Sustainable Wines; Natural, Organic, Biodynamic & the works

If you consider conventional winemaking as a scientific philosophy of winemaking, then other wine styles like natural or biodynamic winemaking can be interpreted as different philosophies to winemaking. While science always plays a role in fermentation, these other wine philosophies also consider other influences as part of the overall approach to winemaking, starting from the land that the grapes are planted on, to the fermentation & maturation processes.

Types of Winemaking Philosophies

A lot of these winemaking philosophies often have ancient roots. Natural wines where the de facto winemaking method before chemical preservatives, pesticides & additives were invented. Celestial energy was observed since the ancient Greeks. Vegan & Kosher wines were driven by religious principles amongst people practicing various religions & cultures. 

Many of these philosophies have resurfaced, and in the spirit of customer transparency,  many of these philosophies now come with certifications. There are certain times where a winemaker make practice these philosophies but it might not be recognised on the bottle. This usually is because the land where the grapes are grown are not certified, and this also takes the longest to change & get recognised.

Natural & Low Intervention Wines

Certification: Syndicat de Défense des Vins Naturels (SDVN) vin méthode nature

Natural or low intervention wines do not allow inputs or interventionist winemaking techniques to be used, with the exception of limited amounts of sulfur for the purpose of preservation. Most winemakers, when adopting this approach, focus on the lack of intervention, with the goal of allowing the wine to "do it's thing". 

When it comes to defining natural wines, there are various different thoughts. Aspects to winemaking like the use of wine pumps or intentionally preventing or inducing processes like malolactic fermentation are widely argued. However, the common understanding is the lack of mechanical intervention, and today the certifications mostly focus on the non-use of additives or chemicals throughout the winemaking process from grape growing to bottling.

This in no means means that natural wine as a movement is bad, and actually this approach can expose unique profiles that otherwise conventional winemakers may not achieve. You can often expect wines with minimal oak aging, as well as malolactic fermentation due to bottling with sediment. The drawback to this approach is that it is by nature more volatile & subject to the environment, which means that profiles often do change between vintages, and that the wines are generally not meant to age

While some additions are allowed, the most extreme of the natural wine spectrum would be S.A.I.N.S Wines, which are even stricter, and only allows trace amounts of naturally occuring sulfites.

 Did you know? All wines will have sulfites, including natural wines, as they are naturally occuring in the fermentation process. This is due to sulfur dioxide being released as a natural byproduct of the winemaking process. 

 

Organic & Sustainable Wines

Certifications: USDA Organic, EU Organic

Organic winemaking hasn't been around officially for a long time, but the philosophy has carried on for much longer. The goal is to minimize the use of synthetic materials & processes in the winemaking process, or the use of chemical insecticides when tending to the vines. Wines are required to use organic grapes, and additions much be organic and no GMOs are allowed. There is a limit on sulfur additions, and is mostly in a movement towards caring for the environment.

Lately, sustainable wines have taken this a step further, with international bodies like ISO putting forth various standards to promote environmental responsibility.

Many regions like Bordeaux, Chile, and Australia have been picking up organic winemaking practices, in order to take a step towards respecting the environment & preserving winemaking suitability against factors like climate change. Many regions have also setup their own governing bodies to manage this.

Biodynamic Wines

Certifications: Demeter International, Biodyvin

More like a subset of organic wines, biodynamic wine pushes the approach of organic wines further. Instead of purely  "promoting organic ingredients", it also proposes to allow "nature to lead the way", which is still different from the natural wine "do it's thing". What this means is that winemakers don't promote the growth of the vines specifically, but the folow of energy between all living things.

Those who practice biodynamics follow the principals of philosopher Rudolf Steiner and is based on the idea that, in order for it to reach its full potential, a vineyard needs to be well-balanced and harmonious. Organic is good, runs this thinking, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. They believe that energy is interconnected between nature, man, earth, and the stars. While mankind has been looking to the sky for guidance since the ancient Greeks, this approach to a holistic view of agriculture guides today's modern winemaker to act in accordance to different "days" so as not to disrupt the natural flow of energy:

  1. Fruit Days: Best days for harvesting grapes
  2. Root Days: Ideal days for pruning
  3. Flower Days: Leave the vineyard alone on these days
  4. Leaf Days: Ideal days for watering plants

In this vein, the use of chemicals or manufactured additives are prohibited, using natural ingredients instead. While there are some practices that could be questionable to some, such as the use of cow horns for fermenting dung for fertilisers. However, in general, much of the methodology make perfect sense, and it's obvious in the vineyards; they are usually beeming with life, and the wines aren't bad either (give buffer for ultimately the skills of the winemaker).

For those of you who believe in biodynamic winemaking, you can take it a step further by also extending the idea into your own drinking, by consuming wine on flower or fruit days!

Vegan Wines

Seeing that wine is basically grapes & yeast, many would think that wine is naturally vegan friendly. However, this is not always true, with animal products used in various aspects of the winemaking process, for different purposes.

While it's not a major factor in the winemaking process or philosophy, it's more encouraged by a push from the consumer trend of veganism. 

Usually, the most significant impact to make a wine non-vegan is the fining process before bottling. In order to remove the sediments, egg whites or casein is used to remove the tiny particles that cannot be removed by filtration. Vegan alternatives include natural separation, or non-animal fining produces such as bentonite or pea protein.

Beeswax or agglomerated corks are used in replacement of traditional wax & cords. Less than a legal push, but more of a support of customer choice, more winemakers are highlighting wines that are vegan friendly.

Kosher Wines

Other than taking up vegan practices, kosher winemakers follow a set of "laws" for food preparation & winemaking. They don't need to be blessed by a Rabbi, but follows certain rules such as:

  1. Must only be handled by Jews in the winery
  2. Only Kosher foods can be used as additives or agents in winemaking, including non-animal or animal by-products

There is of course a range of Kosher wine products, and sometimes they get the bad rep from the Sacramental or Mevushal wines they produce.

  1. Kosher; Produced in accordance with Jewish Dietary Laws (Kashrut).
  2. Kosher for Passover; Wine does not come into contact with grain or gluten products. Most Kosher wines are also “Kosher for Passover", and in reality, most wines also pass this
  3. Kosher le Mehadrin; Rules of Kashrut have been stringently approved.
  4. Sacramental Wines; Often tasting like syrupy sugared water, the importance to the consumer has always tended towards low price and religious certification rather than quality. Don’t confuse Kiddush wines with Kosher table wines, as these are the ones giving Kosher wine a bad rep!
  5. Mevushal Wine; Flash pasteurized Kosher wine, allowing non-observant or non-Jewish waiter to serve the wine without making it non-Kosher. Most of the better quality Kosher wines, are NOT Mevushal.

Isreal takes Kosher to a further extent, with additional restrictions such as:

  1. Only vines bearing fruit for the fourth year onwards can be used for winemmaking
  2. Growing other fruits between vines is prohibited
  3. Over one percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of the “ten percent tithe” once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem 

There used to be another rule which is that fields & fieldworkers were allowed to rest every seventh year, but this has now become largely symbolic with flexibility in coping with economic realities.

Conclusion

Whatever the winemaking philosophy, none of them equal bad wine. These philosophies act as a guiding principle to practitioners, and often come from good intentions & logical conclusions. Preservation of the environment, and promoting organic produce & techniques, are all good goals to target, which promote both the health of the earth & our bodies. It doesn't mean that there is no attention to making quality wine. Enjoy!

Tags: Wine 101