An explanation of natural wine, organic and biodynamic farming.
What is “natural wine?” Natural wines have no governing body or official accreditation, but hold themselves to the strictest standards. Many natural winemakers practice aspects of biodynamics and all are at least farming organically. There’s an argument that wine is inherently unnatural. We are, after all, just hitting pause on the life of some grape juice that wants to turn itself into vinegar.
It’s worth noting that over 90 additives and processing aids can be added to wine in the US and EU without listing them on the label. This fact alone might make you more interested in natural wine. Wine, to us, is about conveying a sense of place where the grapes are being grown. The more unobstructed the view, the better the wine.
The best way to consider natural wines is to start with the notion of zero pesticides and zero additives, and go from there. What can be added to wine and still be natural?
The best definition we’ve found of natural wines comes from Isabelle Legeron, M.W. in her book Natural Wines:
“Whether or not it is certified, natural wine is . . . wine from vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification (wine making), apart from a dash of sulfites at most at bottling.” (Natural Wines, page 23)
What does it mean to grow grapes organically?
Organic “viticulture” rejects the use of man-made, synthetic chemicals in the vineyard. This means no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers instead use plant and mineral based products to combat pests and diseases, improve the health of the soil and build up plant immunity and nutrient uptake. It’s estimated that between 5-7 percent of vineyards are now organic or converting to organic. (Natural Wine, page. 33)
It’s important to remember that all farming was organic before inorganic methods were an option. The industrial revolution saw the development of these methods in the form of tractors, hybrid seeds, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The average American farmer went from feeding 2.5 people in 1900 to 26 people by 1960. Today, the number of people each American farmer feeds is around 155. Organic farming as it’s known today is a direct response to those synthetic methods developed in the early 1900s.
An example that is often used is Roundup, a popular herbicide that is allowed by some regulatory boards such as California’s “SIP Certified” (SIP = Sustainability in Practice). There’s also the “Bordeaux mixture,” a fungicide made of copper sulfate and calcium hydroxide, is permitted by all except natural winemakers who are only self-governed. I can’t imagine spraying copper in the vineyard is a great way to encourage more microbiological activity in the soil.
It’s worth noting here that many organic vineyards and farms that are farming organically are choosing not to be certified organic because it is a costly and cumbersome process. Their grapes are no less organic than a certified grape.
What is biodynamic farming?
It’s hard to mention organic farming in the wine world without whispers of biodynamics. Biodynamics is an ethos started by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. (Yes, the same Steiner who is the brain behind Waldorf schools. And, yes, the same Steiner who never farmed a day in his life.) It’s founded on a holistic approach to a self-sustaining micro ecosystem with perfectly balanced microbial life, soil, grapevines, livestock, insects, and other plants. Essentially, more life in the vineyard and more microbiological activity in the soil lead to happier and healthier grapes. Demeter remains the only biodynamic certifying board in the world.
Some smaller producers who are farming biodynamically using wild yeast and adding a tiny amount of sulfur at bottling, may not be able to fork over the money necessary for Demeter to certify, especially when starting out.
What is natural winemaking?
Wine can be made from grapes alone without the addition of anything else. So is it OK to add yeast during the wine making process. The short answer is “no.” Yeast is an invisible fungus that consumes the sugar in the grape juice and releases alcohol as a by-product, along with complex flavor compounds. Natural wines are made using the yeast that naturally occurs in vineyards and on the grapes. This indigenous yeast is the foundation of natural wine making because it is part of the terroir, or natural environment, which includes the soil, climate and topography. The decision to introduce foreign yeast into the wine making process severs the relationship between the wine and the place the grapes were grown. This means the terroir is not being expressed in the wine when you drink it.
What about added sulfites?
In conventional wine making, sulfites may be added during various stages of wine making to control risk factors inherent in wine production. Sulfites are useful for slowing oxidation and knocking out harmful bacteria. However, natural wine makers believe sulfites mute the nuances that express vintage or vineyard.
Significantly, there are naturally occurring sulfites in wine that aid the natural wine maker. Added sulfites are one of the key distinctions between commercial and natural wines, but it’s not all or nothing.
Some natural producers will not add any sulfites at all, while others will add a dash at most, usually at the bottling stage. For natural producers, the decision to add even a dash of sulfites is an economic decision related to the quality of a vintage, ripeness of grapes when picked or worries about transportation or storage.
How much sulfite can be added? In order for a wine to be USDA certified organic, the grapes must be grown organically and no sulfites can be added to the wine. By the current USDA Organic Standard, any wine, foreign or domestic, can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (less than 10mg per liter) to be marketed and sold as an “organic wine”. In the US, naturally occurring sulfur dioxide (which is often at undetectable amounts) is permitted, but not in excess of 20 parts per million (or “ppm”), which the same as 20mg per liter of wine. Wine “made with organic grapes” can have the addition of sulfites up to 100 ppm, but are generally much lower (around 40 to 80 ppm). In contrast to the US, in the EU, organic wines can have up to 150 ppm of added sulfites.
Whether sulfites are naturally occurring in the grapes or added by wine growers and producers, all wines containing more than 10 ppm must state “contains sulfites” on the label. Just to put this in perspective, industrial wines can be as high as 350 ppm, way more than any natural wine maker would consider adding.
Side note on sulfites (a common preservative used in wine): According to the Cleveland Clinic, only asthmatics are predisposed to have a reaction to sulfites, and even then it is only 1-5% of all asthmatics. Luckily, for those select few, we do now have delicious wine made without the addition of any sulfur whatsoever. However, if you don’t think twice before eating a couple of raisins (which can contain sulfites well exceeding 100 ppm in one serving), then the addition of 70 ppm of sulfur at bottling should be of no concern. Remember, conventionally produced wines can have up to 350 ppm.
Our final take on added sulfites and natural wine: the addition of a dash of sulfites at bottling does not disqualify a wine that is otherwise made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes from being considering a natural wine. In the EU, natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron has set limits for added sulfites for her RAW Wine Fair: 70 ppm of added sulfites for natural wine (compared to 100 to 150 ppm for certified organic wine and 350 ppm for conventional wine).