Natural Wine has become the darling catch phrase of the wine cognoscenti, but is wine ever really “unnatural”?
Well…yes! Or so it seems according to the devout followers of organic and biodynamic winemaking. Sounds a bit oxymoronic since wine is, after all, an agricultural product that’s grown on a farm and made from grapes—one of nature’s greatest gifts.
So what can be so unnatural about wine, you ask? Think pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, sugar, artificial acids, and shelf-life prolonging sulfites – additives that can interfere with a wine’s soulful expression of place, what the wine geeks call terroir.
The real question, though, is this: does natural wine actually taste better than commercially produced wine? Is it really worth all the hassle?
Well, that’s a very polarizing question that can be argued both ways, but it helps to first define what natural wine actually means. Natural wine is an all-encompassing term that describes wine made with as little human, chemical, or technological intervention as possible. There is no formal certification body for natural wine and the term has no legal definition, but proponents of natural wine posit that the grapes used in natural winemaking must be grown either organically or biodynamically, and that they must be hand-harvested as opposed to machine-harvested. Natural wine is made with native or wild yeasts that grow on the skins of grapes as opposed to commercially produced foreign yeasts, and is typically unfined and unfiltered, often leaving the wine a bit cloudy in appearance. Natural winemaking also prohibits the use of added sugar or acids to adjust a wine’s flavor profile, and prohibits the use of chemical sulfites as well. Sulfites are stabilizers that protect wine from oxidation and bacteria-induced spoilage.
So where do organic wines fit in? Wines that are certified organic tend to fall under the umbrella of natural wine but the implications of organic winemaking are far more concrete. Simply put, wines that are certified organic are made with grapes grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers and are bottled without the use of added chemical preservatives such as sulfites. It’s important to note, though, that sulfites are also a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process, and so no wine is completely free of sulfites. Sulfites are permissible in wines that are certified organic so far as the total level is less than 20 parts per million.
To make matters even more complicated, there is a separate category of wines that are made with organically grown grapes, but that do include the use of added sulfites in the bottling process to ensure the wine’s longevity. Such wines cannot be certified organic, but often include a disclaimer on the label that states that the grapes were grown organically.
Moving on to biodynamic winemaking—perhaps the most “out there” of all natural winegrowing philosophies. Biodynamics goes beyond the exclusion of chemical sprays and artificial preservatives, and takes an extremely holistic and sustainable approach to agriculture. According to Rudolf Steiner, the founding father of biodynamics, the success of a vineyard depends on the interrelationship between the soil, plants, animals, and other organisms on a farm. The grapes, themselves, are not necessarily front and center. By establishing this interdependency between the various elements on a farm, the farm becomes self-nourishing and self-contained, making foreign chemicals and artificial additives unnecessary. This philosophy relies on the use of natural composts, mineral “preparations,” and animal manure to nurture the vines, as opposed to using commercial fertilizers. Practitioners of biodynamic winemaking bury manure-filled cows’ horns among the vineyards and plant the vines according to the phases of the moon in keeping with the astronomical calendar. Sounds pretty groovy, huh? Well despite the abundance of hippie jokes and skeptical critics, biodynamic wines are actually certified by a formal agency called Demeter International and have acquired an enthusiastic cult following in recent years.
So what’s the verdict on natural wines? The proof is in the pudding as they say.
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by mylor