There’s been a spate of articles lately focusing on the “natural wine” trend pulsing through wine world today. In almost every article there is a reference to biodynamic vineyards as a source for these uncertified “natural wines”. This is almost invariably not true, so it’s essential to understand the differences, but real bond, between “natural wines” and certified Biodynamic® Wines.
First of all, biodynamics is not simply a winemaking method; it is an agricultural discipline that is then extended throughout the cellar work. The focus of biodynamics is on soil and plant health. Healthy soils make healthy plants, which produce healthy fruit, which is what you need to create distinctive wine. If you want to practice minimalist winemaking, you can only do so with impeccable fruit. None of the biodynamic preparations (500, 501, etc.) are used in the cellar. All are applied to either the soil, the plants, or the compost that will be applied to the soil. The structure and rules to be certified Biodynamic® are all designed to be sure that nothing in the winemaking process detracts from the pure expression of vineyard, vintage, and variety that you have achieved through biodynamic farming. As the Demeter Biodynamic® Wine processing standard states, “The Biodynamic® Wine category denotes a wine that is made with 100% Biodynamic grapes and is intended to be an undisguised, vintage-based expression of a given estate vineyard.”
Uncertified “natural wine” is a winemaking philosophy that is often entirely separated from the growing of the grapes themselves. Today’s so-called “natural wines” imply they are superior to “conventional wines” as they are not manipulated in the cellar. This is not true, they are manipulated, but in different ways. A common symbol of “natural wines” are the amphorae made famous by outstanding producers like Gravner in Italy. However, the choice between using amphorae or new French Oak barrels are both equally dramatic winemaking manipulations that change the style of the wine produced. Many other icons of “natural winemaking” like whole-cluster fermentation are also conscious manipulations of style made by the winemaker. The fact is that all winemaking decisions are manipulations that decide the final style of the wine. So both “natural wines” and conventional wines are manipulated in many ways.
Where Biodynamic® Wine producers and “natural winemakers” firmly agree and differ from conventional wines is to be found in what they don’t do in the cellar. Conventional winemakers use a full array of additives that are forbidden in biodynamic winemaking including commercial yeast strains, enzymes, Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), tannins, acids, wood chips, Velcorin (Dimethyl Dicarbonate), Mega Purple and-on-and-on as their goal is to produce a standardized and consistent beverage alcohol product. Both Biodynamic and “natural” winemakers want to achieve just the opposite as their goal is to produce distinctive wines that change with vintage and vineyard and share a belief that doing less is more when it comes to cellar interventions in the natural process of fermentation. Although both start with grapes, the concepts, and methods used in producing a beverage alcohol product from grapes and making wine are diametrically opposed.
To be a certified Biodynamic® Wine only native yeasts can be used for fermentation, malo-lactic must also be natural, DAP is prohibited, acid and sugar additions are not allowed (except for sparkling wine), no processing additives except for bentonite or biodynamic/organic egg whites or milk (fining) are permitted. Sulfur additions are a big hot button when it comes to “natural wines,” but that too is limited to less than 100 p.p.m. (that’s very low as conventional wines on grocery store shelves can be three or more times that and our wines at Troon are far below that 100 p.p.m. requirement) by Demeter. By definition, Biodynamic® Wine is natural wine.
Where Biodynamic® certified wines diverge from many wines that call themselves “natural” is in the grapes used to make the wines in the first place. What is the point of minimalist winemaking if the grapes used were farmed conventionally or “sustainably” using chemicals? What makes a wine natural is not only your choice in cellar manipulations, but if the fruit itself was farmed naturally and then also minimally processed in the cellar.
All too many wines that promote themselves as “natural wines” are produced from conventionally or “sustainably” (what I call cleaner conventional) farmed vineyards. The creative winemakers that aspire to natural winemaking often do not have the wherewithal to buy vineyards and build wineries. Frequently, they work in communal winemaking facilities and have to buy grapes from commercial or “sustainable” vineyards. While I admire their inspired and passionate winemaking, I think presenting wines from chemically farmed vineyards (which includes “sustainable” vineyards) as “natural” is disingenuous. Using native yeasts and little sulfur does not alone make a wine natural.
I will admit to being an unabashed fan of the “natural wine” movement and the impact it is having on wine production and the wine market around the world. The explosion of natural wine bars and fine wine shops are a godsend to consumers seeking distinctive, exciting wines. As a biodynamic winegrower, I cannot help but applaud the energy, creativity, and intensity to be found in the winemakers pursuing these ideals. I go out of my way to seek their wines out and drink them with great pleasure and interest.
However, I do take exception to articles that equate Biodynamic® certified wine with wines that simply declare themselves as “natural”. In a recent article posted on the NBC News Website, What is Natural Wine? And is it Better for You? Lauren Salkeld writes:
“Natural wine, on the other hand, is made with organic grapes” “Natural wine begins with organic grapes”, “While natural wine is made with organic grapes”
Not true, there are many, many “natural wines” on the market not made from organic or Biodynamically certified grapes, and there is no requirement that they do so. As there is no such thing as a “natural wine” certification, the term means anything the producers want it to mean, and they can use whatever fruit they can find.
“Biodynamic wine is more complicated, but the term refers to farming, not winemaking”
Not true. There are both winemaking and farming Biodynamic® certifications, and they are distinct from each other with precise standards. To make a wine labeled Biodynamic® Wine with the Demeter logo, the wine must be made from a Demeter certified vineyard and must be made in a Demeter certified winemaking facility. For example, if you make wine from Biodynamic® certified grapes in a non-certified facility, it cannot be labeled as Biodynamic® Wine. Even on our farm, from our estate fruit, both the vineyard and the winery each must be certified for us to use the term Biodynamic® Wine on our labels.
“It’s important to note that some biodynamic wine is essentially conventional wine made with biodynamic grapes
Well, this is a bunch of hooey. First, she takes the term “natural wine” like it actually defines something and then infers wines made under strict certification standards are “essentially conventional”. There are two certifications under the Demeter Biodynamic® standards. Biodynamic® Wine (see above) and “Made from Biodynamic® Grapes” from grapes that are certified, but are made in an uncertified facility, but still under standards set by Demeter. First of all, good luck buying Biodynamic® certified grapes on the open market as most are made into wine by the people that grow them. Second, even the standards for winemaking under the “Made with Biodynamic® Grapes” designation are far more restrictive than “natural wines”, which have no official standards at all. Also, I assure you, just as dedicated “natural” winemakers are committed to minimalist winemaking, anyone going through the effort of obtaining Biodynamic® certified grapes is equally committed to those concepts. I think it’s safe to say that those going to the trouble of working with certified fruit are worthy of the same if not more respect than someone simply claiming their wines are “natural”.
“You can also argue that natural, organic or biodynamic wines are better if you want to avoid pesticides. While natural wine is made with organic grapes, there’s no certification, so if you prefer to see a label, go for organic or biodynamic, just know that either of those may contain additives.”
Additional hooey, you don’t know a thing about an uncertified wine simply called “natural,” and there are no requirements or guarantees that the grapes were farmed organically. As mentioned above, Biodynamic® Wine is certified to not have additives in the wine or the vineyard.
Certifications matter if you want to be sure what’s actually in the bottle. Biodynamic certification has structure and that framework gives each generation a foundation to build on and the ability to pass on what they have learned to the next generation. Because of this, biodynamics is a living and growing discipline that gains depth with each passing generation of farmers.
The “natural wine” movement is an idea, a philosophy, not a discipline, and there is a broad range of ways winemakers achieve those goals. Part of its energy as a movement is that lack of structure. If you go to an exhibition of Expressionist art, you can feel the connection of the artists to a similar philosophy, but the paintings are as diverse as the artists themselves. So it goes with “natural wine”. Unfortunately, much of the attention aimed at the “natural wine” movement is on the most extreme, and often faulted, examples while ignoring the vast majority of wines produced within this philosophy, which are beautiful, inspiring wines.
Biodynamics may be a discipline and “natural wine” a philosophy, but they are tightly intertwined. Biodynamic wine was where natural winemaking was reborn. All Biodynamic® Wine is natural wine.
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