Organic, Natural, and Biodynamic – The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Organic, natural, and biodynamic are words you increasingly see used for wines and sometimes see on the labels. They can be confusing and confused with each other. Here is a brief primer and some of my thoughts on the subject.

Organic wines are wines that are raised without the use of petrochemical based fertilizers or pesticides. Any additives used in the wine must be organic. Addition of sulfur is in not allowed however it is allowed to be used in cleaning etc. In the US wines are required to be certified organic to be labeled organic.

So the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is pretty straightforward. Organic farming and organic wine production put fewer nasty chemicals into the environment and should have less chance of having harmful chemical residues. The bad is a bit trickier. Organic wineries are not allowed to add sulfur and in small quantities sulfur is a safe way of stabilizing wines. Un-sulfured wines are more likely to oxidize and more likely to get bacterial infections. A second bad point is one of reputation. Most of the first organic wines that hit the market in the US where pretty bad. They gave Organic Wines a bad name in the marketplace that they still have not entirely shed even though there are some very good and even great organic wines out there. The ugly is simple. It is expensive and time consuming to get a winery certified organic in the US. This restricts many small producers from using the organic label even when they follow organic methods.

Natural Wines are more philosophical than actual. There are organizations that certify Natural Wines but at this time there are no laws in the US (or anywhere else that I know of) mandating standards for Natural Wines. The philosophy behind natural wines is simple: Wine making is a natural process and the less interference in the process by the wine maker the better. This leaves a pretty broad range for interpretation. In general, most Natural Wines are made without the use of sulfur (see above) and with natural occurring yeast rather than added yeast. The use of temperature controlled fermentation is more controversial but is generally frowned on.

In such a nebulous category the good is hard to pin down. I see the Natural Wine movement as a reaction against factory wines that turn an agricultural product into an industrial one. I too don’t like the idea of factory wines. The bad is simple. First people don’t agree on what a Natural Wine is so you don’t know what you are getting when you have a Natural Wine. Second there is a wide gap between factory wines and the “let all just happen” school of wine making. Most of the best wines in the world live in that area. There is a reason responsible wine makers use sulfur and add yeast and use temperature controlled fermentation. The reason is these are valuable tools to make better wine. The ugly is also simple. Good wines can be made following the Natural Wine philosophy. It requires even more attention to detail and particularly attention cleanliness in the winery. Many of the Natural Wines I have tasted have failed in the regard making some pretty bad wines.

Biodynamic wines are made following a specific set or agricultural practices. Many of the practices are shared with organic methods. There is no legal definition of Biodynamic in the US. There are organizations that certify products as Biodynamic. Biodynamic procedures are much more codified than they are for Natural Wines. The procedures range from normal techniques like growing particular plants between the rows to keep down pests and weeds as well as help naturally fertilize to soil to the somewhat bizarre such as using scoops made from cow horn to spread manure around the vines at certain phases of the moon.

The good side of Biodynamic Wines are much the same as they are for Organic Wines with the addition that the procedures require the vineyard to pay a great deal of attention to how the grapes are grown. There is some cost associated with being certified Biodynamic but it is generally less than Organic. Beyond that there isn’t any real bad or ugly side to Biodynamic, just a fair amount of silliness.

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