Wine 101: Organic, Biodynamic & Natural Wines

Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

I think it is safe to say that many of us, myself included, tend to overthink, overanalyze and over complicate many things in life.  Wine is a prime example! Just think of the books, blogs and movies devoted to this drink!  I am thankful for this though, my life is more joyful because of it and I’ve even turned this “over-analyzing wine thing” into how I earn a living. That said, outside of the history, agriculture and business of wine, the drink itself, when stripped down to it’s essence, is just the fermented juice of grapes.

Grapes have all that they need in their natural state to transform into wine: crushed grapes in combination with the natural yeast present on the skins kick start fermentation. Fermentation naturally ends when all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol or the wine reaches about 15% ABV.  Carbon dioxide created during fermentation dissipates into the air (unless the goal is make a sparkling wine).  Hence the adage that great wine is made in the vineyard.  If the raw material is healthy and ripe; the resulting wine, if managed with the same care, should turn out fine and actually taste quite delicious.  I liken this to eating a salad in the summer made from fresh vegetables harvested at peak ripeness from a local famer compared to eating a salad in the dead of winter made from wilted lifeless cellophane wrapped greens. THAT is why great care goes into farming grapes, so they are healthy and harvested at peak ripeness.  Good wines should express not only the grape varietals used but also the place from which they grow and the season in which they grew; this is the notion of terroir.   

Today, fewer winemakers rely on wild yeasts to ferment their wines.  Grapes are often doused with sulphur dioxide pre fermentation to kill off natural yeasts so the winemaker can then inoculate the juice with a specially selected yeast strain that will ferment the wine in a particular manner and impart desired characteristics to the wine.  In short, the pure qualities of the grape, and the notion of terroir takes a backseat while the winemaking process becomes more controlled.  

The 20th century saw the introduction of mechanized farming to ‘simplify agriculture’ in order to increase yields and, temporarily, profits. The culmination of this is the current lack of biodiversity, among all crops not just grapevines.  For the wine industry we are seeing a tendency towards the creation of homogenous wines that are somehow exacerbated by the role of the consulting winemaker who sees all vines and all sites as the same and prescribes the same winemaking methods to “design” wines that will fit a taste profile and score big with the influential critics.  This highly industrial approach to viticulture and winemaking rarely considers the individualized growing site or takes into consideration the vintage.

Since the 1940’s farmers have become more and more reliant on synthetic chemical treatments like fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers to facilitate their work, but this has lead to deeper issues in the long run; imbalances in the ecosystem; reduced natural immunity of the vines and chemicals leaching into the groundwater and our soil life.

According to pesticide action network, grapes receive higher doses of synthetic pesticides than any other crop- other than citrus. Many of us are now aware that we can’t continue abusing our planet as we have been this past century. Many of us are making choices that reflect an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings.  Many of us are choosing to eat mostly local food and organic food whenever possible because we know that it has been grown in a way that is not harming our earth or the people who grow it.  

As much as we source safer and healthier foods, the trend in organic wines is only now just emerging.  Though, as a wine lover and someone who really appreciates the story behind the wine, how I chose wine is becoming more guided by the same principles in which I have started to live my life; how was this product brought into the world?  

The Organic Approach

  • Organic farming is very similar to how farming existed pre-1940. As a result of the widespread use of chemicals in farming, there is a newfound interest.
  • No man-made synthetic chemicals in the vineyard
  • Restricts / prohibits use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers
  • Uses plant and mineral based products to combat diseases and increase health of soil, plant
  • Sulphites are permitted in organic viticulture
  • It is estimated that 5-7% of world vineyard is now organic or in conversion
  • There are many certifying bodies; Ecocert, Soil Association…
  • Organic Viticulture is not the same as organic Viniculture (winemaking)

The Biodynamic Approach

  • Developed by Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1825-1925) in the 1920’s.  It is based on traditional practices where polyculture and the management and cultivation of resources are the heart of the farm.  
  • Unlike organics, the emphasis for biodynamics is on prevention rather than treatment and encouraging the self-sufficiency of the farm unit.  
  • It is a holistic approach to farming.  Biodynamics sees the interconnectedness in nature; it views the farm not in isolation but as a part of our solar system that is affected by natural external factors like gravitational force and light.  Biodynamic farming principles are based on maintaining a diversified, balanced and self-contained ecosystem in order to promote health and fertility in the vineyard and all of this goodness gets transmitted into the wine!
  • These practices seem kind of “witchy”, although they are based on observation of the natural world and working with the rhythms of nature, so really they are simple and logical practice.  Just consider how the moon’s gravity affects the ocean’s tides; it is not off the wall to think that the moon cannot have a similar effect on plants which are made up of mostly water.    
  • Natural preparations (teas, manures, minerals) are used to stimulate microbial life, boost immune systems of plants and increase soil fertility.

What is natural wine?

As of yet there is no official accreditation or certification for said natural wines.  As a result, the term is open to abuse and therefore much criticism as there could be producers simply using this term for marketing purposes.   

Proper natural wine is a living wine that provides an array of aromas and flavours that continue to evolve and change in the glass.  Due to the microbiology in the living wine, you may taste it one day and experience certain characteristics and then have it on a different day and notice other qualities.     

*A NOTE ON SULFITES

The use of sulfites is one of the most polarizing of the natural wine discussions today.  Yeasts do produce some sulfites during vinification, the amount depends on the strain.  However, sulfites are used at higher doses by most winemakers today who argue that they are necessary to preserve the wine.  All wines that contain more than 10mg per liter of sulfites have to say “contains sulfites” on the label.  However, the consumer never actually knows how many sulfites a wine contains.  If you are sensitive to sulfites or are limiting them in your environment, simply choose a wine made in the most natural method possible.  

 Other important terms

Lutte Raisonée (Reasoned Fight)

The use of chemicals in the vineyards is rationalized by assessing and evaluating risk. Lutte raisonée makes sense for the farmer who does not want to risk losing the crop if there is a threat so the use of chemicals is reserved for very specific treatments only when absolutely necessary.

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is really just about farming with ecological awareness; the focus is not merely on the economic viability of the vineyard but also on producing healthy fruit and respecting nature. This type of farming limits the need for chemicals and pesticides plus makes it possible to move towards cleaner farming practices over time.

What about the taste?

A few years ago, organic wines still seemed to carry a stigma of being an inferior quality product or a sort of hippie juice.  This is far from the truth and I feel that consumers are coming around to this realization that organic wines are as good, if not better than non organic wines. Some of the great premium wines of the world are stunning and have always been organic though do not have an organic stamp on their label and never intend to; such wines like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy where a bottle can sell for upwards of $2000 or Chateau de Beaucastel or the deliciously pure Beaujolais of Marcel Lapierre that are priced higher than most Beaujolais. Canadian wine writer for the Globe and Mail Beppi Crosariol, wrote an interesting and informative piece last February on Organic wines and cites a study that found organic wines consistently scored higher than non organic wines by a few American influential wine judges to the day.    

Interested in learning more about organic, bio-dynamic or natural wines? Check out the book; Natural Wine An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic wines Made Naturally By Isabelle Legeron MW.

Cheers,

Alanna