17 Jun Organic vs. Biodynamic vs. Natural Wine—What’s the Difference?
Interest in organic, biodynamic, and natural wines is at an all-time peak. At the Wine Shoppe we have and continue to promote many wines that can be described with these terms. But what do those terms really mean? With little or no certification process for these wines it is sometimes hard to tell what you are getting. As a consumer with an interest in discovering what all the fuss is about, your best bet is to gain a basic understanding of that these terms really mean. So let’s start with the basics:
Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, which typically excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Wine production comprises two main phases – that which takes place in the vineyard (i.e. grape growing) and that which takes place in the winery (i.e. fermentation of the grapes into wine, bottling etc.). The baseline definition of organic wine as “wine made with grapes farmed organically”, deals only with the first phase (grape growing). There are numerous potential inputs which can be made during the second phase of production in order to ferment and preserve the wine. The most universal wine preservative is Sulphur Dioxide. The issue of wine preservation is central to the discussion of how organic wine is defined. Wine matures over time, and it is widely considered that certain types of wines improve with aging, as the flavors become more integrated and balanced. As a result, the greatest percentages of wines are produced in a way that allows them to last, sometimes as long as decades. The use of added sulfites is debated heavily within the organic winemaking community. Many vintners favor their use for stabilization of wine, while others frown on them. Currently the only effective preservatives that allow wines to last for a long period are ‘non-organic’. While there are a growing number of producers making wine without added preservatives, it is generally acknowledged that these wines are for consumption within a few years of bottling. In the United States, wines certified “organic” under the National Organic Program cannot contain added sulfites, but wines labelled as “wine made from organic grapes” can.
Biodynamic wines are wines made employing biodynamic methods both to grow the fruit and during the post-harvest processing. Biodynamic agriculture is a form of alternative agriculture very similar to organic farming, but it includes various esoteric concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Initially developed in 1924, his was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives. Biodynamic wine production uses organic farming methods (e.g. employing compost as fertilizer and avoiding most pesticides) while also employing soil supplements prepared according to Rudolf Steiner’s formulas, following a planting calendar that depends upon astronomical configurations, and treating the earth as a living and receptive organism. Biodynamic winemakers claim to have noted stronger, clearer, more vibrant tastes, as well as wines that remain drinkable longer. Biodynamic wines are more “floral”
Sustainable winemaking is a systems perspective of integration of the natural and human resources, involving environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Some farmers take additional steps beyond standard organic winemaking to apply sustainable farming practices. Examples include the use of composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to the health of the vines. Sustainable practices in these vineyards can also extend to actions that have seemingly little or nothing to do with the production of grapes such as providing areas for wildlife to prevent animals from eating the grapes and allowing weeds and wildflowers to grow between the vines. Sustainable farmers may use bio-diesel for tractors in the vineyards to reduce emissions among the vines, or plough with horses. They often employ power from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Natural wine is wine made with minimal chemical and technological intervention, both in growing grapes and making them into wine. While no official definition exists, natural wine is considered to be an approach to winemaking both employed in the vineyards and the cellar, and certain commonalities can be found between most producers. Biodynamic, organic and/or sustainable farming practices outside the winery are carried inside and applied to the winemaking process with little to no chemical or technological manipulation. These wines are fermented spontaneously with native yeast. None of the winemaking additives allowed by U.S. law are used in the process, except for a small amount of sulfur before bottling, if needed for additional stabilization. Wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined (steps meant to clarify wine by removing dissolved solids). New oak is generally rejected because of the flavors it imparts on the wine, as is any other technique that significantly alters the wine’s makeup. It’s this hands-off approach in the winery that sets natural wines apart from organic and biodynamic bottlings. Because of the high-risk nature of crafting wines without intervention, and labor-intensive techniques (hand-picking, foot crushing, basket pressing, etc.), natural wines are often made in very small quantities and can be more expensive than mass-produced, conventional wines.
Where to buy? In the U.S., big cities generally have the best selections, and independent retailers are the way to go. If a wine shop doesn’t specialize in natural wine, just ask the staff. There’s a good chance the store may stock a few. Of course, here in Nashville we think we have a pretty solid selection and our staff at The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills would be happy to get you started!!!
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