Beyond the buzzwords: understanding organic, biodynamic and natural wine
Lately, there has been a lot of buzz around “clean wines” and so many producers are keen to add buzzwords like “organic,” “biodynamic,” “sustainable” or “natural” to their wine labels to get behind the craze. Since these terms are NOT in fact interchangeable, we break down what exactly they mean in this blog post so you can make informed choices about what kind of wine you’re buying.
This is just like food with an organic stamp - this certification is government regulated and certifies that no artificial chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides have been used while growing the grapes. The details of the certification differ by continent - for instance, a certified organic wine in the United States can have no added sulfites, while a certified organic wine in Europe can.
The certification does cost the producer money to obtain, so smaller producers with less profits may be unable to afford it - hence, this doesn’t mean that just because they don’t have the label, they don’t farm organically. It’s not uncommon to come across a wine that is “made with organic grapes” but lacks the certification.
This is wine that is usually organically farmed, but the winery itself has also taken extra steps to be environmentally and socially responsible, such as energy and water conservation.
Solar powered vineyard
Unlike organic wine, biodynamic wine is not a government regulated term. But, they do follow strict agricultural rituals based on the ideologies of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. While biodynamic vineyards are also anti-chemical and use sustainable, organic farming methods, they’re also about treating the vineyard as an ecosystem that must be kept in balance. To keep the soil and ecosystem healthy, crops other than grapes are planted and the farm is viewed as a single organism. Animals such as sheep and horses live on the soil to fertilize it to create rich environments for grapes and other plants to grow in.
Other aspects of biodynamic wine are a bit more strange, especially in regards to compost and field preparations. One example includes stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them in the vineyard through winter, then later excavating them and spreading the contents of the horn throughout the vineyard. Biodynamic farming also takes astrology and the lunar calendar into account.
Where biodynamic wine is about what you do during the winemaking process, natural wine is about what you don’t do. While the term “natural wine” is ambiguous, it generally means that the grapes are grown without chemicals or pesticides, are dry-farmed and handpicked, use native yeast, have no additives or fining agents, and use little to no filtering or sulfites. These wines are also classified as “low intervention”. Nothing is added, and nothing is taken away. In a sense, while it’s trendy now, it’s actually the most traditional way to make fermented grape juice.
Due to minimal sulfites, natural wine can be an alternative for those who have sensitivities or allergies to sulfites. This isn’t to say that sulfites are an evil thing that must be avoided and boycotted at all costs! They’re simply a preserving agent that keeps the wine tasting as the winemaker designed once it goes into a bottle, and if it’s travelling to you from faraway lands, that it gets to your glass as it was intended.
Do they taste all that different?
In some ways, yes! Because nothing is added to the wine, the wine’s characteristics are heavily terroir driven. Natural wines are often more cloudy than a ‘normal’ wine and have less conventional colours, and their texture can range from gritty to smooth. For the most part, these wines are meant to be drank young and not aged in a cellar.
These wines are like any other time where there are people exploiting a trend, but there are also very beautiful examples of organic, biodynamic or natural wine out there. You’re just going to have to try them for yourself - we have shelf talkers in store that indicate if a wine is organic to give you a start!