Natural Wine: Natural Phenomenon or Natural Disaster?

As the Raw Wine fair in LA this week could attest, the subject of wine’s provenance and technical make up is becoming more acutely examined by wine drinkers. 

WINE 101: Vegan vs. Organic vs. Biodynamic vs. Natural

It has been common place for the provenance of food to be examined. Consumers want to know where and how their favorite supermarket item has been produced. However, now this curiosity and consideration is being addressed to the wine world.  Organic wine must mean no chemicals? Sustainable wine surely states better quality wine? And perhaps the question I get asked with most horror, how can a wine be vegan?!

Below is a quick summary of the words usually bandied around wine and its relation to our various lifestyle choices. Some are more regulated than others but hopefully this will help demystify labels and the chat of trendy, skinny jean clad Somms.

Vegan Wine

I feel that this category should be addressed first as it can cause unnecessary distress.

No, you are not imbibing diced up animals in your bubbles but some filtration techniques do depend on egg white, gelatin, milk protein or isinglass (fish bladder!). Luckily winemakers are getting better at sticking a label on the back to let you know if the wine is vegan or not. Fining agents from Bentonite or PVPP are vegetarian and vegan.

Organic Wine

2 parts to organic wine:

Wine made from organically grown grapes versus grown in certified organic vineyards.This turns out to be quite confusing as it means one thing in Europe and something different in the States!

USA: “a wine made from organically grown grapes without added sulfites

This  term is only legally definite in very few countries ie USA and Australia. Less than 1% of wines actually do so due to fears of bacterial spoilage.

USA : “Made with Organic grapes”

This is much closer to the EU certification. Grapes have to be organic as well as any additives but up to 100ppm of sulphites can be added.

EU Organic

The latest regulation from the EU states that grapes and additives all need to be organic. Up to 100ppm* of sulphites can be added to red wine and 150ppm to white wine. White wine generally requires more sulphites than reds for preservation from oxidation. That is because the tannin acts as a preservative making sulphur dioxide less necessary.

Something to keep in mind: Many wine makers don’t always apply for organic certification as it is fiddly, expensive and they would prefer to sell their wines on their quality not on commercial/ faddy grounds.

1ppm = 1 part of gas per million parts of air

Sustainable Wine

Wine which has been made sustainably refers to the practices conducted in the winery and in the vineyard which mitigate harm and wastefulness towards the environment. These also tend to be economically viable and socially responsible. Defining sustainability varies depending on the environment it deals with  which explains why there are so many different qualifications and labels out there.

In the State of California alone you will see CCSW (Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery), SIP Certified as well as Certified Green (Lodi).

Do expect to pay more for wines labeled as being sustainable. It is costly to run these practices but at least you know you are supporting the planet. That should encourage you to pour another glass!

Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic and organic farming both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming takes it a step further, incorporating ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. There’s even a whole biodynamic calendar based on the lunar cycles which tells you when to plant, do various vineyard practices and even when your wine is going to taste its best. FYI – you should always drink biodynamically made wines on fruit days!

This winemaking ethos is based on theories expounded in the 1920s by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) which were aimed for agriculture in general. Biodynamics is still fairly controversial – the government doesn’t certify a wine as Biodynamic. To date, there are only two programs that certify biodynamic wine internationally: Demeter and Biodyvin.

Do these wines taste different? Debatable. It is more of a philosophy as opposed to a style of wine. Although proponents of biodynamics say that their wine tastes more terroir driven.

To find out more about Biodynamics please read:

Natural Wine

Ms. Feiring, an American wine writer, offered this definition via email: “It needs to be natural from the ground up. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No additives, no adjustments and very little added sulfur.”

And in relation to Organic and Biodynamic winemaking; according to Alexandre Bain, Pouilly-Fumé’s only natural wine producer, ‘organic and biodynamic are the tools, natural is the philosophy’.

Natural wine can come in a myriad of styles but one common ethos is to do as little as possible to the grapes in the vineyard as well as during the processes in the winery. It is not so much the taste of the wine which is the crux of the issue, but really assessing how many additives and how much manipulation is necessary.

The tiniest amounts of sulphur are allowed but there are in fact no regulatory bodies when it comes to natural wine. It is totally dependent on your trust of the winemaker.

I hope that helps clear up a few things and makes you feel even better when reaching for that bottle.

Tune into my IGTV or YouTube video to see my potentially controversial views on the above topics!