While trends come and go in the wine world, the movement towards minimal intervention and environmental consciousness – both in grape growing and winemaking – is on a steady rise. We see the words “natural,” “organic,” and “biodynamic” popping up on bottles from every wine producing region in the world, and as wine lovers, we’re eating this stuff up. But before you go off and stock your cellar up with all the natural wine you can get your hands on, let’s break these terms down and decide if they’re worth seeking out.
For a wine to be labeled “organic,” it has to be made using organically-grown grapes. Organic viticulture is a way of farming that avoids the use of chemical and human-made products such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides while employing management techniques meant to work with naturally occurring processes in the vineyard. This includes planting other crops that might attract helpful insects and ward off harmful pests, thus creating a balanced ecosystem.
Fortunately for us, the term “organic” has legal backing, which means that grape growers have to not only abide by certain rules, they have to prove they’re doing so and get certified. Unfortunately for us, the rules vary from country to country. Look for labels that specify “certified organic” or “grown from certified organic grapes,” because this guarantees that a producer has been deemed official by the magical organic gods, i.e., a third-party, non-government organization accredited by a country’s department of agriculture.
In the United States and Canada, “organic wine” is made from organic grapes and has no added sulfites (though it is not sulfite-free, because sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation). In the EU, an “organic wine” is made from organic grapes and can also have a small percentage of added sulfites. Beware that wines labeled as “made from organic grapes” can legally have a certain amount of added sulfites, because the term “organic” used here refers to the grape growing and not necessarily the winemaking.
Biodynamic viticulture is sometimes seen as an extreme and somewhat esoteric version of organic farming. There is a significant focus on creating a self-sustaining environment within the vineyard. Producers listen to the natural rhythms of the sun, earth, and moon and use these “forces” to creating equilibrium with nature. True practitioners will go as far as to bury animal horns filled with manure and a specialized mix of medicinal plants to fertilize their land. Some collect pest insects, burn them, and sprinkle the ashes onto the soil believing that this will prevent future infestations.
Biodynamic practices also extend into the cellar, where winemakers will start fermentation and bottling based on the biodynamic calendar that focuses on the cycles of the moon.
Confused? Yeah, we are too. There are pretty strict rules around biodynamic viticulture, even more so than for those that follow organic practices. A vineyard needs to be officially certified as biodynamic by Demeter International, Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-dynamique (also known as “Biodyvin”), or by the Australian government. So from a consumer standpoint, that’s pretty legit – unless Saturn is in retrograde.
“Natural wine” is usually tossed around by producers that generally follow organic and even biodynamic practices but that also reduce human and technological intervention in the cellar. This means little to no added sulfites, less aggressive or even no filtering and fining, and no added sugar to beef up a wine’s final alcohol content (this is done to make up for less than perfectly ripe grapes).
This style of winemaking is not without its critics, who argue that natural wines are less stable and can spoil much faster than standard wines. These wines are also more susceptible to wild yeasts and bacteria that can add a layer of funky flavors, which may not be particularly appealing.
The one thing to keep in mind is that while natural wine is increasingly fashionable, it doesn’t have any legal backing and no organizations are giving out official certifications. While producers of natural wine may practice organic or biodynamic viticulture, they may not receive the official certification, either. Some producers may be very serious about crafting wines with minimal intervention, but others could be taking advantage of this trend and using the term as a marketing ploy.
Wines with these labels are worth seeking out if you’re interested in producers that are conscious of their environmental impact. These wines may also offer you a new experience, which is a welcome reprieve from the sea of generic, boring wine that kind of all tastes the same. But always remember that these practices do not immediately equate to quality. Good and bad wine exists no matter how much a producer takes Mother Gaia into account – and the hangover might not be any different either.