It’s easy to feel intimidated when it comes to buying wine. The mix of regions, grapes, tasting notes, and colorings means it can be difficult to express what you want when approached by a wine seller or sommelier. And now it has become even more complicated with the growth of organic, biodynamic and natural wine.
So what’s the difference between all those “new” words about wine?
In reality, they all have a similar goal: to minimize the impact on the viticulture and winemaking process. Many modern wines go through a lot of handling before they are poured into your glass. This includes the use of pesticides and mechanical harvests during the agricultural period, as well as chemical additives and sulphates added during the cellar. Organic, biodynamic and natural wines are a reaction to this, calling for a return to traditional viticulture with minimal environmental impact.
Organic wine means exactly what you might imagine, it grows and bottles wine using certified organic materials. However, it depends as much on the climate of the region as on anything else, explains oenologist Aoife Carrigy. “If a wine is produced with organic grapes, that often tells you more about the climatic conditions of the region than about the ethics of the cellar or the quality of its wine.” Organic wine is strictly regulated and must meet standards in order to be advertised as organic, but some of these wines may use animal products and therefore may not be safe for vegans. Many organic wine also use sulfates in the bottling process, except in the United States where the regulator does not allow this.
The production of organic wines requires a relatively balanced climate from year to year and the process can be expensive but does not necessarily lead to an expensive wine as they do not require any of the pesticides. There is also no significant difference in the taste of organic wines, rather it is an environmental peace of mind when it comes to what you consume.
However, not all climates and terrains are suitable for organic farming, this is where biodynamic farming comes in. Biodynamic farming actually goes further than organic farming as it follows many of the same standards as organic farming, such as banning the use of any form of pesticides or chemicals, and also follows a set of agricultural practices based on the chronology of the lunar phases, and a generally more holistic approach to agriculture. It puts more emphasis on the local climate, soil and farming techniques to ensure that the grapes are grown under ideal conditions.
Many believe that this careful consideration of the local environment results in a flavor that reflects the terroir of the wine. Without any chemical additives and a harvesting process in accordance with the local ecological system, all its flavors come from the grape. “Biodynamic wines involve a more complex approach and tend to be produced by winegrowers keen to express the terroir of the vineyards,” explains Aoife.
Natural wine is a slightly looser, unregulated term and refers more to the winemaker’s attitude towards winemaking. Unlike the detailed requirements to be certified as an organic wine, it generally refers to the winemaking process rather than the cultivation of the grape. Natural wines undergo as little change as possible during winemaking. This means that the grapes are usually harvested by hand and then pressed by hand. Grapes aren’t necessarily grown organically either, although inevitably natural winemakers prefer to use organic grapes.
The most obvious difference with a natural wine is their cloudy appearance, as they are unfiltered and sometimes have a strong smell of sulfur. This is due to the lack of added sulfates, which also means it doesn’t last as long as other wines, but suppliers say natural wines have a purer, wilder flavor.