The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Natural Dilemma

Posted on | April 30, 2010 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | No Comments

The wine buying community has recently been gravitating towards wines that are made in a more “natural” way.  Capitalizing on this trend, producers are trying to produce wines with as little chemical intervention as possible—and then there are producers who talk the natural talk, but don’t walk the natural walk. Wine drinkers may notice a clear uptick in words like “natural,” “organic,” and “biodynamic,” but they might not really know what these words mean. I wanted to take the time to clear up the mystery and, in doing so, provide some clarity to your wine buying.

“Natural” means “being in accordance with or determined by nature.” Knowing the definition of the word makes hearing this expression in describing a product rubs me like coarse sandpaper because it’s so often a word deployed as a marketing strategy. For example, the word often appears on olive oil jars in the phrase “Made from 100% Natural Olives.” I wonder, doesn’t olive oil have to come from “natural” olives?  What is an artificial olive? Not to sound too much like the late, great George Carlin, but it’s a phrase whose inanity brings to mind the concept of preheating an oven.

Wine labeling presents a mystery similar to “natural” olive oil. There is no certification for “natural” wine. Some producers use the term, perhaps, to distinguish themselves from those employing organic or biodynamic winemaking methods. And yet, if wine is made from grapes (or, for that matter, any other fruit), then it is natural. While it’s true that some producers add yeast, flavorings or other additives to their wine when they make it, it’s also true that these practices don’t make the wine, well, artificial. As long as the yeasts, flavorings or additives were derived from naturally occurring compounds—and pretty much everything is—it’s natural. The term, then, is pretty empty except for being a sign that the producer of the product wants to capitalize on your love for nature.

The word “organic” literally means “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms” or “of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds.” But while the definition of “natural” led us to a clear understanding of the term, if not the marketing practice, the definition of “organic” kind of leads us down the garden path, though the practice is clearer. Organic farming, the practice of growing plants or animals without chemical intervention, does have clear, legal standards. In terms of wine, organic farming generally means that the grapes were farmed without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. However, there are different standards in different countries, or in different states in the US, for what makes agricultural practices organic. This means that you don’t always exactly know what you’re getting.

One major bugaboo over organic wines is the idea of sulfites. While in America, added sulfites are not allowed in organically made wine, that’s not true everywhere. Even so being organic doesn’t mean a wine won’t be free of sulfites. Sulfites occur naturally in wine, and you can’t forget that the addition of sulfites might be allowed under some other country’s laws.

“Biodynamic” takes organic one step further: it’s “a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.” Based on the philosophical principals laid down by Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic practices are pretty complicated in practice and are not unlike relying on astrology to plan your future.

Making a multilevel commitment to the natural world, biodynamic winemakers (and other farmers) look to the moon and stars for cues of when to plant, fertilize, and harvest. Among other practices, bull horns are stuffed with flowers, herbs, manure and rocks, which are then planted somewhere in the vineyard. Whatever the voodoo, it does make for tasty wine. However, I tend to believe that the quality of wine could be attributed to the passion of the winemaker and the attention to detail that goes into biodynamic farming, rather than the mysterious practices. It’s strange, mystical and inscrutable but I am all for it.

It’s true that both organic and biodynamic wines cost more than wine from producers who don’t use these practices. Wine, like all other consumer products, is a commodity. Higher demand for a particular kind of wine will create higher costs—especially in organic wines because organic methods cause reduced yields. Instead of having a crop of 15,000 kilos with the use of traditional techniques, you may now have a crop of 9,500 kilos. On the other hand, these reduced yields also make wine taste better because the grapes have a higher concentration of flavors. It’s win in taste, if lose in money. But then, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Here’s the bottom line. Sustainable and “green” agricultural practices make a lot of sense, whether you’re talking vegetables, meat or wine. I’ll buy wines made by organic or biodynamic producers not because I want to be healthy but because they taste good and because I like to support the green movement. But above all, beyond the use of organic methods or biodynamic methods or even conventional practices, I believe that winemakers should try to produce the best possible wines in the cleanest and most environmentally responsible way.

Wine should both taste good and keep the earth happy. After all, it’s natural.

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