DECANTED: NATURAL, BIODYNAMIC AND ORGANIC WINES EXPLAINED
An ever-changing world, population growth and a warming planet: it’s evident sustainability needs to be more top of mind. Fortunately, it’s not just through ethically-sourced food or environmentally-friendly transport that you can make a difference. Your wine choices can also play a role.
However, the world of sustainable wines can be a confusing place, especially the differences between organic, biodynamic and natural. But don’t worry, we’re here at Brown Bag Wines to lend a helping hand so that you can make the right choices when drinking sustainably. Grab your rubber boots and a spade, we’re heading to the vineyard!
SUSTAINABLE WINEMAKING: THREE KINDS OF MINIMAL-INTERVENTION
The focus of sustainable winemaking is to ensure that grapevines – and the earth that feeds them – are healthy enough to sustain winemaking for many years to come. Vintners (winemakers) who follow sustainable practices focus on minimising water usage, excluding the use of harmful chemicals and maintaining nutrients in the vineyard’s soil.
Natural processes are highly valued, given the minimal disruption to the earth. And vintners often practice symbiotic farming techniques in their vineyards (making sustainable vineyards beautiful places to stay, if you ever get the chance!).
Wines made in this style are often classified as ‘minimal (or low)-intervention’. This is the polar opposite of highly-industrialised, commercialised winemaking, where bulk production and cheap wines are valued above all. If we want to ensure winemaking fits into our ecosystem moving into the future, we must manage the effects that our farming practices have on the earth.
THE KEY PLAYERS: ORGANIC, BIO, NATURAL
Starting with the simplest of the three: organic wines need organic grapes, so farmers eschew the use of artificial pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Easy, right?
Well, not quite. The US and EU, two of the most prominent bodies in the organic wine certification game, have different rules regarding ‘organic’, particularly concerning the cellaring practices (which relates to how wines are stored before getting into the bottle).
So wine can be made with organically-grown grapes but needs to use organic yeast and avoid sulfites to be a USDA-certified organic wine. Similarly, complex rules exist in the EU, but total sulfite levels are limited (rather than banned). In both cases, the entire winemaking facility – and not just the farm – has to use organic practices.
That might seem complicated, but it’s easier if you just stick to the golden rule: follow the organic certification rules in respective winemaking regions. If possible, try to learn about the winemaker to see how they comply with organic legislation (or organic methods) in their country. If you ever get the chance, a visit to an organic farm is a fantastic opportunity to understand the sustainable vision of organic farmers.
Biodynamic wines are made using a series of farming procedures developed from the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. There’s a focus on the entire vineyard as an ecosystem, with the vines co-existing with other plants, animals and the soil.
There’s a commitment to the cycles of the moon, strict fertilization preparations (including burying manure in a cow’s horn over the winter!) and many other recommended farming practices. Although biodynamic wines are made in an organic way, they have different certification methods (from bodies like Demeter and Biodyvin) and slightly different rules concerning sulfites.
It may sound confusing (and a little odd). Still, one thing that separates biodynamic wine producers from many other winemakers is the intense work they put into the land. All the biodynamic farming principles are concerned with caring for the vineyard ecosystem. So if you find a biodynamic wine, you can be pretty sure the producers have been thinking long and hard about how to create green, sustainable wines.
Take the Dietrich family, who have been making delicious biodynamic Achillée wines for nearly 20 years (and organic wines for much longer). Their desire to create eco-friendly vineyards not only honours the environment that the vines depend on, but also produces some of our favourite wines. Give them a try if you get the chance.
More a movement than a set of certified winemaking procedures, there are no rigid definitions of natural wine (and little in wine legislation). Natural wines from different producers can be incredibly diverse, ranging in styles and profiles due to the varying production methods. The lack of legislation often frees winemakers to make expressive and interesting wines.
Natural wines are made with as minimal intervention as possible, be it the techniques, additives or everything in between. The goal is to get a wine made with minimal processing, natural yeast and no additional sulfites so that it serves as the best possible expression of the vineyard.
Now, there’s plenty of wriggle room here. Natural winemakers disagree on various practices, including adding some sulphites and filtering the finished product (removing bits and pieces floating in the wine). They agree on the basics, though: if treated sustainably, the vineyard can produce delicious wines using techniques that have existed for thousands of years.
You may be forgiven for having already written natural wines off. They get a bad rep as natural wines can develop flaws and faults much more easily than other types of wine. This is often due to the lack of stabilising chemicals and techniques that are used in non-natural wines. Natural wines can be accused of smelling ‘funky’ or a little like a ‘barnyard’ – and not in a complimentary way.
But write off natural wines at your peril. Not only would you be missing out on truly fantastic, complex wines, but the growing popularity of the movement means there is more choice than ever for the natural wine enthusiast. If you’re looking for a starter wine (something to ease you into the world of natural wines), check out the Mersino by Valdonica. With lively aromas of pear and pink grapefruit, a hint of minerality and a saline finish, this is a beautifully dry, refreshing introduction to natural wines. Grab a plate of cheese and dig in!
JOINING THE REVOLUTION: HOW TO DRINK MORE SUSTAINABLY
With a new trend emerging, there are more and more ways to join the sustainable revolution. Whether it’s natural wine bars, restaurants with all-organic exclusive wine lists or wine sellers dedicated to sustainability, there are suddenly more than enough opportunities to meet other sustainable-wine lovers.
And remember that drinking sustainability doesn’t just mean drinking only organic, bio or natural wines. It’s about how your wine is sourced, how the winemakers are supported and even where your empty bottle goes.
The sustainable revolution is part of a long journey to a bright future. It’s a road Brown Bag Wines is proud to be on, and one we hope you’ll join us on too.
If you want to hear more about the producers we work with and the exclusive wines we source, get in touch with us here. To start drinking sustainable wines today, take a look at our collection. We’ve got a great choice of organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Cheers!
- Bonné, Jon (2017). The New Wine Rules. Ten Speed Press.
- Puckette, Madeline & Hammock, Justin (2018). Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide. Penguin Random House.