What is the difference between organic, natural and biodynamic wine? People frequently asked me this question when I worked as a restaurant sommelier. They also asked me why they should buy organic, biodynamic or natural wines. This is a confusing topic because there’s a lot of overlapping ideologies and regulations.
To break it down, not all organic wines are biodynamic, but all biodynamic wines must be organic. All natural wines also must be at least organic, if not also biodynamic. When it comes down to it, wine is just like food. The type of wine you buy is dependent on your budget, but also what you are looking to garner from the drinking experience.
So what do you want out of your wine? Are you looking for an exciting completely additive-free and funky natural wine? Or are you looking for a more standard “headache-free” organic wine. These differences are important to note.
So, what makes organic wine different from natural or biodynamic wine? Mainly the legally controlled use of preservatives and additives. Natural wine doesn’t mandate the exclusion of additives because it is not a legally defined term. Don’t worry we will cover that topic in a second. Organic wine regulation is pretty similar to organic food but the regulations for this vary by country. In general, organic wine is treated with organic farm-friendly pesticides in the vineyard. Futhermore, additional preservatives are only allowed in small controlled amounts. Contrary to popular belief, pesticides are allowed in the vineyard in organic viticulture and farming. The catch is they must be from a naturally derived source. Keep in mind some chemicals are still considered “naturally derived”.
Sulfites in Organic Wine
The USA has some of the most strict laws about growing and importing wines that are organic. The USA checks wines for levels of sulfur and mandates that the levels are below 20 parts per million, a minuscule amount. Can wineries still add sulfur and have the amount of sulfur show up as 20-parts-per-million or lower? Yes. Actually, most wine still has sulfur added even when it is organic. They squeeze in just a tiny bit right before bottling. What importance does the addition of sulfur play in wine? Sulfur is a stabilizer for the wine. It makes the wine less susceptibility to bacteria that may cause off flavors and acts as a preservative allowing the wine to age more gracefully.
Added sulfites are what people usually associate with headache-inducing wines. However, sulfites are not bad and all wines have them naturally. When you add a HUGE amount of sulfites (such as they do for more bulk wines) that is where your headaches originate. I believe that moderation is key in winemaking.
Want to hear something cool? Many wineries are actually shifting to organic and biodynamic practices but most don’t get certified because it’s expensive!!!
Natural wine can sometimes be a bit extreme for me. Some people don’t love the hell out of it! To me drinking natural wine is like rolling the dice or gambling. You never know what you are going to get. Why is this? Natural means very little to no additives and minimal intervention in the winemaking process. This includes using natural yeasts for fermentation, fermenting white wines on the skins, and more. Most natural wines are not fined or filtered. Subsequently, they look a little cloudy and dull.
As I mentioned earlier, all natural wines are at minimum organic, if not biodynamic. Natural winemaking is not a legally recognized terminology and so really anything can happen. I’ve had some really cool natural wines… and some wines that were truly… gnarly in the worst way. Because the wine just “does its thing” wine can vary in the EXTREME from bottle to bottle and vintage to vintage. Overall I am not one of those sommeliers that is super excited to drink the “Natty” juice. Yet there are producers who stand out. Some of my favorites?
- Josko Gravner in Slovenia
- Donkey Goat in California
- Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo Italy
Why drink natural wine? Because it can be down right exciting just as often as it is bad.
Now, here’s a topic that gets me super excited. Biodynamics tickles my inner wine and yoga geek. Why? Because it’s all about energy! The way I describe biodynamics to the everyday drinker: it’s like organic farming for hippies.
Biodynamics takes winemaking into a semi-metaphysical realm. It was originally created by the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. The practice is not just about cultivating the vines. Biodynamics focuses on creating a vibrational harmonious ecosystem in the vineyard. The more extreme proponents of biodynamics do take it to the extreme. Some treatments include a “tea” made in cow horns and salves dripped through animal skulls.
That may sound over the top, but biodynamics can be approachable as well! Similar to organic viticulture many people practice biodynamic viticulture without certification because it’s expensive. While many others take less extreme, animal-bone-riddled routes.
Biodynamic wine at its core is additive free. All the herbicides used to treat the vines come from within the vineyards and surrounding area. The whole vineyard becomes healthier when biodynamic farming comes into play. It’s good for our earth and better to drink in my humble opinion. Why don’t more people practice biodynamic farming? I don’t know. Just like I don’t understand why most people don’t practice yoga. It takes literally five additional work days in the vineyards per year to convert and practice biodynamic farming. I think it will be the next big thing once people understand.
Biodynamic producers to watch out for?
- Nicholas Joly in the Loire Valley, France
- Bass Phillip on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia
- Domaine Leroy in Burgundy
Thanks for reading!! – JE