Back when I started writing about wine, some 15 years ago, biodynamic and organic wine was pretty rare. In 2002, I compiled a list of biodynamic vineyards for an article, and it was a short one. At this stage, there was no such thing as certified sustainable wine. And natural wine was a tiny, almost silent presence in the wine landscape. How things have changed!
The Rise of “Virtuous” Wine
The rise of virtuous wines—those made from vineyards that have been managed sustainably, and/or handled minimally in the winery—has been quite a remarkable one. But there has been a degree of separation between what happens in the vineyards and what goes on in the winery. So, theoretically, you could have a natural wine that is made from conventionally farmed grapes. It’s not common, but it does happen. And you can have beautifully grown biodynamic grapes subjected to a fairly brutal winemaking regime—as Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon puts it so well, “some people are fairies in the vineyards and orcs in the cellars.”
And then there’s sustainability. While organics and biodynamics are a relatively small but growing niche, certified sustainable programs have been unrolled across large segments of the industry. For example, in New Zealand, the vast majority of the country’s vineyards are part of the NZ certified sustainable winegrowing scheme. This is an amazing achievement, and has resulted in a large reduction of chemical inputs to vineyards. While no other country has managed to get as much industry buy-in as New Zealand, there are other countries that have implemented official certification systems, such as South Africa, Chile, and Australia. The challenge for certified sustainable certifications is to have a system that is rigorous enough that it makes a real difference (and makes viticulture truly sustainable), without having such onerous and expensive requirements that it puts off winegrowers. Getting the balance right is difficult.
Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural
Organics and biodynamics are quite closely related, in that biodynamic vineyards will meet the requirements of organic certification, but will also have some additional criteria that need satisfying. Many certification bodies exist for organics; for biodynamics there are two wine bodies offering this certification: Demeter (the main one) and Biodyvin. Certification can be expensive, so some winegrowers opt to implement biodynamic practices without becoming officially certified. Unlike the situation for food, there seems to be no premium attached to organic of biodynamic wine. Perhaps this is because many people assume that wine is a natural product and that vineyards are farmed in step with the environment. Biodynamics used to be seen as being a weird, fringe form of viticulture, but it now has so many celebrity estates employing it that it’s more-or-less respectable, even though some of its practices are a little unusual from a scientific perspective.
So what of natural wine? There is no definition yet for this growing category. This is a source of annoyance to many in the wine world: after all, by co-opting the term natural, the club of winegrowers who choose to align themselves under this banner are implying that there’s something unnatural about conventional wine. The difficulty of the position is further entrenched by the fact that many of the world’s leading wines would be classified as natural by any sensible definition of the word. This does seem to be a confusing situation. But despite this, and the frequent predictions that natural wine would be just a passing fad, it seems to have real traction. Natural wine fairs are flourishing, and from my experiences in the UK and Australia, they seem to attract large numbers of consumers, many of whom are in the age bracket (20s and 30s) that the traditional wine business is finding hard to connect with. For no other reason, this is a movement to be reckoned with.
Defining Natural Wine
How can natural wine be defined? There’s a loose definition that’s far from unofficial, and it goes like this. First, it’s ideal if the grapes are organically or biodynamically farmed, although as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t always the case. Natural wine is more about what takes place in the winery. The general definition is to add as little as possible, and preferably nothing at all. No enzymes or nutrients or acid should be added. The only really permissible addition is a bit of sulfur dioxide, and if it’s added, it’s in small quantities just before bottling. Fermentations should be with the native yeasts, and malolactic, if it occurs, with naturally occurring bacteria. There should be no fining or filtration.
Sulfur dioxide seems to be a sticking point. The natural wine community has become a little obsessed with it. This preservative and defense against oxidation is produced naturally by yeasts during fermentation, and sometimes at levels that exceed 10 milligrams a liter, at which point the wine needs to be labeled “contains sulfites.” Certainly, wines made with no added sulfites can be really elegant and delicious, but some natural wine growers, untrusting of the conditions encountered in shipping their wines, add a bit at bottling. The late Beaujolais producer Marcel Lapierre used to do two separate bottlings: one with no sulfur dioxide added at all, and one with some at bottling to make the wine more stable for export. This tradition has been carried on by his children who now run the estate. Natural wine fairs such as RAW (London and Berlin) and Rootstock (Sydney) now have the total sulfur dioxide level of each wine displayed in their catalogue. While this makes it clear to consumers which winegrowers are adding some, it also implies that lower levels of sulfur dioxide are better, which isn’t always the case. This fixation on sulfur dioxide can take away from giving proper attention to important issues such as how the grapes are farmed, which should be emphasized more in the natural wine movement.
Natural wine is thriving, but it can be a bit process-focused (do, or don’t do this, and your wine will be good), and it is quite exclusive (are you part of the club?). And even though it’s continuing to gain recruits, there are signs that we are now moving towards a post-natural wine era. Techniques used by natural winegrowers are being adopted by those who wouldn’t classify themselves as “natural,” and while wine lists would have previously been easy to divide into natural and conventional, there’s now more of a mixing. The boundaries between natural and conventional are beginning to seem a little blurred. This is a good thing: The occasionally extreme natural wine movement has had a positive impact on the rest of the wine industry and has prompted others to question what they are doing. A category of more authentic wines has emerged, made by those who are working more naturally, but who look at natural methods as a way to achieve an end—more authentic wines that better display their origin—than naturalness as an end in itself.