Organic/Biodynamic/Natural/Sustainable: WTF Does It All Mean ?????? (#WinePW)


It’s easy to see buzz words like organic, biodynamic, and natural wine and get completely overwhelmed. They all have different meanings, and it can all get REALLY confusing.  I realize wine in general is itself already intimidating to most people, then you add in all this terminology and it can make you want to run and hide.

You can write entire books on the subject of organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. Many have. Bay Grape recently did a whole class series on this. There’ve been panels and podcasts and articles, but it can still use further demystifying, so I’ll add another drop to the pond and try to clarify these and some other related terms. It’s Earth Month after all, so now seems like a good time.

I originally intended to attempt to do some of this clarifying while I was writing my recent post on the Marcel Lapierre Morgon, as the Lapierre wines bring together a lot of the concepts together. I soon realized that I needed to move the defining to a separate post. It’s a lot. This also gives me a chance to share some of my own thoughts, so this post has also turned into a bit of an op-ed. However, I fully leave it up to you to decide what selections make sense for you. You might decide it’s not worth effort at all, but so many of us are son conscientious of what we put in our bodies and how it affects the world around us, that it seems worth considering the wine we drink as well.

To start, I’ll summarize some of the key terms that are often used when discussing environmentally conscious wines. If you want more, this article from Eating Well gives a good overview. For an even deeper dive, check out this article on GuildSomm, and as always, I will drop in a few more resources throughout and at the end.

 

Organic


This method focus largely (but not completely) on the farming practices and soil health. Grapes are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals—fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. Biodiversity is encouraged, so the soils are teeming with life like worms and insects, some of which are beneficial. Cover crops are planted to increase the nutrients in the soils. As a result, vines grow stronger and are more resistant to diseases.

Use of the term “organic” in labeling is regulated. There are several organizations that handle certifications, such as ECOCERT in Europe, which is a three-year process. Things get a little bit confusing in that you can have wines made from organically certified grapes and wines that are organically certified themselves. 

In the first case, 100% of the grape used must have been grown using organic practices and the wines are allowed to be labeled “wine made with organic grapes.” Other ingredients, such as yeasts, used during the winemaking process don’t have to be organic, but must comply with certain standards.

Organic wines go further, looking at both practices in the vineyard and the winery. In this case, all Ingredients that go into the wine, such as yeasts, also have to be certified organic, and any other non-agricultural ingredients must comply to their standards. In addition, while sulfur dioxide (sulfites) are naturally created in the winemaking process, no sulfites may be added to organic wine. In the US, certification for organic wines is handled by the USDA.



Gulfi Nerojbleo Nero d'Avola Sicilia 2015 is made with organic grapes. The wine is medium bodied but has some grip, with smoked, red fruit notes.

Mas de Gourgonnier has been practicing organic farming in Provence for a very long time. They were one of the first winery’s in Provence to get certified in the 1970’s, which was way before it was cool to so.  I get this Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence with some frequency since it’s usually just under $20. I’ve paired it with a Lentil Soup on NibblingGypsy.com and most recently with  Lentils with Sausages and Arugula in an 8 & $20 for WineSpectator.com.

Biodynamic


This is basically organic farming with an added dose of mysticism. Biodynamic wines follow all of the requirements of organic wines, plus some or all of the teachings of Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner. These were later refined by agriculturalist Maria Thun. This is a holistic approach to farming first laid out by Steiner in the 1920’s and looks at the whole ecosystem of the farm. In addition to farming without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, biodynamic farming also involves planting, sowing, pruning, harvesting, etc according to the phases of the moon and alignment of the sun and planets. Additionally, certain preparations are made and used in farming. The most famous of these is probably preparation 500 which involves filling a cow horn with manure and burying it in the vineyard over the winter.

Like a lot of things that involve an element of mysticism,  it's not quite certain why some aspects of this work, and yet they do seem to make a difference.

Use of the term “biodynamic,” like the term “organic” is regulated in labeling. Organizations like Demeter and Biodyvin oversee the certification of biodynamic farms and vineyards. Organic certification is a prerequisite for biodynamic certification.



Domaine Comte Abbatucci takes their biodynamics very seriously, following even the most far out practices. Their Cuvée Faustine Rouge 2017 is a delicious blend of Corsican varieties and shows concentrated strawberry notes balanced with lots of minerality.


Lutte Raisonée


This translates to the “reasoned fight.” Growers using this style of viticulture use chemicals less often and aggressively than those practicing conventional farming. In a lot of cases this looks a lot like organic farming, but they’re basically leaving the door open to use a fungicide or pesticide if really needed. As an example, in my last post I mentioned that Passopisciaro essentially works in a lutte raisonnée style.

There is no regulation around this term, so there is the potential for abuse.


 

Natural Wine


This one is the hardest to define. Basically, it’s wine that’s made without chemical intervention at any point during the process, from growing to bottling and with as little manipulation of the wines as possible. (The use of sulfur is allowed, although it’s generally used in very small quantities, and only if the winemaker wishes to use it.)

This is a completely unregulated term and its exact meaning can be hotly debated. To many, it’s the strictest of the terms since it goes further than the farming focus of organic and biodynamic practices. The standards and philosophies of natural wine are all self-imposed and many producers adhering to these ideals hold themselves to very strict, high standards. Others see natural wine as more of an umbrella term that encompasses all of these other terms.

Discussions can get heated. Many are now turning to the term “low intervention” wines to indicate the lack of manipulation and chemical additives without all the drama.

While it’s an unregulated term there are organizations that publish unofficial definitions and codes of practice such as the l'Association de Vins Naturels, Vinnatur, or Simbiosa.

Aside, I love this analogy on GuildSomm.com drawing the distinction between organic, biodynamic, and natural wines by comparing them to chickens.

1. Go to Whole Foods and buy the very best chicken they have. It will be corn-fed, free-range and it will taste great. This is organic wine.

2. Search out a local butcher, the best you can find, and buy his most expensive chicken. It will be corn-fed, free-range, and coming from a small farm—the feet and head are still attached. It tastes fantastic. This is biodynamic wine.

3. Raise your own chicken, kill it, pluck it and eviscerate it. Then spit-roast it on an open fire. If you have some chicken skills it will taste amazing. If not you risk salmonella, chewing on feathers and your friends thinking you are bonkers. But you won't care and will still insist it’s the best chicken ever.
This is natural wine.

Sustainable


We’ve talked a lot about farming and soil health. Sustainability, however, encompasses much more than that, taking a look at all inputs that are being used in the vineyards and in the winery including water and energy usage, waste and waste disposal, among other things. You could have, for example, a wine that completely adheres to organic practices, while still being lax in their energy use.

There are a lot of organizations that handle sustainability certification on a regional level, such as Napa Green or Lodi Rules here in California. There are also wineries, like Arnaldo Caprai, which I discussed in this post, that have spearheaded their own sustainability initiatives, which might not be specifically organic/biodynamic, but take those practices into consideration in combination with others. 


Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi, California is certified sustainable by Lodi Rules, as well as being certified organic.
 

Vegetarian and Vegan Wine


No animal products are used in the production of the wines. You might be like ‘What? I thought all wine was vegetarian!' There are actually some ingredients used for fining and clarification that are not — the most common is egg white, but there are others.

In addition, wines that are strictly adhering to vegetarian/vegan guidelines also take into consideration all aspects of winemaking, including the packaging. For example, the adhesive used to stick a label on a bottle would have to be compliant — not all glues are.




Proudly Vegan wines fit fully into vegan standards. I paired this smooth Merlot with a sweet potato and red lentil dal. Recipe by Nigella Lawson for NYT Cooking.

Dry Farming


No irrigation has been used in the farming. Whatever nature provides, that’s what the vines gets. Proponents say that vines farmed this way are stronger and have roots that tap down deeper into the ground to reach water sources. Of course, this means that vines might be at risk in the event of a drought. The flip side is that vines that have been dry farmed in the past are also better able to handle drought conditions, like we had here in California just a couple of years ago. My understanding is that young vines can struggle a bit with dry farming, but after a few years, once they’ve been able to develop those roots, they become more resilient.

 

Native/Natural Yeasts


Yeasts for fermentation can be purchased. There are also many yeasts already present already in the winery. Different yeasts perform differently and can create different flavors. Those practicing native/natural yeast fermentations are letting the yeasts that are around in the winery do the work. Many believe that these yeasts are a part of the terroir, so using them in the fermentation is a better reflection of that terroir. The downside is that native yeasts can be unpredictable in how they perform and can even cause off flavors.

 

Low or No Sulfur Added


Sulfur dioxide has been used as a disinfectant, antioxidant, and preservative since Roman times. It’s used in many different foods, not just wine. It’s also created naturally in the winemaking process, so it would be difficult to find a wine with absolutely no sulfur.

It can provide some useful benefits, but is also been used excessively at times by winemakers to cover all kinds of flaws. Using too much can kind of dull the taste of the wine and overuse can even cause off flavors. You might get a smell like a struck match for example. Most winemakers in these camps will seek to limit their usage, and it is actually restricted in certified organic wines, as mentioned above.




Lapierre puts a "N" on the back of bottles made without added sulfites. See my recent post on this Morgon for a delicious pairing.

That’s A LOT. This is already enough to make make your brain explode!   🤯  Sadly, we’re not stopping here since there are a lot of blurred lines. Many more wines fall into grey areas than those clearly defined in black and white. I don’t blame you if you want to tap out here though.

Things get even more confusing when you consider that certifications are really expensive; way too expensive for many small producers. A lot of these little guys operate according to one or more of the principles outlined, but they just opt to not pay for the certifications. Others choose not to get the certifications for a slew of other reasons. Some have concerns about being labeled a “natural wine” because there are negative connotations associated with the term for some groups, just as it has positive connotations for others.

Given that many choose not to certify for different reasons, you might see/hear the term “practicing” in front of organic, biodynamic, or sustainable. Growers might also be certified in one area, while also practicing others without being certified. For example,
the Arianna Occhipinti SP68 I recently featured is certified organic and practicing biodynamic. As well, the Lapierre Morgon was a leader in the natural wine movement from very early on, then later got its organic certification by Ecocert. According to one source, Marcel Lapierre also started experimenting with biodynamic practices from as early as 2003, and his kids have been moving increasingly in that direction; but they’re not certified in this area. Finally, the Avis d'Blanc Frais from Mireille and Pierre Mann checks most of the boxes and has all the certifications on the label, as shown in the picture at the top.



The Mas des Caprices Avis d’Blanc Frais 2018 is a blend of of  Maccabeu and Grenache Blanc from Southern France. They’ve got all the certs! It’s round with notes of white flowers and a hint of sea spray and made a wonderful pairing with takeout sushi.

I am by no means a purist on these matters. I don’t think there’s one silver bullet method. I’ve heard quality conscious winemakers speak on many sides of these issues–it can get really nuanced. For example, I’ve heard growers in certain areas say that, to their mind, the requirements of organic or biodynamic certification actually don’t make sense for there particular region or site.

A case in point is the problem of copper sprays which are used as fungicides. These sprays (the most well known of which is probably Bordeaux mixture––copper sulfate plus lime) are in fact approved for organic use in many places, and to a lesser degree in biodynamic farming. However, they can end up causing more environmental harm than some synthetic fungicides that are not allowed in organic farming. If you’re a grower in a region prone to fungal issues (if there’s a lot of humidity, for example), you might reasonably conclude that a judicious and limited application of another synthetic fungicide is the more environmentally friendly option.

Another factor to throw into the equation is that it’s much easier to farm organically/biodynamically in certain region than others. Drier regions like Alsace have a much easier road to farming through these methods than Bordeaux for example, where rainier weather puts their vines more at risk for fungal diseases.

We also have to take into account that this is a business. Imagine you’re a grower who needs the money from your crop to feed your family and some fungal disease comes into your vineyard threatening your livelihood. Yes, I can completely understand how you might make the choice to use a fungicide. Of course, if you’re certified and choose to do so, you lose that really expensive certification. These aren’t easy choices.

I’m also personally not against the use of a little bit of sulfur either. Sulfur is naturally occurring, and as mentioned, it offers anti-bacterial protection that can prevent off flavors from developing and keep a wine stable. It’s been compared to penicillin for wines, and I think that's right on. Penicillin (and antibiotics in general) were overused for many years. We’ve been scaling them back, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a ton of value when used in a smart and precise way. Similarly, I don’t think sulfur should just be dumped into a wine to mask flaws, but I don’t mind if a little has been used to help ensure a wine remains sound.

Some people link sulfites in wine to headaches, but there really isn’t any medical evidence to support this. Sulfite allergies are real, but they’re not specifically connected with headaches.  (For thoughts on what might be causing your wine headaches see this article on VinePair.) That said, if you sense that avoiding them makes you feel better, by all means do what’s right for you.

While I don’t take a hardline on which methods I think are best, I do like to see environmentally conscious methods being practiced in creating the wines I buy. I’d also prefer to have wines that aren’t pumped full of tons of chemicals, so I try to be somewhat conscientious about what I buy. I try to do the best I can without making myself crazy. I would say that the majority (but certainly not all) of the wines I’ve shared on this blog fall somewhere into one of the camps laid out above.



Podere Selva Capuzza, in Lugana, Italy, doesn't adhere to one particular methodology in their vineyard practices. They do, however, take sustainability and environmental impact very seriously and lay out their beliefs and practices on their website.

I also want my wines to taste good. Being natural/biodynamic/organic doesn’t automatically guarantee that. I’ve had bad wines from these camps just like any other. It’s really easy to let some really off, funky flavors get into wines when you’re not careful and not using any preservatives, etc. That said, there's also something to be said for evolving tastes and a lot of the funkiest of wines are attracting a growing audience. Nonetheles, to my mind, a lot of flaws are excused under the guise of natural wine. At this point, my palate has a pretty high tolerance for funk, but IMHO, there are definitely wines out there that go too far!

On the other hand, I will also say that when I try a wine that tastes really energetic, vibrant, and alive, more often than not, when I look into it further I find the wine falls into one of these camps. When made with care and attention to detail, these wines tend to really shine.

Given that these terms can be so confusing, how do you know which wines are which? How do you find them without giving up in exasperation? You could rely on finding the logos for the various certifications on the bottle. That’s definitely reliable when they are available, but as previously noted, that rules out a lot of really great producers who just haven’t certified. There are some additional tricks to find quality wines that might fall into these camps.

Having a wine shop you trust, for one, can be really useful in steering you in the direction of wines from some of these smaller producer that can’t afford the certifications. In Oakland, we’re very lucky to have several shops and bars that feature wines in these categories to varying degrees. Bay Grape, where I work, focuses on small producers using sustainable methods in some form. Other nearby options include Ordianaire and The Punchdown, each focusing more specifically on natural wines. Ordinaire’s owner even spearheads Brumaire, a natural wine fest, each year.

Certain importers/distributors also focus on wines from these various categories, so finding a few operating in your area can also be really useful. You’ll always be able to find their name on the back label. Kermit Lynchs selections, for example, tend to go in the direction of the various camps discussed today, although they don’t focus on any one method specifically. If you happen to be the Bay Area, you can also find Kermit Lynch’s store in Berkeley. A few others include Louis/Dressner Selections, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, Jenny and François Selections, Blue Danube and Becky Wasserman & Co. A lot of wines in the Michael Skurnik portfolio also apply.  (See this article on Sprudge for more. They’re a great resource on natural wine in general.)

Selection Massale is another importer that’s focusing specifically on importing natural wines. They’ve gone a step further and actually collaborated with some of their producers to make affordable line of natural wines called La Boutanche. They laid out their goals for this line on their website:

When we were first starting out, we quickly became disappointed with the lack of good natural wine in the $20 range. Not being the kind of people to say ‘well, it is what it is’, we got to work thinking about how we could remedy this situation. So, we started talking with our producers and, already knowing what we wanted - native yeast fermentations, low or zero SO2 additions, and the like; basically pure unadulterated glou glou that we could put into a liter-sized screw-top bottle and would be a great introduction to natural wine - it didn’t take long for us to find winemakers who were willing to partner with us on this project.

Since this site is all about the intersection of food and wine, I couldn’t put up this post without leaving you with one more pairing–especially after so much dizzying information. So, I grabbed a bottle of La Boutanche Trollinger 2017 to share with you. This wine is the work of a young Austrian winemaker named Andi Knauss. He’s in his early thirties now and always knew he wanted to be vigneron. 






His wines tap into a lot of topics dealt with here today. He works organically in the vineyards, makes his wines using natural fermentations with minimal sulfur in general and none at all for some cuvées.


We enjoyed the light, juicy, refreshing bottle of Trollinger with salmon and roasted veggies.







*****



The Wine Pairing Weekend crew is getting into the swing of Earth Month by searching out and writing about biodynamic wines of the world-- and what to pair with them this month. Read the invite post here; in it Gwendolyn explains about biodynamics and shares two biodynamic reds from Mendocino's Bonterra

We'll be publishing our posts before our 8am Pacific twitter chat this Saturday April 13; follow along using the hashtag #WinePW. Here's who is writing about what:



Additional sources used for this post:

What Is Natural Wine and Should You Care? on VinePair
Biodynamic Wine, Explained on VinePair
Has Wine Gone Bad? on The Guardian
Natural Merchants

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17 comments

  1. Nicole, this is a GREAT article with easy-to-understand definitions of the morass that is wine certifications. Thanks for writing and sharing with Wine Pairing Weekend.

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  2. This blog from you is going to be my go-to glossary for healthy wines. It was very confusing before. But the repeated theme of biodynamic wines at #WinePW really makes me learn!

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    1. Thanks Pinny! I work with the terms ever yday and it still gets confusing to navigate.

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  3. I enjoyed your long-form explanation and op-ed very much! I hadn't seen the Guild Somm analogy before, but it is spot on! Finally, I've enjoyed a couple of the La Boutanche wines - it's a great concept!

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    1. Thanks Jeff. The Guild Somm analogy cracked me up and, as you say, I also thought it was spot on. La Boutanche is definitely doing some cool stuff. Yesterday I tasted a Melon d'Bourgogne Pet Nat from them that was really fun!

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  4. Wow so much great information. I feel a little smarter as I leave this post and I will use that analogy as well....perfect.

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  5. So much useful information here, Nicole. And it's presented in a non-threatening way that's easy to digest. You did a great job of showing how winemaking methods can fit into a number of places along a broad spectrum; it's not just black and white. Cheers to that!

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  6. Good overview of all these terms!

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  7. Packed with info -- you should roll this into an e-book for your readers!

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    1. Thanks Jill -- that's a great idea. I will give that some serious thought.

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  8. What a great overview of the various terms Nicole. I especially love the GuildSomm chicken/wine analog!

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    1. Thanks Martin -- so glad you found that as amusing as I did!

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  9. Such an informative post! I recently tried the Gulfi Nerojbleo myself and the Podere Selva Capuzza. Great variety!

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    1. Thanks so much Jennifer. Hope you enjoyed the Gulfi and the Selva Capuzza. We had such a great visit at Selva Capuzza when we were there in the fall.

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!