Grape to Glass: Natural Wines Explained (Sort of)
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Harvest season has arrived and the wine regions of the world are deep into this frenetic, sometimes unpredictable, yet most critical stage of the winemaking process. Grapes are being picked under the omniscient presence of the almighty winemaker who now must decide how to convert this harvested fruit into wine.
To add, or not to add? That is (generally) the question. When we are discussing “natural” wines we are largely referring to the addition, or lack, of chemicals during the winemaking process. But there’s spectrum of what is considered natural wine and variance in the interpretation by winemakers and drinkers alike.
So, what is a natural wine? And what about organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines?
While there is no official definition of natural wine, there are general principles that both wine makers and drinkers regard as standard. Most important is that the wines be produced with as little chemicals or additives as possible in both the winery and in the vineyard. These wines are meant to be a strict reflection of terroir--the land and climate which give wine its unique characteristics--with minimal human or mechanical intervention.
Organic wines—or more specifically USDA Organic—are made with organically grown grapes and additives (fining agents, yeast, etc.), but added sulfites are prohibited. Organic wine--like all types of wine--contains naturally occurring sulfites. All grapes when fermented produce sulfur dioxide as a by-product.
While noble in concept, the reality is there are very few organic wines on the market. This is because there currently exists no natural alternative to the preservative qualities of sulfites, which are ultimately added to make wines to make them stable and prevent bacterial growth. Most winemakers agree that some level of sulfites are critical to produce a wine of consistent quality or one that won’t degrade before it’s even opened.
Further down on the “natural” scale are wines made with organic grapes. Similar to the European certification of organic wines, this designation refers to wines that are made from organic grapes with organic additives, but are allows for a higher threshold of sulfite additives. Achieving this benchmark has become popular with progressive, higher quality brands trying to find a happy medium between organic and conventional wines.
Interestingly, winemaking made with organic grapes is generally standard practice in France and the Old World, especially in areas of warmer climates such as the southern Rhone and Spain. And while the organic debate is relatively new in the U.S., much of the Old World has produced wine this way as a matter of tradition for hundreds of years.
Similar to organic farming in that synthetic chemicals and additives are prohibited, biodynamic practices take the natural mission a step further by also incorporating more holistic approaches to viticulture based on astrological and lunar cycles. Finally, sustainability refers to a cadre of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Farmers using sustainable practices may focus on organic farming or biodynamic methods, but can choose what works best for their individual property. This flexibility is reflected in the myriad of certification programs--currently, there is no “one-size-fits-all” designation because of the diversity of the world’s wine regions.
Ultimately, if you are seeking out environmentally-conscious wines, the bottle label with all its logos, brands, and certifications will tell all. More than likely, these wines will cost more than conventional brands, but you can enjoy your wine even more knowing your contribution is encouraging more responsible practices around the world.
For retailers of natural wines, our local Whole Foods has the most extensive selection. For organic choices try Pacific Redwood California Chardonnay ($11.99) and Cabernet ($10.99). French wines from Organic grapes are well represented by Les Hauts de Lagarde red and white Bordeaux blends ($13.99). For biodynamic and sustainable options try Field Blend red wine from Mendocino CA ($15.99) and Parducci’s Sustainable White ($10.99) respectively.
Also known as the "Wine Evangelist," Erlinda A. Doherty, CSW, WSET Level 3, is busy educating the Columbia community about all things wine. Through her company "VINÍCOLA," Erlinda provides a wide array of wine consulting services including seminars, educational events, sommelier services, hospitality staff training, and retail/supplier marketing. Check out her website at www.thevinicola.com or Instagram and Facebook to join the next wine seminar.