Friends and colleagues often ask me repeatedly why I write about sustainable and “natural” wines. Is that organic wine? Isn’t all wine natural anyway? They are shocked to learn that most wines are conventionally farmed, produced with grapes that are sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, and manipulated technologically in the winery.
Within the wine industry itself there is much haranguing about the distinctions between sustainable, organic, biodynamic, natural and raw wine. Many wine writers, importers and retailers lump all these together in the category of natural wines. Yet there are very definite and exact differences: to be marketed as organic or biodynamic requires a specific certification.
Organic requires a government license and governments (i.e. US vs. EU) vary in their criteria for certifying a wine as organic as distinct from certifying the grapes that go into the wine as organic (because of added sulfites). In the U.S., all wines labeled and sold as as Made with Organic Grapes must contain 100% organically grown grapes and can add a minimal amount of sulfites, up to 100ppm. Wines labeled as Organic have No Sulfites Added (NSA) and can carry the USDA organic seal. Even these wines may contain a very minute amount of sulfites (up to 10ppm) as grapes themselves naturally produce sulfites. Biodynamic certification is granted by Demeter and the requirements for certification are the same the world over. All Biodynamic wines are also organically grown. Sustainable wines are produced according to criteria set by regional industry associations, and are permitted to apply chemicals when needed, though increasingly these producers are prudent and adhere to Integrated Pest Management(IPM).
Natural wines are the least formally defined of the four
Wineries producing natural wines identify only with self-imposed standards. No official or legal classification or standard set of operating procedures defines the category; neither has any legislation been passed to date by any regional, national or supra-natural authority, and there are no organizations that can certify that a wine is natural. However, there are many unofficial definitions or codes of practice published by the different associations of natural wine producers in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
What they call natural wines are wines made with no chemicals, additives and overly technological procedures. That includes pesticides in the vineyard. In the cellar, natural winemakers allow the juice to ferment with indigenous yeasts rather than by adding yeast formulated in laboratories. They generally do not add sugar to prolong fermentation or increase the alcohol content, nor do they add enzymes, acid, tannins, water or coloring to make up for what is lacking.
Natural wines don’t include various other chemicals, additives, cleansers, and fining agents, items that contribute to the sensory attributes – clarity and texture — that wine consumers expect in their wines. These cleansers and fining agents are legally permitted and protect the wine from spoilage or premature browning, overcome a deficiency, or promote a healthier fermentation; Natural white wines are often cloudy and fizzy as a result. Some even have noticeable clumps of yeast floating in the glass.
New York Times writer Jeff Gordinier says, “They’re rowdy, unfiltered and extremely unpredictable. Be prepared to have your mind blown.” “Natural wines can taste tart, dirty, even barnyard-y, and that might be 100 percent intentional.“
According to Isabelle Legeron MW, founder of RAW WINE, the annual natural wine fairs in London and NY and author of the book Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally, “When wine was first made 8,000 years ago, it was not made using packets of yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, Mega Purple, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction or powdered tannins – some of the many additives and processes used in winemaking worldwide. Natural wine is made from grapes that are, at a very minimum, farmed organically or biodynamically, harvested manually and then made without adding / or removing anything during the vinification process. Ideally nothing is added at all but – at most – there might be a dash of SO2 at bottling.”
Consumers can be confident that all these forms of natural and responsible wine production are contributing to conservation and a better environment, while offering wines that truly reflect their terroir and place.
Author: Sandra Taylor is an internationally recognized expert on environmental sustainability, and founder of Sustainable Business International . Her first book, World of Sustainable Wine, will be released in July 2017 by Board and Bench Publishing of San Francisco.
Note from the Natural Merchants team: While drinking unfiltered, unfined wine is a personal preference, many of our winery partners choose to filter and fine their wines using natural materials such as Bentonite clay and pea protein. We believe in the “gold standard” of certification and knowing exactly what’s in your glass. We’re redefining natural wine, with certification as our gold standard so you always know exactly what’s in your glass. All of our wines are made with 100% organically grown grapes and our wineries adhere to the standards set forth by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Some are Organic with no sulfites added and display the USDA organic seal; others are certified Biodynamic by Demeter and the majority are Non-GMO Project Verified.