You may have noticed the green stars adorning some of the tags in our shop. We use these as a quick way to point out what wines are sustainable, organic, or biodynamic. Recently we added a silver star denoting wines that are “natural” or without any added sulfites. We have a lot of customers asking us for wines of this nature and are always happy to stock and support wine makers who utilize these methods. But inevitably the question arises (as it should) what does it mean to make wine by sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or natural means; and does it make a difference?
First of all, it’s important to realize that these terms represent different philosophies and approaches to viticulture and wine-making and one is not necessarily better than the other. Let’s start with sustainable wine making as it requires the least commitment, but may offer as many benefits as the other methods. Kendall-Jackson’s blog defines sustainable quite well stating that it, “usually take[s] into consideration the environmental, social and economic aspects of operations and management. Most sustainability programs have fewer absolute requirements than organic or biodynamic [ones].” While it’s true that sustainability has less strict requirements, it also allows growers to act accordingly when nature challenges the process. A more conscientious branch of sustainable farming has emerged known as lutte raisonée, literally translated as the “reasoned struggle”, which borrows from organics and biodynamics as well as a relying on a process known as integrated pest management (IPM). The intricacies of IPM are beyond the scope of this simple post, but it is sufficient to say that it focuses on the idea that some “pests” are good for the vines and some not, and there is a balance that should be maintained.
Organic practices are heavily regulated by a number of different agencies around the world and have strict guidelines for what can and can’t be done when growing grapes. Most of these regulations have to do with what chemicals, if any, can be used on the vines and soil. What a lot of people don’t realize is that these regulations often deal with the viticulture and not necessarily the wine-making process; meaning, for example, sulfites may not be sprayed on the vines during the growing process, but may be used during fermentation or bottling of the wine. This is not always the case, as every agency has different standards for what constitutes “organic,” but is something to keep in mind when buying an organic wine. Also, it is important to realize that sulfites occur naturally during the wine-making process and therefore, all wine contains sulfites to some degree or another and they can, in fact, be quite useful when used conscientiously.
It is probably the most obvious that these are philosophies on wine-making and
viticulture when examining biodynamics. Jaime Goode defines biodynamics well in his book, The Science of Wine; “key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system, and seeing it in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms.” With even more stringent requirements, biodynamics requires the application of “special preparations to enhance the life of the soil” at key times in the lunar cycle. Some of the practices border on the mystical side of things causing biodynamics to be a polarizing practice in the wine world.
Finally, natural wine-making doesn't necessarily follow biodynamic or organic practices, although can and often does, but is more focused on the idea of non-intervention. It is perhaps best described as total control being led by the fruit itself. The winemaker will pick
when the grapes are ripe, weather early, late or otherwise, and allow the wine to ferment on it's own with whatever yeast is present. Often characterized by dramatic changes in wine from vintage to vintage (although good winemakers will produce a good product despite the differences), this is also a somewhat polarizing philosophy in the wine world as it belittles the winemaker's efforts and focuses on the viticulture and fruit almost solely. For a great example of the thought process that goes into natural wine-making, watch this quick video featuring Joeland Christine Menard of Domaine des Sablonnettes.
For a great, although very academic, study of these processes and their impact on the wine, check out The Science of Wine by Jaime Goode. And remember, none of these processes are necessarily better than the others, but all offer a more honest process of wine making than is utilized in the big, commercial wine industry. This is the case because all of these philosophies focus on the quality of the fruit to one degree or another instead of focusing on the economic side of wine and that can only equal a better product in your glass at the end of the night. Enjoy!