There is a substantial level of consumer confusion in the wine market stemming from words such as “natural”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “ecological” and even “biodynamic”, which are increasingly making their presence on wine store shelves.
In recent years, consumers’ demand for natural and organic foods is becoming a thriving business and the sector is increasing its appeal to ordinary consumers. It is not therefore surprising that there has been a growing movement towards more natural styles of winemaking in reaction to the international tendency to view wine as a product that can be manipulated by a variety of chemical and physical means in order to appeal to certain reviewers and wine lovers. Increasingly buyers are looking for more “natural” options to conventional wines.
However, this is a complex issue and most of the confusion has to do with the use of buzzwords. These are intended to tempt consumers into purchases without providing them with a proper explanation, thus causing even more confusion. Consumers trying to get into the latest trend without looking like idiots are confused because of all the terminology, legal aspects, different certifiers, differences in labelling, etc. Basically, this tendency has created a mess and a headache for the entire wine market.
In the following paragraphs, we attempt to clarify what is meant by buzzwords such as “organic”, “sustainable”, “natural”, and “biodynamic” wine.
We are all aware that wine production involves two entirely separated phases, namely grape growing which takes place in the vineyard and grape processing (i.e. fermentation of the grapes into wine, bottling etc.) which takes place in the winery.
The difference between organic and non-organic viticulture lies in whether chemicals such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are used during the grape growing process because grapes ripen quickly, tend to mould, and attract insects. In order to keep vines healthy, growers spray them with multiple applications of various chemicals. Organic winegrowers face the same disease problems as conventional growers, as powdery mildew is the most prevalent disease encountered in organically farmed vineyards. Botrytis bunch rot can be a problem in some seasons with some varieties, trunk wood rotting and vascular diseases, especially for older vineyards, is also a threat.
In some regions it is easier to grow organic grapes. In places where there is a hot, dry climate and vineyards are located on windblown slopes, mildew and rot is less of a problem, whilst in a warm, damp maritime climate with flat vineyards, rot and mildew can be a real headache. Organic grapevine disease management almost always requires some kind of intervention and preventive strategies to keep diseases from doing serious damage to the crop.
Organic winegrowers have a number of tools to combat grape vine diseases. Natural predators are added to the vineyard such as ladybirds to tackle aphid problems and insectivorous birds to eat spiders or beetles. Furthermore, in order to keep the weeds and bugs at bay, organic farmers work with nature, rather than against it. In this way, the vineyard becomes a self-regulating, natural ecosystem which is able to combat problems intrinsically and eliminates the need for artificial, and potentially toxic, chemicals. Organic grape growing claims that these practices result in wines that are healthier for the consumer.
In a winery, the primary difference is in the way that organic wine is processed. Conventionally-produced wine may include residual pesticides, added preservatives, colouring, oak chips and flavour agents, animal by-products and mouth-feel agents. A variety of chemicals can be used to speed up, slow down, and direct the process of turning grapes into wine. An organic wine is one made from organically produced grapes and does not contain or use artificial or synthetic chemicals during the winemaking process. However, many wines labelled “organic” are actually made with conventional methods and only the grapes are organic. It is often the larger wine companies that pay for the certifications but adopt such practices, rather than the small boutique producers.
Wine that receives organic certification is strictly regulated by the 2012 European Union labels. If a wine label states “organic wine,” it means that this product contains organic grapes which meet the required standards, and the wine is produced in a certified organic winery. The term includes the vinification process, and the labels must also show the EU organic logo, together with the code number of their certifier. As a result, consumers can be sure that any “organic wine” will have been produced using stricter production rules. The regulation identifies oenological techniques and substances to be authorized for organic wine. These include a maximum sulphite content set at 100 mg per litre for red wine and 150 mg per litre for white, with a 30 mg per litre differential where the residual sugar content is more than 2g per litre.
Some farmers take additional steps beyond standard organic winemaking to apply sustainable farming practices. The term “sustainable” is generally defined by practices which are considered socially responsible and eco-friendly (i.e. using solar power and limiting the use of synthetic materials). Examples include the use of composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to the health of the vines.
Sustainable practices in these vineyards also extend to actions that have seemingly little or nothing to do with the production of grapes. Sustainable farmers may use bio-diesel for tractors in the vineyards to reduce emissions among the vines, or plough with horses. The term refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible.
Sustainable programmes have their own certification process for vineyards and wines. Although these programmes involve different guidelines, they include best management practices for pest control, energy efficiency, economic sustainability, water conservation and habitat conservation. Sustainable wine making requires small, realistic, and measurable steps defined by relevant organizations. Although there are no universal standards, wineries that take the ecology of the vineyard into account, and try to minimize chemical treatments and energy use, are called sustainable.
Fields with a variety of plants provide inconsistent nutrient levels for insect pests, so the pests do poorly. Returning plant diversity to vineyards could be a key step toward sustainable pest control, as growing sustainably is very important for the future and will continue to be a focus in the wine world.
Biodynamic grape growing is a type of organic viticulture that uses special preparations of herbal sprays and composts, and they time their applications according to the lunar calendar. Biodynamics looks at the land as a complete living ecosystem, as a living being that needs biodiversity in order to be healthy. Biodynamic farming, like organic, prohibits artificial chemicals, but goes beyond that by introducing a “spiritual” relationship between the soil, grapes and earth as a whole (for example, the harvest is often timed to the phases of the sun and moon). It actively promotes the life of the soil and the organisms within through the application of specially prepared composts and animal products. Biodynamic certification requires the adherence to a stricter list of permissible/prohibited applications than does organic.
Biodynamic winemakers often also live and work on a farm with animals, fruit trees, woods and vines, striving to be self-sufficient. The soil is not considered as the surface for production, but rather as an organism in its own right. Preparations are used to enhance the micro-life in the soil, which is part of the context of lunar and cosmic rhythms. Many organic vineyards use some biodynamic tools, so there is often no clear-cut line between organic and biodynamic.
Biodynamic winemaking follows the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), and incorporates homeopathic treatments, as well as astronomical and astrological considerations, into the organic process. A wine “made from biodynamic grapes” means that a vintner used biodynamically grown grapes, but followed a less strict list of rules in winemaking. Biodynamic certification also costs money, so just as with organics, many biodynamically prepared wines do not declare this on the label.
Natural winemaking is not a marketing ploy, but rather a traditional view of wine as an expression of specific “terroir” and grape varieties, with minimal intervention in farming and winemaking. There are many ways one can produce a wine we would consider natural, which include organic and biodynamic grape growing. But grape growing is just that: what takes place in the fields. For a wine to really be natural, the same philosophies must continue into the winery up until the bottling process. There is no official or legal classification or standard set of operating procedures, and consequently it makes natural wine hard to define.
Natural winemakers may use organic or biodynamic grapes in their wines. Using native yeasts and relying on minimal manipulation often means that wines have a varying profile from year to year. Different vintages vary more than conventionally made wine because of the non-interventionist approach. The key aspects of what is generally considered to be a natural wine are:
. No synthetic molecules in the vines
. Ploughing or other solutions to avoid chemical herbicides
. The use of indigenous yeast
. Hand-picked grapes
. Low to no filtering
. Low to no sulphites
. Winemaking that respects the grapes
. No pumping or rough handling of the grapes
. No micro-oxygenation, and
. No chaptalization (sugar addition)
For a wine to be considered “natural”, it must be processed as naturally as possible. Natural winemaking is very much a philosophy and a nose-to-tail approach to producing wine, extending from vineyard to bottling. In general, organic and biodynamic philosophies concentrate on the vineyard, but with natural winemakers stricter, self-imposed standards exist.
There is a fine line between defining natural and ecologically produced wines. Ecological wines are those made with the least intervention – no chemicals and pesticides in the vineyards, and the minimum of additives like sulphur during processing. These kinds of wines are often treated with biodynamic preparations. They are also often unfiltered or go through minimum only natural filtrations so most have a lot of sediment and cloudy appearance. However, there has to be added a low amounts of sulphur during the production stages, so just enough to stabilize them especially if they are exported at some distance. Ecological wines claim to have better purity and expression of flavours, as well as they are thought to be better for your health and environment.
While the wine industry is actively evaluating how to enhance quality and production, it is also working toward “treading more lightly on the land”. For some, this means reducing certain chemical inputs in production practices; for others it may mean “greening” operations by reducing the waste stream, using more renewable energy sources, or investigating alternative seed stocks and cultivation practices. Wherever you fall in the spectrum, the wine industry is looking hard at the merits and feasibility of adopting certified organic practices.
The pressing question is: “Will ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ be the future of winemaking”? People are becoming increasingly concerned with what they’re putting in their bodies. As climate changes and its effects on the environment are more evident every day, this movement is becoming more important. From the grape producers’ standpoint, we hear the words “organic”, “biodynamic” and “sustainable” from winemakers and distributors more often now, and admittedly, they do resonate in a positive way. Consequently, it’s responsible to support those that have a direct beneficial impact on our land and ecological health.
It is widely accepted that the wave of the future is removing as many chemicals as possible from our vineyards and food supply as a whole, so less of these harmful chemicals end up in our bodies. However, these viticulture practices are more labour-intensive, but with potentially lower supply-and-materials costs. The fruit that results is expected to be of higher quality, entirely free of industrial residue or traces, safer for consumption and better for the land. Naturally, organic wines will sell at premium prices because their production requires more and detailed work.
It is frequently postulated that great wines start in the vineyard. In the last few decades, significant efforts are being made to improve wine quality while enhancing vineyards ecology. We expect that if the fruit is as pure and natural as it can possibly be, the result will be wines that are the purest expressions of those grapes. If consumers continue to demand organic wines, more and more grape growers and producers will commit to organic farming. The result is positive on multiple levels: it is better for the environment, it is better for our health, and it may even be better for our souls. Why? Because wine elevates the pleasures of the palate to their highest degree – and our palates tell our hearts!