Wine Guide and Guest Blogger Daniel Kennedy breaks down the differences between natural, vegan, organic, and biodynamic wines.
Have you noticed an increase in wines labelled with terms like ‘Natural’, ‘Vegan’, ‘Organic’, or ‘Biodynamic’? Do you know what these terms actually mean, or do you ever wonder if it’s just a marketing ploy to sell more wine?
Two years ago, I did not know what these terms meant and thought that they were just a marketing scheme following a cultural trend. Well, after two years of study and growing experience in the amazing world of wine, my mindset has changed. This “fad” has stuck and is here to stay.
As more and more people have become increasingly health and earth conscious, technologies have modified to meet the growing demand for quality wines that today’s consumers can feel good about buying. My goal is to arm you with some basic information on each of these wine growing and winemaking methods, so you can feel comfortable and confident in what you are sipping!
Let’s start off with a relatively easy one to explain, Natural wine. Natural wine means just that, all natural. Once harvested, the grapes are brought into the winery and crushed. Sounds fairly normal, right?
This is where natural wine really sets itself apart from almost any other wine on the market. In any other winery, there is generally a dose of sulfur dioxide added to the crushed grapes to kill any bacteria or wild yeast that would be on the grapes. Then a commercial yeast is added to the juice and skins for fermentation because it is predictable and “colors within the lines” if you will. In a natural wine, this is not done. Whatever yeast and other microorganisms that came in on the grapes will be the fermenting power. Actually, none of the usual winemaking additives that US law permits are used in natural winemaking. There may be a small amount of sulfur added just before bottling for stabilizing the wine but otherwise, it’s basically a hands-off approach. Sounds amazing, right? Seeing “Natural” on a label instantly makes you feel better about the product.
While a very sustainable approach, the wild yeasts used to ferment the grape juice can typically give off earthy, bready, or even sour notes in the finished wines. Another typical feature to natural wines is their hazy or cloudy appearance in the bottle. Since this is a very hands-off approach to winemaking, there is also no filtering of fining of the wine before it hits the bottle, so residual wine solids remain when bottled. Are these wines bad? Not at all, but they do tend to have a flavor profile that can be an acquired taste. They also do not last long on the shelf because there has been far less sulfur dioxide added as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant.
Okay, now lets talk Vegan! Living a vegan lifestyle is not for the faint of heart and can be quite challenging for many as there are much fewer options available than would be for a non-vegan. Wine was never something that I considered an issue. I mean, come on!! It’s basically adult grape juice. How could this not be vegan, right? In my studies, I found out just how very wrong I was.
Yes, wine is grape juice that has been fermented and bottled. However, wine goes through several processes to ensure that it is free of bacteria, molds, and other residual solids left behind by the grapes. To remove most of these, processes like filtering and fining are employed. These clarify wines before bottling to remove anything that may spoil the taste or sight of the finished wine. What I did not know, is that the most coming filtering and fining agents are in fact not vegan friendly. Some of the traditional fining agents include things like egg whites, gelatin, or casein. Casein is a protein extracted from cow’s milk. A final one is something called isinglass, a form of collagen often obtained from fish. So, as you can see, these would not be something a vegan can ingest, nor would they want to. It may sound unappetizing to some, but you would never perceive any aroma or flavor from these agents as the wine essentially rids itself of these particles once they settle to the bottom of the tank.
Luckily for us, there are vegan friendly options that do the same work as their animal-based counterparts. The most common fining agent substitutes are bentonite clay and limestone. There are no formal regulations in the United States or Internationally on what is considered vegan, but there are private agencies and non-governmental organizations that have set up certain guidelines. BeVeg in the US is a law firm that deals with vegan certification, and V-label is the European equivalent.
Organic and Biodynamic
Okay, now onto the elephant in the room, Organic and Biodynamic wines. I decided to lump these two together because they follow many of the same principles, except biodynamic is like a supercharged version of organic. While Natural and Vegan wines focus mainly in the winery, Organic and Biodynamic wines refer to practices both inside the winery and in the vineyard.
Organic standards are controlled by the USDA here in the United States. The term “organic” in wine means that it was made from organically grown grapes and contains no sulfites. That, however, is a slight misunderstanding by most.
Sulfites are a sulfur compound used to kill harmful microbes and stabilize a wine to avoid spoiling. In the US, wines can legally contain up to 350 ppm (parts per million) of sulfites. USDA standards say that an organic wine must have no more than 100 ppm of sulfites. Yet, the majority of organic wines actually contain less than 40 ppm. This is because sulfites are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation that usually generate between 6 and 40 ppm. So, it is possible to see both of the terms of “organic” and “contains sulfites” on the same bottle of wine.
Organic also does not allow for the use of manufactured fertilizers or pesticides in the vineyard. For example, a chemical fertilizer must be replaced with something like compost or manure. The NOP (National Organic Program) maintains a list of all banned chemicals in organic farming.
Biodynamics is essentially organic winegrowing, but there is an addition of metaphysical elements and a few mandated procedures. Founded by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming “combines organic farming methods, including crop rotation and composting, with special plant, animal, and mineral preparations and the rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.” Basically, it is organic farming with the addition of a belief system that believes the alignment of the planets and the phases of the moon should direct the course of work to be done in the vineyard and winery. There are four phases and each have their own specific activities tied to them: fruit days, leaf days, flower days, and root days. Some activities that may occur during these phases are things like harvest, pruning, watering, or even just nothing at all.
Biodynamics sees that sustainability is not enough, we need to regenerate our planet. Part of that is a high respect for animals and the well-being integration of nature and humans. While this may sound in line with vegan philosophy, they do utilize animal byproducts in the farming and making of the wines. So, it would not necessarily be a vegan option. Again, there is no governmental body that regulates biodynamics. However, the non-profit organization International Demeter Biodynamic Standard is the overseer of the standards required to place the term “Biodynamic” on a wine label.
Just the Good Stuff
We hope that this has helped give you a better understanding of each of these winemaking and winegrowing terms. For access to our cellar of simply real wines that you can feel good about, check out Traveling Vineyard’s Good Stuff Guarantee. To host a free wine tasting and learn more from a Wine Guide near you, click here to get connected today!
Other Sources Used:
- Nickles, J. (2020). 2021 Certified Specialist of Wine Study Guide. Independently published.