People generally see the sort of hierarchy of “natural-ness” in wine as the following:
This is a bit of a misconception, however, as some sustainable farms take measures above those of certified organic wine requirements, although they are not certified organic. There are also natural winemakers who find that term off-putting and prefer not to be labeled as such. It’s not all black and white, but the following classifications provide some guidance.
Sustainable farming is concerned with the overall health of the land and soil, and recognizes the importance of the interconnected ecosystem to yield grapes of the highest quality.
Sustainable growers may instill various practices in order to accomplish this. One such method is the use of compost to enrich soil fertility. Another is growing various plants in addition to the grape vines that attract helpful insects and encourage biodiversity. They may also limit the use of machinery, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Some sustainably-farmed wine may be organic but not certified yet, or even in the process of becoming certified organic. These producers are otherwise known as “organic in-conversion”. There are also “practicing organic” producers who operate like an organic farm, but for any number of reasons have not gotten certified. The cost of certification can be a large factor for small-batch producers, as many natural growers are. Some vintners have been doing what they do for so long that their reputation for quality precedes them, and they don’t necessarily need the validation of certification to sell their wine.
The state of California created a certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) which encompasses water conservation, energy efficiency, soil management, waste reduction and management, air quality, community and social responsibility, and more. For more information on this, please visit: https://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org/swpworkbook.php
Organic wine, like other organic produce and widely sold items, is essentially wine made from grapes that adhere to organic farming standards. Therefore, they are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. These practices only consciously arose in the 1940s as a response to industrial farming and patented products and chemicals which had become widespread.
The certifications vary country to country and organization to organization. Some potential outlets include but are not limited to: the Soil Association, Nature & Progrès, Ecocert, Australian Certified Organic, USDA Organic.
The simplest distinction between U.S.A. and European Union standards is that both growing and cellar processes in the U.S. must include only certified organic materials. For instance, certified organic yeast may be added as part of the conversion process. However, the USDA states that:
“Any non-agricultural ingredients must be specifically allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and can’t exceed 5% of the total product.”
In addition to this, while the USDA recognizes organic wine may contain some naturally-occurring SO2, no sulfites may be added to certified organic wine in the United States.
The E.U. has less strict requirements. Only farming practices need be organic to be certified. The European Commission allows sulfites to be added in the cellar, but the quantity of SO2 contained must be at least 50 mg/l less than conventional wines to be labeled organic.
Biodynamic farming is an approach developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. He was a philosopher, social reformer, literary critic and architect who created the Anthroposophy movement, which attempts to marry science and spirituality.
Biodynamic farming arose from a growing concern around soil fertility and sees the farm—or vineyard—as a self-sustaining, living organism in which measures of prevention, rather than treatment, can be taken to create harmonious conditions.
Similar to sustainable farming, biodynamic farms allow the land’s natural biodiversity to grow without intervention (aka weeds, wildflowers, etc.—all welcome!) to provide a fully functioning and inherently resilient ecosystem. They may introduce additional fruits and vegetables or other vegetation to increase biodiversity further. The farm produces its own animal feed (with animal welfare of high consideration), manure or compost fertilization, and the vineyard exists as a stand-alone unit. Like sustainable farms, biodynamic growers’ efforts may extend beyond the vineyard for community responsibility as well.
In addition to organic and sustainable practices, biodynamics considers external forces such as gravity, light, planetary cycles, and the moon as well as the sun. This is where it gets a little “woo woo”… Often biodynamic farms are harvested around the lunar cycle, recognizing the gravitational pull of the plants much like the tides, rather than solar cycle as in traditional methods. They also require minimal use of machinery, and are hand-picked.
Natural wines are very often created from biodynamic farming practices. Many producers believe only grapes grown in this “live” fashion with healthy microbial composition can thrive in the “hands-off” cellar approach to natural winemaking. However, all biodynamic wines are not necessarily natural due to practices once the grapes are picked (see articles on “Cellar”).
There is an official certification for biodynamic wines called the Demeter standard. It originated in France where the practice is popular, and has spread stateside where vineyards can be certified by Demeter USA.