I continue to get asked if my wine is “natural”?
This is a bit of a conundrum to answer. The first reason is that everyone seems to have a different definition for “natural wine”. The second is that some of these definitions and practices are B.S.
Some define natural wine as organic, some biodynamic, some without artificial additives, some without preservatives, some without any fining additives, and some as natural only if it has no outside manipulation at all other than physical.
So what is “natural”? Is it just a marketing gimmick? I think its more than that. I think people want to know what goes into their wine (or food) and whether some of those practices are healthy for them.
Taking a look at most of those “unnatural” methods should give us a good insight into what they are, why they exist, and whether or not you’d ever want to drink that wine.
The first is organic/biodynamic wine. Both of these refer to the viticulture rather than the winemaking. I don’t think anyone would argue against organics. One might argue about the theology/philosophy behind biodynamics, but both have the same primary goal in viticulture, reducing or eliminating pesticides. And, that is a very good thing.
It’s an especially good thing for grapes for the same reason that it is incredibly difficult to sustain. Because, almost all the wine you drink comes from one grape species. Cabernet Savignon to Savignon Blanc to Grenache to Petite Sirah are all only one single species. Beyond that most vineyards are planted in clones. So that entire vineyard of over 3000 vines and maybe the one next to it, has the exact same genes. It doesn’t take a 8th grader to know that lack of genetic diversity leads to problems. Some grape varietals are already experiencing clonal death syndromes. To ensure the continuation of those clones, avoiding excess chemicals that only lead to more resistant and gene specific pests is crucial.
But what qualifies as organic? Currently the law is that a vineyard has to avoid chemical pesticides, herbacides, and fertilizers for three years before being qualified as organic. That list does not include sulfur, which is naturally occuring as a mineral. Some will argue that sulfur should also be banned.
Last year I sourced grapes from both organic and non-organic vineyards. In a wet, tough season, they both had some issues, but interestingly enough, they were different types of issues. Could it be the organics or just the location? I’ll never know.
The problem with operating an organic vineyard, with or without sulfur, is that it requires a lot more work/cost and is hard to maintain indefinetly. Many vineyards operate only as organic as long as they can. Then once a serious infestation hits like leafhoppers, use insectide, lose their organic status, then wait three years to renew it. These solution sprayings use just as much if not more chemicals than preventative non-organic treatment. So the vineyard may be organic, but it is likely only temporarily so. To do so long term requires a wee bit of luck and good neighbors who don’t share infestations/diseases.
The problem with the U.S. system is that their is no middle ground. It’s either organic or not, regardless of the amount of chemicals used. A vineyard that uses mostly organic methods can’t call itself organic and is lumped into the same category as mass production chemical dumps. Many vineyards like other farmers are trying to combat this with their new nomenclature: sustainable. Sustainable methods would allow a cross section of chemicals as well as organic methods to ensure both profitability, quality and long-term health. Unfortunately, there are no rules as to who can use “sustainable.” So they consumer would have to do some serious research to find out if the vineyard’s practice are more than just marketing jargon.
So forget the label. Get to know your producer. Visit a winery; visit the vineyards; talk to them about their philosophy. Or find some great writers or publications who have. It’s really the only way to know if a wine production has been as organically or sustainably as possible.