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Behind the Wine––Organic, natural, and other ways to grow grape

There is a fascinating breakdown of transparency somewhere between the documentation of the “nutrition facts” for the food we eat compared with the opacity surrounding the wine we drink.  Even fast-food restaurants have been nudged to catch-up in the nutritional disclosure department. Yet the typical label on a bottle of wine still contains the same, generally irrelevant rhetoric: “Contains sulfites” and often little more.

For those of us looking to hedge our wine consumption toward low-additive, wholesome, and health-conscious—often our best avenue is to stick with the categories of organic, biodynamic, and, dare I say, natural wine.

Certified Organic // Not only is organic wine farmed without the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides but the wine in the bottle is made using only limited additives as verified by the various regulating bodies that certify organic. Thus “certified organic” generally provides quite meaningful insight on not just how the grapes were farmed, but how the wine was made. On the label, look for the USDA organic seal or “certified organic” by a particular certifying agent, I.E. Ecocert, which is also sometimes marked “Vin Biologique,” as in France.

Practicing Organic // This un-regulated term is used to refer to farmers that eschew the use of synthetic chemicals in their farming but have not had their wine tested and verified by a certifying body. Of course, it’s important to recognize that “practicing organic” is effectively saying “chemical free, on the honor system.” Although you won’t find this term on a bottle of wine, it frequently appears on tasting notes, and shelf talkers and is generally a useful indicator that some care has been taken in the grape growing process. Bear in mind though, this terminology doesn’t necessarily offer any insight into winemaking processes or any additives that may have been used.

Biodynamic // Biodynamics is an institution of farming that takes “practicing organic” as an absolute baseline and improves upon it—approaching the vineyard not just as a farm, but as an ecosystem. This method was pioneered by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s and applied to viticulture by Nicholas Joly in France’s Loire Valley starting in 1984. Of the many tenets of biodynamics, farm-animal inputs are considered an absolutely essential ingredient. Biodiversity is encouraged in the vineyard. In the place of chemicals, various tinctures and teas are used as a holistic medicine cabinet to treat maladies among the vines. It’s worth noting that biodynamic farming also offers rigorous astrological approaches that some wine producers swear by, while others take that with a grain of salt. Demeter is the primary certifying agent of biodynamic wines, so look for the “Demeter” seal on the back label, and mind that “practicing biodynamic” techniques are common as well.

Natural // This is perhaps the most highly charged of wine terms in circulation today. A variety of opinions exist as to what constitutes “natural.” Unlike “organic” or “biodynamic”—there is not yet a widely acknowledged certification. Among many circles of the industry, at a bare minimum, natural wine is produced from grapes that have been farmed without the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, fermented using indigenous yeasts, and bottled with very minimal additions of sulfites. Thus, “natural wine” is an all-encompassing process from vineyard to bottle and can easily be overlapped with certified organic and biodynamic approaches. Other definitions range from as liberal as the inclusion of conventionally farmed grapes (read: not organic) to as strict as “no added SO2/sulfites added, ever, whatsoever.”

Besides health-conscious insight, these farming/winemaking practices also provide us a glimpse into environmental impact. Of course, these categories aren’t a perfect gauge for sustainability, but it’s generally a step in the right direction.
According to my friend Jennifer Buck, winemaker at Colline de l’Hirondelle in the Lauguedoc of Southern France: “Since we started converting the vineyards to organic farming we have seen birds and insects return and the soils slowly come back to life. We can also harvest delicious wild arugula and other lettuces in the vineyards, which in itself is reason enough for me to go organic.”

Certified Organic Colline de l’Hirondelle Oiseau—Languedoch, France (red blend: Carignan/Grenache/Syrah)

Practicing Organic Bricco Maiolica Langhe Nebbiolo—Piedmont, Italy

Biodynamic Brick House Gamay Noir, Demeter Certified—Willamette Valley, Oregon

Natural Can Sumoi Serrade L’Home Xarello—Penedès, Spain.

—Ancona’s Wines & Liquors

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