What is Natural Wine?
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin D Roosevelt
The word natural has been used to describe food and wine for many years now. This seemingly simple word actually holds many interpretations, with the wine world widely accepting it to mean healthily grown, nature-friendly, and low-intervention wines that truly express their place of origin. Ok, so what exactly does all of that mean?
When I think about what is important to me when choosing a wine, where it comes from is important for more than just providing a snapshot of it’s potential flavor profile and varietal characteristics. When I think about where a wine comes from, I also consider how it is being grown. And how it is grown is at the heart of what it means to be natural, biodynamic, organic, and sustainable.
We begin with the understanding that grape-growing is an agricultural pursuit. Historically, vines grew amongst trees or vegetables, with growers also cultivating wheat, beans, chickpeas, and even fruit trees. It is this biodiversity that was the defining aspects of farming, from its inception some 23,000 years ago, until the 20th century. The introduction of mechanized and monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area) farming as part of the industrial revolution aimed to increase yields and maximize short-term profits. In reality, a smaller, biodiverse farm is more productive per square meter than a 500 hectare industrialized farm. These monoculture farms make up only 2% of the farms that exist in our country, and sadly, produce 70% of our fruits and vegetables.
Like so many other industries, the uniform approach to agriculture has taken wine from being handmade and artisanal to being large-scale and industrialized, with some productions becoming so large and so mechanized that not a single human hand is involved from vine to bottle. The mechanization in turn lead to the development and use of synthetic chemical treatments with the aim of imitating the farmers’ work. Conversely, it has somewhat disconnected us from viewing the needs of a farm as living ecosystem that the vine is a part of. Instead of using our understanding of agricultural science to produce wines with as little intervention as possible, it is being used to artificially control every step of the process.
All these wines come with a story, from people who care about authenticity, and want to preserve the land that nourishes their grapes. This can be seen all across wine world from both small and larger producers moving towards a more natural approach. But, it cannot be simply defined as big versus small. Machine work within the vineyards and on the farms have had positive impact and today technology is about more than better and faster, it’s also about sustainability. It allows our growers to be more equipped to protect our planet’s resources while still growing and producing the world’s very best.
With all that being said, just like the farmers at your local market, there are growers out there that are traditionalists, leaving it up to nature to decide the direction of the wine. They view the soil as a living thing with the goal of keeping the whole system in balance in order to produce the best fruit possible. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology. As Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron put it, “Natural wine is not new; it is what wine always was.” As you make your way around Bin 604, be sure to look for the ladybugs attached to our wine signs, which indicate the bottles that follow any of the below natural wine practices.
We can define Natural Wine to be “farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather elaborated) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used.”
The Organic Approach
Just like organic agriculture, organic viticulture avoids using man-made synthetic chemicals. It prohibits the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers, and instead, uses plant and mineral based products to ward against pests and diseases, increase the health of soil, and help build plant immunity and nutrient uptake. Across the globe, there are many organic certification bodies, each with their own regulations and standards to meet.
The Biodynamic Approach
Where organic farming is essentially a continuation of traditional agricultural methods but without the chemicals, biodynamics takes it up another level. The method was founded on principles developed in the 1920’s by Rudolf Steiner. The use of cover crops, crop rotation and the use of livestock manure help to revitalize soils, and encourage polyculture and biodiversity. He also connected the forces of nature and the planets with the health and vitality of plants. In biodynamics, agricultural landscapes are viewed as connected ecosystems where the balance of every element is essential to the whole The aim is to create a self-sufficient environment and to farm with respect to the cycles of the sun and moon. Today, the leading certification agency for biodynamic wines is Demeter, a global non-profit founded in 1928.
Other Sustainable Practices
Sustainable vineyards are those that are implementing at least one, but more often than not a combination of the following practices:
Non-certified organics or biodynamics
No added sulfites (occurs naturally during fermentation)