It’s time to reconnect with your taste buds and the timeless history of ‘real’ wine!
Natural wine, organic wine, biodynamic wine, sustainable wine; let’s travel beyond conventional wine-making practices to a place where the bottom line has given way to those who want to provide ‘healthier’ wine options.
I have started my journey; trying various organic wines and I have to say, I like them! My local supply is limited to organic wine, and those with no detectable sulfites are few and far between, but I do plan on stretching my wings and trying some natural wines soon. I like the taste, and other than some sediment here and there, I give them a thumbs up!
Let’s delve into the definitions of these ‘healthier’ wine options.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is the purist form of wine available. Those at the forefront of this age old phenomenon see it as fermented grape juice and little else. As I see it, when a sip of natural wine hits your palate, you should feel as one with the earth, the farmer, and the vine. . .you should feel a part of their very uncomplicated love story. Natural wine incorporates sustainable, organic, and in many cases, biodynamic farming techniques (described below). It also goes beyond these practices by focusing on the true authenticity of the wine.
“Natural wines are a nostalgic snapshot of what wine was like before hi-tech got involved.” (1)
What is organic wine?
It originates comes from organically farmed vineyards where the grapes are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Unlike Natural wine, the grapes ‘can’ be harvested by machine, and the vinification process can include additives and sulfites.
“Essentially, organic wine is wine made in the way that our ancestors made it before World War II when pesticides became widely used. Today, modern research on organic growing has made it possible to produce both high yields and high quality without putting toxic substances on to the vines or into the soil and water.” (2)
What is biodynamic wine?
It originates from biodynamic farming techniques practiced in the 1920’s. Biodynamic farming treats the farm as a living organism; an ecosystem. Founded on the teachings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner (circa 1924), it promotes a holistic approach to farming where the farmer, the land, the livestock, and the cosmos (lunar and astrological influences) all have a hand in keeping the farm healthy and rejuvenated. For example, the waste from one part of the farm, say fruit, can be used in the soil of another part of the farm to promote renewal. It’s all about being diverse, using what nature has provided, conserving resources like water and soil, and making the farm self-sufficient and not depleted in any way.
What is sustainable wine?
It takes the stance that socially responsible farming techniques include being both ecologically and economically sound. Sustainable practices do not make use of irrigation, heavy machinery, or pollution from spraying pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. It is all about preservation, giving back and farming for tomorrow.
Now that you’re educated…
As you can see, there are a multitude of choices. But, whether it’s natural or organic, uses sustainable, biodynamic, or organic farming techniques, it all gets down to your personal code of ethics, what your body can process, and what tastes good to you.
How to know what you’re drinking; certification regulations.
“Not all grapes grown organically are certified as organic, and not all wines made from certified organic grapes display this on the label. But certification is a useful guarantee.” (3)
Just as wine labels include regions, vintage, year, etc., they also ‘may’ include certification seals, if they want to be considered organic or biodynamic. There are strict rules for adherence as well as cost (some don’t get certification because it costs too much) that factors into this process, but it’s how the consumer can tell what they’re buying. Certifications are many, and can be somewhat confusing because there are so many nuances and variations from country to country.
Biodynamics has an independent certification system managed worldwide by Demeter International and in the U.S. by Demeter USA. A Demeter certification means the entire farm must meet acceptance and not just individual fields or crops, like organic certification. It is illegal to claim biodynamic status without being certified by Demeter. In the U.S., the farm land must first meet the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), and then can qualify for Demeter certification.
According to USDA.gov, guidelines for organic labeling offer a range of possibilities which include: ‘100% organic’, ‘organic’, ‘made with organic ingredients’, ‘made with organic and non-organic ingredients, and products restricted to an ‘organics ingredients’ statement. Those options, in the order presented, decline in the amounts of organic ingredients they possess, and therefore have different labeling requirements, including whether a ‘certified organic by’ statement or certification seals are present. Take a look at, Wine with organic references (pdf).
“There are strict guidelines and time requirements for a vineyard to become organic, so in all likelihood, if a producer has gone through this lengthy process, they will proudly display a certification emblem on their label. Other terms can be misleading… “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “green” and “eco-conscious” aren’t legally defined terms. The terms to look for are: “wines made from organically grown grapes” or simply “organic wine”. These are the terms that matter. If an organic certification emblem is also present, then you’re getting what you’re paying for.” (4)
“So far, it seems that the USA has the toughest criteria for a wine to be called an ‘organic’ wine. In Europe, once grapes hit the winery however, different rules apply and all sorts of things can be added.” (5)
In the U.S., sulfites are not permitted in “organic wine”(meaning those certified organic) (2011), whereas in the Europe, sulfites can be included in “organic wine”(2012).
There are none. It’s unchartered territory because no certifications currently exist for ‘natural wine’. So, what you would look for is organic or biodynamic certification. Currently, ‘natural wine’ has no legal status, in and of itself.
“Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.” (6)
In the End…
If you are interested in this brave new world of natural and organic wine, you still have more homework to do. You have to ask yourself, “What is most important to me: Should I buy wines harvested from organic, biodynamic, or sustainable vineyard farming techniques, and should it be vegan, sulfite-free, contain minimal sulfites and additives? Only you can answer these questions, but, there is a lot of information out there to help you!
Where to buy?
Grocery stores, liquor stores, and specialty wine shops all carry healthier wine options. Check them out, then check specific vineyards out online to get more detailed explanations of their philosophies and practices. You can also look online at wine importers and wine sellers that can ship wine to you. They also have a huge amount of information to educate you on your purchase. When it comes to dining out, finding organic and natural wines can be difficult. The most success I’ve had so far is in the sustainable category.
The Organic Wine Company out of San Francisco, CA, has an excellent website chocked full of information; in particular, how to store wine before it’s opened, how to store it once it’s opened, and information on decanting and aerating wine. http://theorganicwinecompany.com/how-to-store-wine-serve-taste/
Isabelle Legeron gives you an overview of Natural wine- very informative. http://www.isabellelegeron.com/news/basic-introduction-natural-wine
Jenny and Francois Selections give more information about natural wine – very informative. http://www.jennyandfrancois.com/
Frey Vineyards, a wine I have found locally, gives great information on the organic side of wine-making. http://www.freywine.com/
Arguments for natural and organic wine.
What natural wine advocates have to say…
Isabelle Legeron – France’s only female Master of Wine and advocate for Natural Wine.
“We have essentially reduced what used to be a ‘live’ product to being a dead, homogenised drink. We have beaten the life out of the wine. It used to be nutritious, wholesome, flavoursome and full of personality. It is now, by and large, bog-standard and boring. When I discovered natural wines a couple of years ago, I stumbled across an amazing, underground world that made me rethink everything I stood for. Natural wines have purer flavours, more personality and are easier to digest. They are also better for you.”(7)
Jenny and Francois Selections – Importers of Natural Wines.
“Natural wines, pure wines, real wines, wines from the terroir, complex wines, wines for thirst! This philosophy of winemaking differentiates these wines from the all too common taste of technology-driven wines, and offers us what wines should — mystery, romance, and adventure!” (8)
According to Jenny and Francois Selections, good practices in the field are just part of the natural wine story; the chapters to follow must include consistent practices in the winery and on through bottling.
What they say about organic wine…
Those at the forefront of the natural wine movement tend to raise an eyebrow at organic winemaking. “Organic grape growing for us is essential at minimum. But that alone is not enough, because one can grow grapes organically, but remain free to add anything one wants to add during winemaking, and manipulate with technology as much as one wants, yet still retain the organic certification on the label.” –Jenny and Francois Selections
“Organic agriculture is obviously a great starting point and needs to be encouraged but I cannot help but be a little cynical about it in wine terms as in many cases it seems to have become just another marketing message… It’s a shame because organic farming (pesticide-, fungicide-, herbicide-free) is definitely the way forward, but regulations in terms of winemaking are not up to scratch.” –Isabelle Legeron
What organic wine advocates have to say…
The Organic Wine Company – San Francisco, CA http://theorganicwinecompany.com/faqs/#q1
“Essentially, organic wine is wine made in the way that our ancestors made it before World War II when pesticides became widely used. Today, modern research on organic growing has made it possible to produce both high yields and high quality without putting toxic substances on to the vines or into the soil and water.” The company’s focus is on the health and well-being of the consumer, the workers, and the land – keeping them pesticide free.” (9)
Harris Organic -Swan Valley, West Australia http://www.harrisorganicwine.com.au/wine-additives.html
“We do not use wine additives in our organic wines and that’s why we make the best organic wine. Our wines are suitable for vegetarians, vegans and low sodium diets.”
“In the vineyard our aim is to enhance soil bio-diversity and maintain the soil fertility so the grapes can thrive. We do not use any artesian water to irrigate our vines, only from the sky. We believe that not using harmful chemical; pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, our land will be better for our children’s future. We believe in art and science of wine-making, such that a minimal approach is better.” (10)
Frey Vineyards – Redwood Valley, CA http://www.freywine.com/Our-Winemaking-Philosophy/Organic-Wine
“At Frey Vineyards, we combine the best of modern winemaking with traditional winemaking methods to produce award winning 100% organic wines with no sulfites added. We know that quality fruit and careful attention during fermentation and aging are the only ingredients needed to make great organic wine. We never use yeast nutrients or genetically engineered yeast.”
“Grapes grown in healthy, vital soils contain all the nutrition yeast will need to complete a clean and healthy fermentation. High quality, organic fruit also provides an abundant supply of naturally occurring phytochemicals (natural plant compounds) that provide rich and complex flavor components.” (11)