Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wine - A Guide by Big Hammer Wines, Wine Experts
“Organic” is one of those buzzwords that, the more you look into it the more confusing it can get. You can see it on a wine label in a variety of forms and they all vary in definition depending on the phrasing and labeling. Let’s demystify this storm of information that is present on your bottle of wine and trending more than ever.
What is Organic Wine
Typically, when we think about organics it is in the context of produce at the grocery store and not necessarily a finished product. In the context of produce (which many would argue, wine is) organic can be simply put as fruit or vegetables grown outside of the presence of synthetic chemicals. In the United States, the regulations for labeling comes from the USDA which has a significantly more elaborate definition “Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity [...] Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. Organic produce must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest.” In theory, the argument for Organics is that the more natural style of agriculture produces healthier fruit and vegetables, whether or not there are larger yields. As society has become more health-conscious more wine producers are moving towards organic grape growing practices and sustainable agriculture.
Types of Organics in Grape Growing
Classic organic agriculture is the easiest version to understand. The base premise is that there aren’t any synthetics used in the vineyard, but aside from that, there isn’t much more required to meet the standard. Some producers go above and beyond to try to be more sustainable with their maintenance of the vineyard. The use of cover crops is fairly common, using plants like mustard help maintain soil moisture and keeps the soil cool protecting the ground from direct sunlight. Additionally, cover crops take up root space on the surface soil between the vines, this forces the vines to push their roots deeper into the ground giving the vine more access to necessary nutrients and water. Other sustainable practices include dry farming and no-till soil maintenance.
Biodynamics takes the general practices of organic farming and turns the dial up. The focus in this process is to turn the farm into a closed system that can operate without outside inputs. Compost is used as fertilizer, there is a series of natural preparations that are sprayed on the crops to help with plant health and pest control. To be fully biodynamic, producers need to keep animals as well, allowing them to graze during vine dormant periods, and even using animal parts as a portion of the preparation schedule.
This term translates to a reasonable fight. The idea behind this is to farm as organically and naturally as possible until it is absolutely necessary to intervene with synthetic products. Typically farmers would only use synthetics if they were at risk of losing a large portion of their crops. Some farmers use Lutte Raisonée as a stepping stone to full organic production others enjoy the freedom to intervene when necessary without losing a certification.
The Verbiage on the Bottle
It’s not always easy to tell how the grapes that are eventually turned into wine were handled before they end up in the bottle. There is already so much information that needs to be inferred from a label, from the producer, the location, the grape variety, or blend it can all get a bit overwhelming. To clarify what different terms mean, here is a list of terms:
Certified Organic Wine
This is one of the most strict labels, the grapes are grown in Organic Vineyards and the winery is not including any non-organic ingredients including sulfur. Typically these wines have a CCOF badge on the label denoting that it is fully organic.
Made with Organic Grapes
This verbiage is becoming more common, it states that every grape that was used in the production of the wine, was grown organically. There is no guarantee that there aren’t non-organic ingredients like sulfur or GMO yeast going into the production of the wine. There is the possibility here that the producer doesn’t have the funding to get the winery certified as organic, but is meeting all of the standards in production.
Organic Grapes are Listed in Ingredients
This typically implies that the wine was made with both Organically grown and non Organic grapes. There is also a possibility that the grapes that are deemed non-organic, were purchased from a producer that grows grapes organically but has not been certified.
This means that the winery is using only Biodynamically grown grapes and the production of the wine is done in accordance with Biodynamics. The certifying body is Demeter.
Made with Biodynamic Grapes
The only guarantee here is that the grapes that are being used in the production of the wine, were grown biodynamically and the vineyard is certified by Demeter. The winery may or may not be producing wine in accordance with biodynamic standards.
This can be somewhat of a catch-all term as there is no legal definition of it in the United States. Typically, natural wine producers are intending to imply that they are using organically grown grapes (whether certified or not) and not adding anything to the wine (including lab-grown yeasts and Sulfur).
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