What Do These Mean? Organic, Biodynamic, Natural Wine

There are lots of labels thrown around in the wine world these days like organic, biodynamic and natural, but they can be confusing. If you eyes have already glazed over with the complexity of the wine vocabulary, more technical terms can feel like an overload.

In general, all of these terms refer to using natural processes in the vineyards and intervening less in the cellar than would be allowed in the making of conventional/industrial wine. One of the main problems with conventional/industrial agriculture is that the fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides kill micro-organisms in the soil. Here is a photo of biodynamic humus or “500” that reverses that process.

For simplicity sake, you can think of “organic” to “natural” as a range with “biodynamic” somewhere in the middle. But there can be overlap. Some wines are organic, biodynamic and natural all at once.

This chart, created by Vins Sains (Healthy Wine) in France shows what visually the different regulations for each type of wine as well as the limits for added sulfites (SO2), an antibacterial agent. It is entitled…”Wine: Fermented Grape Juice” (Larger Version)

Source: Vins-Sains.org

For the first bottle, Conventional Wine, over sixty processes and products are allowed as well as 150 mg/liter of sulfites in red wine and 200 mg/liter in white wine. This kind of wine is a newcomer in the long history of wine that goes back to 5,000BC. It only came into being in the sixties with the rise of industrial agricultural methods, and later, the desire to tailor wine with additives (EU allowed additives) and processes in the cellar in order to make wine without defects and later, to win higher point scores. (Read more about The Problem with Point Scores.)

The Organic Wine certification indicates that the grapes are organic. The label means that no products have been used to treat the vines other than sulfur and copper (two traditional means of protecting the vines against various types of mold primarily). In the cellar, however, many additives and processes are still allowed such as heating, using commercial yeasts for fermentation, adding gum, acids, tannins, clarification and thinning agents etc. (EU guidelines)

Biodynamic Wine is certified by the Demeter Association, whose principles are founded on a series of lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1921. Steiner foresaw the problems of industrial agriculture, beginning with nitrogen fertilizer , which had recently been invented. The fertilizer stimulates plant growth while depleting the soil and killing the micro-organisms that naturally enrich it.

At its most basic level, biodynamic agricultural methods stimulate the micro-organisms and enrich the soil through natural means. But Steiner’s approach is much broader in the sense that it has an energetic/spiritual component based on the concept that everything in the cosmos is connected, that all are one. For more technical and complete information, check out my review of Monty Waldin’s book on Biodynamic Wine. 

According to the Demeter Association, a few things can be used for filtration (egg whites, bentonite clay, winemaker’s carbon and micro filtration) and sugar can be added. In reality, most biodynamic wine is also “natural” wine and does not contain these products. The biodynamic wine association in Italy is Renaissance Italia.

It is important to note that biodynamic processes are not vegan because some of them include the use of animal products. One example is burying a cow horn with manure inside for the winter then, in the spring, mixing the resulting “humus” into water that is then, sprayed in the vineyard to stimulate the growth of micro-organisms in the soil.

Natural Wine (AVN above) 
Natural Wine with no added sulfites (Vins Sains above)
“Natural Wine” is not a certification, but the self-proclaimed classification means that the wine contains only grapes– nothing has been added or subtracted in the vineyard or in the cellar (except possibly a small amount of sulfites at bottling). In Italy, the VinNatur Association, a group of natural wine producers, submit their wines for testing to assure that they contain no traces of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. nor do they contain cellar additives.

The most important thing to know is that less than 5% of all wine is in one of these categories (whether officially certified or not).  But more and more of these wines are appearing in shops/restaurants/wine bars etc. The fun and advantages of seeking them out is:

  • Putting fewer potentially toxic chemicals into your body (In one study ten out of ten California wines tested positive for Monsanto’s “Round Up” weedkiller.)
  • Exposing yourself to lower levels of sulfites (Read more about Sulfites)
  • Drinking wine with character and personality related to terroir and vintage year as opposed to homogenized/standardized tastes
  • Discovering new tastes and grape varieties that are “real” not manufactured in the cellar

I don’t necessarily like every organic/biodynamic/natural wine I try, but I’m finding that the wines I like best fall into these general categories. Not surprisingly, the most interesting wines are often linked to the most interesting winegrowers, and the most interesting winegrowers are seeking out ways to intervene less and let their grapes and terroir have the last word.

For that reason, I love traveling in Italy, meeting the winegrowers, hearing their stories and sharing them with you here. Knowing the winegrowers, understanding how they make their wines, seeing the vineyards and tasting their wines is still the best way to find drinkable, beautiful wines.

May, 2018

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Tags: biodynamic, biodynamic wine, Italian wine, Natural, natural wine, organic, organic wine, Red wine, white wine
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