Still, don’t let the possibility of confusion deter you from discovering the perfect wine! Summertime is the best season to explore these wines because they are often lighter, refreshing, and interesting enough to spark a lively conversation in between bites of brie, a fresh Caprese salad, and even cooling oysters.
Let’s dispel the flurry on these definitions! Here’s a primer to understand the differences between organic, biodynamic, and natural wines.
Organic wine is tricky. At face value, organic wine is made by adhering to the tenets of organic farming: no use of industrial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other synthetic chemicals in grape-growing. To be labeled organic wine in the U.S., farms must be certified by a third-party entity and the wine itself cannot contain any added chemical sulfites (a bit more on this in a minute). But this certification can be expensive and even unviable for the type of product a winemaker is churning out.
Instead, some producers forgo the costly organic certification and simply state on the label that their wine is made from organically-grown grapes. While this may be true, the wine itself may not be 100% organic, and may still contain added chemical sulfites or additives.
Sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant that is used to preserve and keep that wine fresh over long periods of time, can still be used in winemaking. If you’ve taken a second to scan the label on a bottle, you’ll see this as “contains sulfites.” They occur naturally in the fermentation process, and depending on the winemaker or intended product, more sulfites can be added to keep that wine tasting as intended when you decide to open it. Every country, including Canada, Chile, and the EU at large, has their own regulations regarding what can be labeled “organic,” such as how much sulfur dioxide can be added for reds and whites, as well as what other additions can be mixed in. But this shouldn’t be a distressing topic for an exciting wine hunt. Doing a bit of research on the producer, farm, and methods on a wine you like are the best ways to know whether it’s made organically, certification or not!
Biodynamic wines are made with extreme attention to the process of planting, growing, harvesting and winemaking. The biodynamic approach sees the vineyard as a holistic, and ultimately self-sustaining landscape. Producers follow the natural cycles of the sun, moon, and stars, as well as being in harmony with the vineyard’s natural flora and fauna (little pests and their corresponding predators), in order to get the best expression of the land in their bottle.
Interesting methods like composting, making emulsions of certain plants, and burying cow horns filled with dung then using the resulting manure as a slurry to be sprayed along the vineyard, are seen by some detractors as a load of, well, BS (couldn’t resist)! Yet, there are lots of biodynamic wines that are undeniably good, and we wonder if it’s the great care that goes into making them, dung and all.
Oftentimes, biodynamic wine production adheres to organic standards, but may also be uncertified. And just like organic wines, they can contain additives like industrial yeasts depending on the country and certifying party. Demeter is an entity that certifies biodynamic farms specifically; producers may choose to go the biodynamically certified route or not.
Natural Wine (Raw Wine, Low-Intervention Wine)
There is no official or legal definition of natural wine just yet, but there are some defining characteristics of the natural winemaking process that are surprisingly strict and self-imposed by the people who make and consume it.
The bottom line for natural wine is that they’re made using organic ingredients and may use biodynamic processes to varying degrees, but they take it a step further. There’s a consensus that natural wine grapes are hand-picked during harvest, minimal to zero sulfites are added, and there are no enhancers that change the acidity, color, or texture of the wine (such as wood chips). Plus, there are no sugars added, which are used to kickstart fermentation and up the alcohol content, and minimal or no filtration. Because of this, natural wines may look opaque and well, beautiful too.
Notably, no commercial yeasts are used in natural winemaking. Instead, vintners use the wild, native yeasts that are already living on the grape skins during fermentation. This allows for the true microbes of that region to shine through and create a distinctive and very unique adult libation. As Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine, says, natural wine is “nothing added, nothing removed.”
No matter what wine you choose to imbibe, the takeaway is that organic, biodynamic, and natural wines are all interrelated, strive to use eco-conscious methods, and help us take steps toward being more informed consumers.
Stephanie Parra is a professional chef and food, beverage, and hospitality writer. She runs The Salty Toast, a digital platform that aims to make food and wine accessible to all, and highlights diverse stories within the industry.