Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wine Explained! + Where to Buy in LA
If you’re even slightly into wine, then you’ve probably heard of organic, biodynamic, or natural wine. These buzz-worthy terms - and wines - may sound conceptually similar, and may even overlap, but mean completely different things.
And even if you're not into wine (really, guys?), then maybe trying one of these wines will turn you into a convert. Bryan said he can be a wine guy after having tried natural wines!
Here is a brief primer on what it all means:
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 (keyword!) 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 so fresh and so clean 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 expected 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 sustainably - organic 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
Oftentimes, biodynamic wine production adheres to organic standards (with or without the "organic" label), but may also be uncertified as biodynamic. 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.
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.
Natural wine can follow either or both organic and 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. There might be harmless little floaties in your natural wine that will make it look opaque and beautiful too (if anything, they’ll add to the experience)!
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, possibly funky, but very unique adult libation. As Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine, says, natural wine is “nothing added, nothing removed.”
These methods and products prove that wine comes from something that is living and breathing - a whole fucking vineyard that can be acres wide with its own microclimates and microbiome in between each row - and definitely needs the diversity of various animals, plants, and microbes to keep replenishing the soil.
While monoculture can yield consistent results and efficiency for a larger commercial vineyard, it can also deplete soil nutrition, increase the need for resources like water and fossil fuels, upset the natural biodiverse balance of an area, and contaminate both soil and water sources with pesticide run-off (which affects both animals and humans). It's also okay to not want consistency all of the time - the complexity that occurs in natural wine is really interesting and exciting. SCIENCE!
This kind of wine production has reinvigorated older, more traditional winemaking techniques in the U.S. that have existed and are still popular in Europe today. And there's good conversation afoot on how we can change agricultural practices as makers and consumers, as well as acting upon the philosophy that yes, becoming better stewards of terroir, "land" in French, is good. It also happens to be damn delicious.
Where to buy organic, biodynamic, and natural wines in LA: