What Is Natural Wine? A Complete Guide To Organic, Biodynamic & Sustainable Wine
For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with the deep culture and history of wine growing and making. Being Italian-American, wine is a central part of our food culture and something that early on I learned from my parents and grandparents was a part of sharing a meal together with the ones you love. Wine was something that was always on the table, right next to the olive oil and parmesan, and poured into small glasses to sip along with whatever my mom, aunts, and grandmother had prepared.
It wasn’t unusual for my grandmother to offer us wine at dinner, which my parents would always remind her we were too young for, and she would reply that it was “good for our health” — she wasn’t necessarily wrong. This positive culture of including wine with food and family was something that I personally believe was really positive, and a great example of how wine has always been meant to be enjoyed. As I got older and started traveling and studying food cultures and sustainable food systems, wine was one of those agricultural products that always captivated my attention.
You see wine, unlike most other “foods”, isn’t something that people usually think of as being farmed, but in fact, the very essence of wine is made in the vineyard, growing like any other fruit and capturing the unique terroir of the region it came from.
This is what makes wine growing so special and different from most other types of farming because the story in a bottle of wine is representative of the land and culture it came from, and this is what makes natural “honest” wines so unique. Rather than using chemicals, additives, and preservatives to manipulate the growing process and winemaking, natural wines rely entirely on the quality of the land, the care of the winegrower, and the biodiversity and climate of the region it was grown in.
The Difference Between Conventional and Natural Wines
Because most people do not think of wine as a food in the same way they do their produce, often the same questions about how the wine was grown, made, etc. are not thought to be asked — but they should be.
Natural wines generally speaking are wines which follow the following growing and making guidelines:
No additives added (including no additional yeast added)
Grapes are grown on organic or biodynamic vineyards without the use of pesticides
Wine is fermented only using the natural yeast present on the grape or an organic yeast added
Little or no sulfites are added in the wine making process
Focused on sustainability both in how the grapes are grown and the way the wine is made. The goal for natural wines is to have a net positive outcome on the environment.
Conventional wines, on the other hand, can vary in their growing and wine-making practices. Often with conventional wines, you will see the addition of sulfites, yeast, and other additives to help manipulate the wine fermentation process.
Additionally, conventional wines can use pesticides to help prevent pests, and may or may not be considering sustainable in their growing practices from water usage to biodiversity on the vineyard. Often you can tell a conventional vineyard from a sustainable vineyard by the look of the grape vines. If the vines are complemented by other companion plants that create a healthy, alive looking landscape then you can be pretty sure that the vineyard is using sustainable and potentially biodynamic methods for growing and producing natural wines.
But going beyond just the general differences between conventional and natural wines, there are varieties within the natural wine industry that you may come across and would be worth knowing the next time you go to choose a natural wine.
What Is Biodynamic Wine?
While you may be familiar with organic farming, most people still are not aware of what biodynamic farming and winemaking really means, and how it is different from other sustainably conscious growing practices.
According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the official definition of biodynamic farming is:
“A spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.”
Sounds pretty great right? As we continue to face agricultural challenges associated with our climate crisis, biodynamic farming in many ways brings us back to the holistic, traditional approach of growing food and connecting with our environment on the deepest level.
On biodynamic vineyards, the vineyard is viewed as one self-sustaining ecosystem that functions in unison from the natural matter used to support the soil, to complimentary animals to promote biodiversity, and companion plants for natural pest management, and aims to leave the land better off year after year for future generations.
Biodynamic wine growing also follows the biodynamic calendar which is based off the moon cycle, and while more difficult to prove the scientific validity of, is a central piece to the process of biodynamic farming.
On a biodynamic farm, all aspects of farming are broken into four different kinds of days: root, flower, fruit, and leaf. Each of these days is based off of the biodynamic calendar and represent different timing of tasks. For example, fruit days are when harvesting happens, leaf days are for watering, root days are for pruning, and flower days are when the vines and vineyard are left alone.
Additionally, biodynamic farms use a variety of herbal compost preparations that are viewed as healing remedies for the earth and include the flowers and herbs: yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian flowers. Think of it as a form of herbalism for the health of the grape vines and the surrounding ecosystem.
While there are similarities between organic and biodynamic vineyards, the main difference is that organic farming refers to the way the grapes are grown, while biodynamic farming refers to the entire vineyard as a whole, the lunar calendar, and other traditional practices that support the entire ecosystem of the vineyard, far beyond the grape.
It also is important to note that while there is a certified biodynamic labeling organization, many biodynamic vineyards may not choose to seek out certification and would rather educate their customers about their practices without feeling the need to seek external labeling.
What Is Organic Wine?
Organic wine, similar to biodynamic wine, refers to wine that has been made without the use of artificial chemical pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides. Organic wines need to be produced in accordance with the principles of organic farming but can include certain approved organic additives like sulfites, yeast, and other organically approved materials. Organic wines are also not allowed to be genetically engineered.
The biggest differences between organic and biodynamic wine are that the main criteria of organic wine are to produce organic grapes and an organic wine product. The focus is on the grapes and maintaining and only using products that support the health of the surrounding environment and soil, however, organic does allow for additional additives and does not consider the entire farm ecosystem in the same way that biodynamic does. It also doesn’t follow the lunar calendar or any other traditional rituals that are associated with biodynamic farming.
Read more about the USDA regulations for Organic Certified Wine here.
What Are Sustainable Wines or “Natural” Wines?
Sustainable and natural wines refer to the industry of winemaking that prioritizes making wine in a way that is positive for the environment and reduces waste in regards to things like energy usage and water.
These types of wines include organic and biodynamic wines, but also could refer to vineyards that are working to reduce their impact on the environment, support social responsibility in their labor practices, and convert to renewable energy.
Sustainable vineyards could be organic, biodynamic, or could still be using minimal artificial chemicals when absolutely needed. Every vineyard really is unique which is why it is important to ask questions and seek out vineyards that you believe are growing and producing their wine in a way you feel positive supporting.
Wine Sustainability Certifications
Certification and labeling in the wine industry are complex, and yet most consumers rarely think to look for a specific certifying agency label on their bottle of wine. While labels can be helpful, wine is a culturally rich product with each vineyard and wine being unique in the way it was made, which is why even with a myriad of labels available many sustainable wine producers still choose not to seek certification. This isn’t necessarily because they couldn’t meet standards, but instead is often due to the expensive cost of certification that is placed on the farmer.
This is why many winegrowers choose to not certify their vineyards even if they are using organic and biodynamic practices. While this may make it more difficult to choose a sustainable wine randomly at the wine store, it also provides an opportunity for more people to do their research and education in regards to the wines they are choosing rather than simply relying on a label that most likely won’t tell the whole story of the wine, or the culture it came from.
With that being said there are many wine certifications that you can be on the lookout for, and at the very least can trust in knowing that a third-party certifying agency approved the wine for its specific growing and making practices.
USDA Certified Organic
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
Sustainability In Practice (SIP)
Leadership In Energy And Environmental Design (LEED)
Low Impact Viticulture and Enology (LIVE)
Made With Organic Grapes
Environmental Management System ISO (EMS)
Certified Green (Lodi Rules)
Sustainable Wine Growing Of New Zealand (SWNZ)
Certified Sustainable Wine Of Chile
Integrity And Sustainability Certified (South Africa)
Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW)
Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol
To learn more about each of these labels and what they mean check out this article:
The Complete Guide To Sustainable Wine Certification Labels
Where To Buy Natural Wine
So now that you know everything you need to about natural wines and sustainability in the wine industry, it’s time we talk about where you can purchase natural wine. While your local wine store may very well carry natural wines, there are many vineyards that offer domestic and international shipping if you would prefer to have your wine shipped right to your home.
California Natural Wines: If you are looking for a California Natural Wine, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance has a great resource for finding all their sustainably certified wines.
Independent Sustainable Wines: If you are looking to support a variety of small, independent sustainable wine producers then Natural Wine is a great resource to find unique wines you most likely won't be able to find in your average wine store.
Search For Natural Wines By Country: Want to select a specific country or type of wine? Raw Wine has an extensive list of organic, biodynamic, and natural wines that makes it easy to source any natural wine you desire.
Natural Wine Club: If you like the idea of trying a wide variety of organic and biodynamic wines then the Pure Wine Series Membership by Wine Of The Month Club may be just for you.
Expert Approved: If you are looking for some expert recommendations on which natural wines to try, Decanter had it's expert's blind taste 122 natural wines and these are the 31 you need to know about. While the review is a few years old, it still is a great resource for finding natural vineyards and wines worth exploring.
Vermont Natural Wines: Of course I have to include some biodynamic and sustainably produced wine from my own state here in Vermont, which is become quite the new wine region and producing some incredible wines and ciders.
So whether you are new to the world of natural wines or are just getting started, I hope that you now have a new found admiration and understanding of just what goes into creating a natural wine, and why they are worth celebrating and watching for the future of wine growing and making.
Have a favorite natural wine that is worth trying? Leave a note in the comments with your favorites.