Organic. Biodynamic. Natural. What does it all mean? As the wine world marches toward eco-consciousness and sustainability, consumers are left with more buzzwords, and more questions.
The distinction between organic, biodynamic and natural is sometimes murky. The terms often describe overlapping, but not interchangeable qualities. Technically, what is a certified organic wine? What does it mean to adopt biodynamic practices in the vineyard? How does “natural winemaking” come into play? Let’s break the terminology down into its component parts.
What is organic wine?
So, what does “organic” mean when it comes to wine? In the U.S., organic wine falls into two categories: wine that’s organic, and wine made with organically grown grapes.
Organic wines certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have stricter regulations. The grapes are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, and all ingredients going into these wines, which includes yeast, must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added to these wines, although some that occur naturally are permitted. Only these wines may display the USDA organic seal.
Jonathan and Katrina Frey were the first winemakers in California to embrace organic winemaking at Frey Vineyards, 39 years ago. Since then, the movement has taken off.
“We started on a period of experimentation in the ’80s to make additive-free wines, which is what we still do,” says Jonathan. “We just make wine in a pure style. We don’t use additives, but we do use modern winemaking equipment… We were there early, but I think it’s just a trend that’s growing.”
“Made with organically grown grapes” means the wine must be made entirely from certified organic grapes. Additional ingredients used in the winemaking process need not be organic, but they cannot be produced with the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Wines must be produced and bottled in an organic facility, and sulfites must be limited to 100 parts per million or less. Although these wines can state on their labels to have been made with organic grapes, they cannot use the USDA’s organic seal.
In 2012, the European Union began to allow winemakers to use “organic wine” on their labels. Prior to that, wines were labeled as “made from organic grapes.”
The most notable difference between organic American and organic European wines is the amount of sulfites permitted in the final product. While USDA-certified organic wines can contain virtually no sulfites at all, their EU counterparts can contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites like non-USDA-certified organic wines in the U.S.
Canada’s top organic standard is closer to the USDA. In Canada, a wine labeled “100% organic” must be produced using certified organic grapes and contain no added sulfites.
Canadian winemakers also have the option to designate their wines as “organic” if they were made with a minimum of 95% certified organic grapes and contain very low levels of sulfites. Wines in Canada can be labeled as “made with organic grapes,” which is an unofficial distinction for bottlings made with a minimum of 70% organic grapes and added sulfites.
What is biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic winemaking is a governing practice that goes back nearly a century. Unlike organic winemaking, the distinction of biodynamic does not change between countries.
Started in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics represent a method of farming based around a specific astronomic calendar. Each day coincides with one of the elements: earth, fire, air and water. Days are organized by fruit days (preferable for grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days, where the vineyard should be untouched.
Biodynamic practices don’t go solely by this calendar, however. Steiner also instructed followers to use fertilization preparations. One technique used in biodynamic farming involves cow horns filled with compost that are buried in the vineyards, only to be dug up later.
If you’ve seen “biodynamic” and “organic” grouped together, there’s a reason for that. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices, as they avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. The majority of these wines are, therefore, also organic in practice.
Certified biodynamic wines, however, are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA or top Canadian standard for certified organic wines. In short, a wine that’s organic is not necessarily biodynamic, even if a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
In 1985, Demeter USA was founded, a nonprofit organization dedicated to biodynamic practices in wine. Demeter International represents 45 countries.
What is natural wine?
The commonly agreed definition of low-intervention or natural wine is one that is fermented spontaneously with native yeast. These wines are largely unmanipulated and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites.
Such wines are neither filtered nor fined, which means they may contain particulates or appear cloudy, since there may be dissolved solids that remain in suspension. The steps involved in filtering and fining require additional products like collagen and egg whites, which are not commonly accepted for use in natural wines.
This category is meant to define wines that have gone through the bare minimum in terms of chemical or winemaker intervention. These wines are often not aged in oak. With their lack of sulfites and other non-interventionist factors, these wines may have limited stability and are typically produced in smaller quantities.
Can a natural wine be certified organic? If the grape growing adheres to organic standards, then yes. Can they also be biodynamic? So long as the winemaker employs the biodynamic requirements like the calendar and composting, they can be that, too. Because it’s more rigorous to have a wine labeled organic than natural, many winemakers prefer to skip this regulatory distinction altogether.
Here are some winemakers who have pushed the boundaries in each of these categories.
Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley, California
Jonathan and Katrina Frey were among the first American winemakers to become certified organic. They continue to make organic wine at a high level today, as part of a family business. Their impact on California winegrowing cannot be overstated.
Marcel Lapierre, Beaujolais, France
American wine négociant Kermit Lynch referred to Lapierre as the brains behind the so-called “Gang of Four,” the quartet of French winemakers responsible for getting organics off the ground in the 1970s. Lapierre’s benchmark Beaujolais are pure expressions of fruit. To this day, they remain true to the tenets of organic winemaking.
Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Beaverton, Oregon
This was one in a series of vineyards that embraced biodynamics in the early 1990s. Of their 160 acres, 125 acres are now 100% biodynamic (a fifth vineyard is in the process of conversion). They produce superlative wines from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Blanc and Gamay.
Nicolas Joly, Loire Valley, France
This iconoclastic winemaker is, in some ways, the unofficial Old World leader of the biodynamic wine movement. Known for spirited antics and a dedication to biodynamics that began in 1980, Joly’s straw-colored Savennières is among the wine world’s great treasures.
Occhipinti, Sicily, Italy
Arianna Occhipinti achieved cult status in her early 20s when she released her first vintage in 2006. Almost a decade and a half later, she’s still a leader in the natural wine movement, and her wines still command serious attention.
Donkey and Goat, Northern California
All of the immensely popular wines produced by Jared and Tracey Brandt’s winery, Donkey and Goat, are bottled without stabilization, fining or filtration. The duo uses only small amounts of sulfites, which results in a compelling roster of natural wines.