The world of wine can be difficult to grasp so we thought it might be useful to provide some explanations about the key differences in winemaking nowadays.
Beyond grape varieties, wine regions, types of wine and prices we believe that the true indicators of the quality of a wine are the way it is made, who makes it and with which philosophy in mind.
Let's start where everything begins: in the vineyard. To put it simply, one can divide viticultural practices into four main categories: conventional, sustainable, organic and biodynamic.
Conventional practices are dominant worldwide. Hand in hand with the chemical industry, they have been practised for more than sixty years through the systematic use of synthetic chemicals: artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The food you eat that is not organic is made that way. The same applies to wine.
Sustainable farming also uses synthetic chemical products but, supposedly, only if it's necessary. Sustainable farming is sometimes seen as an intermediate step towards organic farming but many argue that, since it uses synthetic chemicals, it is nothing more than conventional agriculture.
Organic production is managed without the use of synthetic chemical fungicides, insecticides, pesticides, weedkillers or fertilisers. There are rules regarding what can be used to nourish the soils and genetically modified organisms are prohibited. Organic production methods combine good environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources and, when relevant, high animal welfare standards. In 2012, about 3.5% of the world's vineyard acreage were farmed organically, a number that keeps rising.
Biodynamics embrace the organic principles as well as specific methods developed by the founder of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, in the 1920s. Unlike organics, the emphasis of biodynamics is on prevention, balance and self-sufficiency rather than treatment. Biodynamic wine producers aim to grow healthy vines that can resist attacks from diseases on their own, without the recourse to chemical products. In order to achieve this the focus is on soil health. A series of 'preparations', based on plants and organic manure, are used in the vineyard in homeopathic quantities. Some of these are sprayed in the vineyard and others are added to the compost.
Many of the biodynamic methods have been criticised because they can't be explained scientifically. Indeed, burying a cow horn full of organic manure in the middle of a field for six months can trigger doubtful comments. However, the results speak for themselves and it is often said that biodynamic wines taste fresher and are more concentrated. Only about 2% of the world's organic wine producers are biodynamic. Among them, you'll find world-class domains like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace and Domaine Huet in the Loire valley.
Leaving the vineyard we now enter the cellar where the grapes are pressed and their juice transformed into wine. Here, a long list of various manipulations as well as about eighty additives are allowed by the legislation for the winemakers to use during the production process. There are products for stabilising, clarifying, filtering, preserving, aromatising, acidifying and de-acidifying. There are also enzymes and products to help the yeast during fermentation, preserve the colour, change the texture of the wine, make it feel softer, richer etc...
Most organic producers tend to limit the use of these products. However, nowadays the best producers as well as bulk producers can both be certified organic. The differences lie in the winery. For example, a top quality producer will not flash-pasteurise his wine while a producer whose target is the mass market may well have recourse to that technic.
The 'natural wines' movement was born in reaction to the additives and technological manipulations commonly used and practised nowadays. Even though there is no official definition, one can say that a 'natural wine' is a wine made without additives while interventions in the cellar are kept to a bare minimum. These wines have become famous for having very low - if any - quantity of sulphites added to them. Some argue that they are also famous for their 'faults' but that's another debate.
To sum it up we could say that not all organic and biodynamic producers make so called 'natural wine' - very few of them actually - whether they think it's too risky or simply because they don't believe that ''wine makes itself'' as natural wine advocate, Isabelle Legeron MW, puts it.
One thing is certain however. Here at Natural Vine we don't sell a single industrial wine. Certified or not, all our producers are organic or biodynamic and none of them uses additives nor technological manipulations.
Does all this matter? Apart from the obvious environmental and health issues, it matters if you believe that wine should taste differently according to where it comes from and who makes it. If using technologies and additives to ''correct'' the wine; so that it complies with the standardisation of taste; is not what you expect from a winemaker, then yes, all this matters.
If you want to learn more, directly from those who make wine, stay tuned. In the coming months we will publish videos of our producers telling us about the way they work and their approach to wine.
In the meantime you can find more information on the subject in books like 'Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking' by Britt & Per Karlsson; 'What's so special about biodynamic wine?: 35 questions and answers for wine lovers' by Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne and 'Natural Wine' by Isabelle Legeron MW.