What are the differences between Natural, Organic and Biodynamic wine?
With the global shift towards healthier living, fighting climate change, and animal welfare, all industries are feeling the effects of our focus on living a more ethical and sustainable lifestyle.
So how are we making changes?
I love that by April 2020 the UK will have banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Our supermarkets are rolling out stores with completely packaging free sections for buying fruit and veg – Thank you Morrisons for starting this. We all know how we can get cheaper caffeine fixes in the coffee chains by presenting our own personal drinking vessel. Last year Bestival (A 4-day summer festival) started selling only fully recyclable aluminium cans of water rather than plastic ones, and in terms of health according to the Vegan Society, there are now nearly 550,000 Vegans in the UK.
So how is this affecting the wine industry?
In between sipping our way through Kale Smoothies and tucking into our Avocado on Sourdough toast, we as a nation are becoming more conscious of where our food and drink are coming from and starting to ask: “What is actually inside this?”
Stepping away from conventional winemaking styles, I have observed as the terms’ Organic’, ‘Biodynamic’ and ‘Natural’ are increasingly thrown around in conversations amongst wine consumers, but the same misconceptions continue to emerge. There seems to be a doubt as to what each category actually means. So let me break this down for you.
What is organic wine?
This is the most straightforward topic of all as an organic wine simply means a wine made from organically farmed grapes. It is all about the attitude to chemicals, or better said, lack of. These grapes are free of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and any artificial fertilisers. Happy, fresh, tasty grapes. Along with this, the sulphur levels (these are used to stabilise the wine and protect it from oxidising) are generally lower (fewer headaches? We will discuss this later) and in America, organic wines have NO ADDED SULPHER at all.
When did Organic wine start getting popular?
In the early 20th century, there were copious organic vineyards and numerous pioneers of this type of farming. However, traction began in the 1970s when people’s wellbeing and the carbon footprint that we leave on this world became a focal point in the media and around the dinner
table. This was encouraged by the outset of organic food stores. However, the antagonists in this story were the larger wineries. It’s crazy to think that in the past, due to feeling threatened, these established wineries were financing studies to prove that organic wine wasn’t healthier. Concurrently there was a sizeable amount of organic wineries releasing wines with too little sulphates meaning these wines were spoiling before getting to the final consumer. Retailers pigeonholed all organic wines as too much of a risk, rather than seeking out the organic producers who knew how to produce exceptional and stable wines.
In the last decade, the attitude to organic wines has not only advanced substantially, but people’s beliefs and perspective towards the benefits of this winemaking style have been encouraged by the increase in fine dining restaurants focusing on smaller production, terroir-focused wines made with organic philosophies. In 2012 European legislation finally came in and that cleared up the rules for organic farming as before people were using the words ‘Raw’ and ‘Natural’.
Lastly, the niche category of Biodynamic wines that has carved a reputation for quality has benefited the organic wine industry due to their close link of winemaking techniques. We will get on to Biodynamic shortly.
So how do you get certified?
There are many different certification boards out there, and it takes about 3 years to be certified with yearly audits after that. There is always a lot of controversy on the loopholes and different rules between organic boards, but hey, in general, you know you are getting some pretty clean
and untainted juice.
So is it healthier?
The answer is definitely yes. Just like all organic products, the less artificial products we put in our bodies, the better. But do not take the word organic as a testimony that it will be a better wine. There are still bad winemakers out there that choose not to use chemicals. Also keep in mind that there are countries such as Chile, with excellent climates that farm organically with ease, so they don’t feel the need to certify themselves. Many non-certified wineries now are farming with an organic focus. This shift is forever increasing. Does all this sound good, well Biodynamic wines take it even further.
What is biodynamic wine?
This is a more natural process. It is an approach to winemaking that is spiritual, ethical and ecological. It is believed that by working with our ecosystem and finding ways to nourish the earth, that respect to nature rewards you with the purest agricultural product. Chemicals on the plants and land are strictly prohibited, making this principle the same as organic farming, but the rest goes much deeper.
What are the biodynamic principles in the vineyard?
You must plant and harvest the vines at certain times determined by the lunar cycle. Some people think these philosophies are slightly crazy, but if the moon can control the tides, is it such a strange idea to believe that the moon’s location can affect how the soil behaves?
This is broken down into four specific days: Fruit days are for harvesting, Leaf days are when you should water the plants, Root days are for pruning the vines, and on Flower days you give the vineyard some alone time. Interestingly enough if you ever go to a wine tasting with professionals, you will hear them commenting on what day it is in the Biodynamic calendar. The
theory is that drinking wine on a Fruit or Flower day brings out more of the aromatics and fresher flavours than on a Leaf or Root day. Poppycock? Pay attention to the Lunar calendar when you are drinking wine and see what you think.
You must use 9 different preparations to fertilise the vineyards, and they are all based on cow manure, plants and minerals. One of the most spoken about preparations in biodynamic winemaking is burying in the ground a cows horn filled with manure during the winter months. When spring starts, this cows horn is dug up, and the contents are used as a fertiliser. This is thought to stimulate the microbial activity in the soil.
Cover crops are planted between the rows of vines for diversity. Many of these plants will be Chamomile and Stinging nettles, which play a significant role in the 9 preparations mentioned above.
When did biodynamic wine start?
This became better known in the 1920s when an Austrian Philosopher named Rudolf Steiner began promoting his ideas about taking care of the land and respectfully working with it. More and more wine producers are now turning to Biodynamic practises. Some embrace it entirely, others are flirting around with certain principles and leaving others. But if anyone thinks that is only for the small boutique wineries, Emiliana Organico (Concha y Toro’s organic brand in Chile) has certified 600 hectares of vineyards as biodynamic. So the future for this practise has the potential to expand and flourish.
What is natural wine?
This means minimal intervention in every part of the winemaking process. The principle is you do not add anything to the wine, and you do not take anything away. The fermentations are spontaneous, and the yeasts for this process are wild. You can’t add in any enzymes or additives to enhance colour, tannin or acidity. The wine is unfiltered and unfined, which can mean the wine is cloudy or sediments are floating around. These wines are Vegan and Vegetarian as no egg whites or fish bladders (yes I know – sorry guys) were used to fine the wine. There is no added sulphur, so many natural wines have a cider twang as they have begun to oxidise. The maximum level of sulphur allowed seems to be 70mg/l however there is no regulation board for natural wine, only a general consensus among the natural winemaking community. They are very unlikely to have any oak influence as this is seen as tarnishing the flavour of the real wine. It may taste funky, or like cider. Perhaps a little sour, but you will always get a unique wine, in it’s purest and healthiest element.
When did natural wine begin receiving attention?
Everything started in the 1970s in a town called Morgon, which is one of the ten “Crus” in Beaujolais, France. Jules Chauvet and Jacques Neoport along with Marcel Lapierre were fed up with all the chemical being used in the industry and set about to change things and spread the word on how wine can be made. The “Gang of Four”, who really made some significant changes in Beaujolais showcasing that the Gamay grape from this region could be made in a serious style, embraced this natural way of working and from there it has spread through Europe.
Issues with natural wine
What stops natural wine becoming mainstream is its lack of consistency. There are a few producers that have been making wine for decades in a natural way and have impeccable terroir, allowing them to produce distinctive and age-worthy wines but for the majority of winemakers, they can find that the same juice from the same vintage but ageing in different tanks can be completely different.
Because of the lack of preservatives, there is a higher risk of oxidation and spoilage. Constant temperatures of around 14 degrees are critical; however, this temperature control costs money. The understanding of temperatures and careful handling is increasing as more producers are attempting to make their own natural wines, so this is improving the quality.
Consumers are unfamiliar with the funkiness and reductive nature of the wine or that it may carry a little fizz when first opened. If you decant these wines and wait a while the fizz and funk can often calm down.
Natural wine will always stay a niche because making good natural wine demands a lot of attention.
And now the question everyone really wants to know:
Will these wines stop me from getting a hangover?
Sadly there is no guarantee of this. However, all of these wines are more natural, and when fewer chemicals are used, the juice is cleaner so it certainly must be better for your body. I am sorry to tell you there is no science to actually prove that Sulphates (which is what typically receives the worst attention in the media) are causing you headaches. More often than not, you are simply drinking too much wine.
Wine events specifically for Natural, Organic and Biodynamic wines are increasing here in the UK.
If you are interested in learning more about these wines and deciding for yourself if they express a better terroir and showcase the healthier ecosystem in which they came, you can look up the following fairs which showcase annualy.
- The Real wine Fair
- Raw Wine
- Wine car boot (often has sellers specialising in natural and organic wines such as Dynamic Vines, forest wines, Les Caves des Pyrene, Natural Born Wine, Passione Vin)
It is an ongoing debate as to whether biodynamic and organic wines are better than conventional wine. They are certainly healthier, but with natural wines inconsistency, it’s up to each person to decide what they want from their wine and how it tastes. While Isabelle Legeron MW (the flag-bearer for natural wine) is pushing to show that natural wine can age for up to 50 years, in general, I think it is still fair to say it’s best to drink your most naked wines in the first few years of their lives.
I mentioned above about the Raw wine Fair. Harry Crowther (wine consultant, journalist and Brand Ambassador) and I decided to get up close and personal with the people attending the wine fair to see if natural wine really is the drink of choice or if it is more of a fad. Come on the journey with us, where we will also be tasting some of our favourites.
Have you had natural wines? Are you into wines made in a biodynamic way? Let me know in the comment below.