What is Sustainable Wine?

Expert winemaker Marcus Ansems on sustainable winemaking and the truth about organics.

Credit: Courtesy Hemispheres Wine Guild

Unfortunately the term “sustainability” has been used, abused, twisted by spin masters and under delivered of late. Sustainable wine is not necessarily organic wine, but it also does not exclude this definition. I often feel that there is some confusion between the concepts of sustainability, organics, preservative-free wine and biodynamics. I will try to clarify these terms.

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The inherent concept is that the product has been made in such a manner that it will allow the vineyards and environment to continue to produce an undiminished product for all future generations.

The main threats to sustainability are the issues of soil depletion, erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, ecological impacts, resistance to pests and chemical dependence. Sustainability looks at the environmental system as a whole. In the vineyard, it may incorporate manmade products or “natural” products, and it will likely use integrated pest management (IPM) techniques. In the winery, minimal-additive winemaking philosophies will always be present.



This definition can be divided into two parts:

Organic vineyards

These vineyards are managed without the use of systemic fungicides (fungus control), insecticides (bug control), herbicides (weed control) or synthetic fertilizers. Vineyard sprays are still used, but the products are different. Metal salts tend to be used for fungus control; e.g. sulfur and copper. Biological agents can be used for insect control; e.g. bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis), parasitic wasps (Trichogramma carverae) or pheromone/food traps. Weeds tend to be controlled via mechanical methods, such as plowing, hoeing, mulching or mowing. Vines can be fertilized via compost mulches, green manures or animal manures.

Organic wine

The official definition differs depending on country of origin but basically it is wine that has been made from “organic grapes” and contains less than 100–120 mg/L of total sulphur dioxide. Sulfur is produced both naturally during fermentation and added to enhance microbiological/oxidative stability. Some “natural” products, such as milk, egg whites or bentonite clays, can also be used to help clarification, filtration and stability.



Preservative-free wine

This wine may or may not be made from organic grapes. These wines are made without any external addition of sulfur (although some is always present due to fermentation and/or vineyard), anti-oxidants or anti-microbial agents. Alcohol, acid, pH, tannins, climate and winemaking all affect the ability of a wine to age. However, most agree that without the addition of some sulfur, wine quality and shelf life is more variable.


Biodynamic viticulture stems from the ideas and suggestions of Rudolf Steiner, whose Agriculture course in 1924 spun off much of the organic movement. It utilizes a holistic approach to farming and views the vineyard as an interrelated unit placing emphasis on the balance between the soil, vines and animals in a close self-nourishing system. This philosophy places high importance on composts and manures without the use of chemical fertilizers. It does use a number of fermented herbal and mineral preparations for compost additives and sprays. The practice also utilizes the astronomical calendar for sowing and planting. Biodynamic wines may be organic or preservative-free. Many famous wineries and vineyards profess to use these techniques.

So which technique makes the best wine?

I have tried some brilliant commercially made wines; I have tried some awesome organics and some fabulous biodynamics. I have also tried dreadful wines from these same categories. The only commonality I can see is that the best wines are invariably made by those people who have passion, creativity, intelligence, great sites and resources.

Which wine is healthiest?

The question of living a healthy lifestyle is now more of a concern for us than ever. I speak to people often who tell me that they are allergic to wine. In my experience most (not all) people are either sensitive to sulfur or histamine. Buying organic wine will not solve that issue because sulfur and histamine are still likely to be present. Histamine is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation and sulfur can still be added (under 100 mg/L).

    Here are some personal tips to reduce your wine allergies:


  • Buy more expensive wine. Expensive wine has more attention paid to it in the production, fewer short cuts are made, therefore less sulfur needs to be added.
  • Avoid sparkling wine and sweet white wines. More sulphur is needed to make these products.
  • If you are sensitive to histamine. Avoid wines that have gone through malolactic fermentation (i.e., most red wines and many chardonnays).
  • Avoid fortified wines. Fortified wines contain brandy spirit, which in turn contains methanol—a major cause of hangovers.
  • Drink less in a sitting. I don’t care what you’re drinking, if you binge drink it will always make you sick.


What does all this mean for the wine buyer?

As you can see, the lines between organic, sustainable, preservative-free and biodynamic wines are overlapping. In my experience, vineyard owners inherently have a sustainable attitude. It is simply in their best interest to keep growing a product that will perform year after year. This is not always the case when larger corporations are involved, but generally for the individual grower, I believe it to be true. In the case of wineries, I believe there is more variability.

Personally, I have decided that the only way I can objectively make an assessment on whether a wine is sustainable is to visit the origin of the product. In that way, I can listen to the creators, look at the vineyards, taste the wines and get a feeling for the product as a whole. It also gives me the opportunity to choose wines made by passionate, thoughtful, forward-thinking people.

Marcus Ansems is a second-generation winemaker who fell in love with wine as a young boy helping with vintage (assisting with the harvest and processing of the wines) in his native home Australia. He graduated from Adelaide University’s Roseworthy program with a Bachelor of Science in Oenology in 1996. Since then, he has worked around the world making wine in South Africa, France, Italy, Australia and Canada.

With many years of experience as winemaker and general manager at multiple wineries, he now applies this knowledge to sourcing great wines for members of Hemispheres Wine Guild, a specialized wine club importing wines to Canada from around the world.