There are natural wines. There are also organic wines. There are even biodynamic wines. Three classifications, three kinds of wine that are very different from one another, with just one aspect in common: the grape.
Grapes can be grown in many ways, with results that vary greatly. They can be given plant protection products that are of natural origin or made naturally, or an astronomical calendar may even be taken into account to figure out the best days to do work in the vineyard. In the case of Jean Leon, we practice organic farming, using products of natural origin to grow our grapes, as well as respecting the natural cycle of the vines.
These are some of the characteristics of the three kinds of wine that we mentioned at the beginning of this post. To make things easier, we’ve defined each of these wine types with five of their main traits. By the time you finish reading this post, it should all be a lot more clear. 😉
What are natural wines?
- Wines that seek to minimize intervention in all production processes, both in terms of the vine growing as well as the winemaking. These wines are not regulated by any specific legislation in that respect, unlike organic and biodynamic wines, which are subject to set rules.
- The grapes are the product of permaculture, organic or biodynamic farming, and are harvested by hand.
- Alcoholic fermentation is carried out without the addition of commercial yeasts, and malolactic fermentation is carried out without the addition of bacteria. Native yeasts and bacteria (found in the grapes themselves and in the atmosphere) are permitted. Using a yeast that has not been characterized before may mean problems in completing the fermentation or that the wine goes off, and, in the case of bacteria, they may generate more histamine (allergen) content.
- The levels of sugar, acidity, color, and alcohol are not corrected. The wine is stabilized using clarifying additives of natural origin and it is not usually filtered.
- There is a great deal of controversy surrounding sulfite content; the main argument is for the wines not to contain them. The reality is that since this is something that isn’t regulated, there’s a little of everything on the market. Some examples have a sulfite content similar to organic wines, while others barely contain any sulfites, with the consequent effects in terms of tendency to oxidize and even microbiological problems in some cases.
Photo from The Big Wine Theory
And what about biodynamic wines?
Before getting started with the key points of biodynamic wines, we should talk about Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic farming. He saw farms and wineries as complex organisms whose natural dynamics include the animals and the people, and defined them in terms of a whole: A balanced system where the balance must be maintained. Now, let’s look at the five traits of biodynamic wines:
- The use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or industrial herbicides is avoided. Instead, vegetable and mineral preparations (such as compost in buried cow horns) are used as fertilizer additives. Did you know that you can buy cow horns online? The goal of this farming style is to get naturally balanced vineyards that, according to the philosophy, produce higher quality grapes with more expression of the terroir
- The astronomical calendar is used to determine the sowing, ripening, and harvesting periods for the grapes, seeking a balance with the ecosystem.
- At production level, sulfites may be added as long as the regulated maximums are observed, and the use of native yeasts is allowed as well as authorized clarifiers of natural origin.
- In a study published in 1993 by John Reganold comparing traditional and biodynamic agriculture, it was shown that the soil quality was higher and had much more activity with biodynamic agriculture, although it was not possible to establish that the vineyard was more “effective” than 100% organic farming.
- The main certifying bodies are DEMETER in the United States, the leading organization in biodynamic certification, and Biodyvin in Europe.
And what about organic wines?
- There use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or industrial herbicides is avoided. The use of native yeasts is allowed, as well as authorized clarifiers of natural origin.
- The natural rhythm of the vine is respected, and the ecosystem itself helps to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The main aim is to preserve the environment, to maintain or increase soil fertility, and to provide foods with all of their natural properties. In a word: sustainability. At Jean Leon specifically, we use the following methods to ensure good plant health:
- Pheromones: A sexual confusion technique to fight off plagues such as grapevine moths.
- Bordeaux mixture to fight against mildew: This is maybe the most controversial issue in organic and biodynamic farming, since although this is a product of natural origin whose dosage has decreased enormously over the years (maximum permitted dose is 6 kilograms of copper per hectare averaged over three years), it is still a heavy metal. In Mediterranean countries, thanks to the more favorable weather it is possible to use much lower dosages than in the case of Central and Northern European countries.
- Sulfur to combat powdery mildew.
- Grapes must be certified organic in accordance with European Union Regulations (no. 834/2007, 1234/2007, and 606/2009).
- The use of sulfites is limited by the regulatory bodies, which are also responsible for the other requirements so that a wine can be certified organic. Accordingly, the CCPAE (Catalan Council of Organic Production) allows a maximum of 100mg/l of sulfites in red wines and 150mg/l in white and rosé wines. For wines to be exported, though, there are additional legislative bodies that limit the maximum amount of sulfites even more, which means wineries wishing to sell their products internationally must adapt to these stricter standards. This is the case with the National Organic Program (NOP) in the United States and the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) in Japan.
- In order for a winery to get certified, it just needs to make organic wines. However, if there are non-organic wines at the winery, it must pass strict traceability controls to guarantee that the two kinds of wine are kept separate. As for the vineyard, a vine grower’s organic units must be kept separate from the non-organic units of the same variety.
One method is not necessarily better than the other; they are just different ways of making wine. At Jean Leon, we have been practicing organic agriculture since 2008, and the organic certification label has been on our bottles since the 2012 vintage.