Wine Stuff To Know: A Field Guide to Natural, Organic and Beyond.
A budding Wilderness Explorer would never venture Into the Unknown without their trusted Field Guide. (Two Disney references in one opening sentence *self high-five*). A field guide, traditionally, is used to assist in identifying items in nature such as animals, plants and minerals. The Field Guide to the Natural Wine World below will help you in identifying and understanding the nature terms on bottle labels.
First a quick lesson on the natural wine world. Vineyards, like many crops, have been grown in recent history with chemicals* to control pests and diseases from ruining the fruits. There were benefis to these developments; namely ensuring a plentiful food supply for a growing population by reducing crop damage from infestations. While many vineyards and farms still use these chemicals, there is a continued effort by most to cut down on frequency and reliance. This is supported by the progress that has been made to reduce or eliminate the chemicals in the grape growing process that will still produce healthy crops - for the wine and the environment. It gets complicated in the plethora of terms related to natural wine you'll see on the bottle or store shelves. Next time you step into the field, well a wine shop, bring the below field guide with you...
Your Field Guide to Understanding Natural Wine Terms:
Sustainable: the broadest and least specific labeling term. In this category, you can still use man-made chemicals, just with restrictions and limitations. Sustainable vineyards try to minimize, rather than eliminate, chemical use by observing patterns in diseases and pests then trying to prevent those issues from occurring in the first place. By preventing infestations from starting, they will not need to use chemicals to stop it.
Organic: the wine will have been grown without the use of any chemicals in the vineyard or winery. It can only state "organic" on the bottle if it has passed a certification process by a accreditation committee.
Biodynamic: grapes will be grown organically, no chemical use or heavy manipulations, in addition to applying a cosmology approach. In simpler, down-to-Earth, terms, biodynamic vineyards believe the soil is connected deeply with Earth, the air, the solar system. They will adjust their grape growing to align with the cycles of the planets, moons and stars. For more information, read about the research done by Rudolf Steiner and Maria Thun on this topic.
Natural: the wine is produced with grapes that were grown on a sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyard. This term will indicate little to no chemical use or manipulation to the grape. Natural or wild yeasts will have been used in the fermentation process.
Approach with caution:
Any good field guide will also warn of possible hazards of the natural world. Here in our natural wine world, we have a few things to be on high alert for.
Deceiving terms: In a quest for something so noble as to do good for the environment, there is a lot of misleading labeling and information out there. A label may say something such as "Sustainable Vineyard" and beware. Because they called out "vineyard", it may indicate they use many chemicals and heavy manipulation when the grape arrives in the winery for pressing, fermentation and bottling. Same if it is reversed; "Sustainable Winery" could be using all the chemicals in their crop fields.
Organic regulations vary: As with so many other facets of wine, rules and regulations change country to country, appellation to appellation. If the label states "organic" - the wine has passed a certification. The issue is that what it takes to be organic is different everywhere; some may be stricter than others. If the "organic" label is important to you, make sure you do your research on the specific region.
They are not "healthier": There is talk of the health benefits to having less chemicals in our food. However.....Natural grapes and wines still have: calories, sugar and alcohol. Enjoy responsibly.
Sulfites: Many natural wines also promote no sulfites in their end product. Sulfites are a byproduct of winemaking, and may still be there in small amounts. Fear not, they are only an issue for those that are sensitive to or allergic to sulfites.
No discussion of natural wines is complete without the question: Are they any good? The short answer is: yes. The techniques have come a long way and as a result natural wines continue to improve. Not all will be delicious - ask your wine shop owner for assistance. Seek out a restaurant or bar that takes pride in their wine list, and would only stock excellent examples of natural wines.
*Note: The man-made chemicals include things such as: chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides.
~Cheers & Ears