biodynamic wine

Less common than organic, the grapes in biodynamic wines are grown with a set of farming practises that view the whole vineyard as one organism, and aim to create a self-sustaining system. Farmers use natural soils, compost, and helpful animals like ducks and horses who fertilize the soil, to create a rich, naturally fertile environment for wine grapes. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are strictly forbidden in biodynamic farming, which aims to leave the land in as good or better condition than before it was farmed.

There is only one major international certification for biodynamic wines: Demeter. This label is managed by a non-profit organization of the same name that certifies a variety of products made with biodynamic agriculture.

In North America, transportation accounts for over half of wine’s carbon footprint.

Buy as local as possible

In North America, transportation accounts for over half of wine’s carbon footprint, according to a 2007 study by the American Association of Wine Economists, which estimated that transporting wine from vineyard to retailers accounts for 50–70% of wine’s carbon emissions.

If you’re lucky enough to live close to a winery, you can cut down on your wine’s carbon footprint by buying your wine directly to avoid emissions from transportation and shipment. Plus, supporting local businesses benefits your entire community!

If buying local isn’t an option, you can still decrease your wine’s impact by choosing wines made closer to you. Generally, the less distance wine has to travel, the lower its carbon footprint. However, the mode of transport matters too. Shipping generates fewer carbon emissions than trucking, which generates fewer carbon emissions than air freight.

Opt for a natural cork

Growing and harvesting natural cork has a relatively low impact on the environment because cork trees don’t have to be cut down to produce cork. Instead, farmers strip the trees of their bark, which they use to make cork, every nine years. In the interim, the bark grows back — all without damaging the tree. Plus, natural cork is biodegradable, so you can toss it into the green bin when you’re done with your wine.

On the other hand, screw caps, which are made from aluminum, often have plastic lining that cannot be easily removed. This makes the whole cap unrecyclable, even if the exterior is recyclable aluminum. Even pure aluminum screw caps can end up in the trash, depending on the policies and capacity of your municipal recycling system.

Synthetic corks, which are made of petroleum-based plastics or plant-based materials, pose a similar problem — they may be hard to recycle or compost, depending on whether the type of plastic used for the cork is accepted by your local recycling or compost facilities.

Even though boxed wines have a low-market reputation, winemakers are making increasingly better ones.

Buy boxed wine

Boxed wines beat out those in glass bottles on a couple of counts when it comes to sustainability. For one, it takes less energy to make cardboard boxes than glass bottles. In addition, boxes are lighter than glass bottles, so less fuel is needed to transport them. According to The New York Times, a standard bottle of wine holds 750 mL of wine and generates about 2.4 kg of carbon emissions when transported from a vineyard in California to a store in New York. Conversely, a standard 3-litre box of wine generates about half the emissions per 750 mL.

Boxed wine can also help reduce food waste, since boxes keep wine fresh for several weeks after opening — much longer than a glass bottle’s couple of days. And even though boxed wines have a low-market reputation, winemakers are making increasingly better ones.

On the flip side, wine boxes typically contain a plastic pouch that holds the wine. While it’s easy to recycle the cardboard box from the package, whether or not you can recycle the plastic pouch depends on whether your local recycling facility accepts it. Glass bottles, in contrast, are widely recycled.

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