Demystifying natural, organic, and biodynamic wines
Posted on March 7, 2017
Serious wine lovers, both self-styled and professional, frequently hear the terms “natural,” “biodynamic,” and “organic” used to describe wine. Even casual wine drinkers have seen them appear on wine lists. What do the terms actually mean and, most importantly, is the wine good?
The terms biodynamic, organic, and natural are used interchangeably, but are distinct descriptors. “Natural” is the umbrella term for wines that are made with minimal human intervention. No additives are used except for a small amount of sulfites. There is no official classification, though organizations like L’Association des Vins Naturels in France have developed industry-wide best practices and guidelines.
Certified organic wine must be made from grapes grown in vineyards that don’t use any synthetic agents — pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Farmers maintain the integrity of the soil by allowing for biodiversity, which includes the use of other plants and animals to create a nutrient-rich soil environment. The guidelines for organic certification are, many winemakers say, unnecessarily strict and expensive, so don’t knock a natural wine producer for not being certified. Chances are they meet most, if not all, of the criteria.
Going one step further are the biodynamic vineyards. In addition to meeting the criteria for organic grape farming and winemaking, farmers must also adhere to the principles of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who coined the term. Steiner outlined a set of guidelines for holistic farming where every living being in it contributes to the environment’s well being — a natural feedback loop that produces optimal crop quality. His philosophy identified nine preparations for soil enrichment and preservation using animal and plant material.
As for the actual wine quality, it ranges, but natural wines have gotten an undeserved bad rap. Rajat Parr, former sommelier at the esteemed Mina restaurant group and owner and award-winning winemaker of the Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte, and Evening Land natural labels, dismisses the stigma. “The whole idea of natural wine being bad, well, there’s a lot of bad commercial and natural wine. If you do it correctly and conscientiously and believe in what you do, the result is quite profound,” he explains. “What I love about wine is the mystery of the grapes — you find this area and you plant grapes. You have no idea what it’s going to taste like, what it’ll produce. That is amazing. That’s mystery.”
In San Diego, Vino Carta in Little Italy is one of the best sources for natural wine. They carry Parr’s labels, which are all uniquely excellent. The store focuses on quality natural wines from small producers around the world and selects weekly tasting flights for those who want to sip at the store’s bar. Jackie Bryant