Consumers are faced with a whole new lexicon and a ton of questions as the wine industry moves towards an eco-conscious mindset. What is “natty,” or natural, wine? Is that equivalent to biodynamic or organic wine? And why, when grapes and yeast are the primary constituents, are some wines not regarded as vegan? You’re not the only one if you’re feeling perplexed.
Natural, organic, biodynamic, and vegan all refer to aspects of wine that are similar but distinct. For example, all natural wines must be organic because using organic grapes is a requirement for making natural wines, but not all organic wines must also be natural because organic wine cellar regulations occasionally allow the use of additives and fining agents that aren’t typically used in natural winemaking.
This ambiguity results in part from the fact that “natural” is not a legally defined term, and as the category expands, greenwashing also does. When looking for a bottle of wine, consumers need to know what questions to ask.
What you should know is as follows.
Many of the bottles that catch our attention because of their rainbow labels and wax-sealed corks are considered natural, or low-intervention, wines. Although there is no official definition, the word has come to generically refer to wines made with the least amount of chemical or winemaker intervention in the cellar—for example, without the use of sulfur or with only a small amount of sulfur addition. Additionally, they are not matured in oak barrels, thus they lack the traditional woodsy flavor.
The most widely accepted definition of “natural” is a wine that spontaneously ferments with native yeast and has very no added sulfites (commonly used for preservation; not to be confused with natural sulfites, which all wines have). The majority of the time, natural wines are neither filtered nor fined, therefore they may include particles or appear hazy due to dissolved materials floating around. Natural wine might have a shorter shelf life and is typically produced in lesser amounts due to these non-interventionist features.
Natural wines are frequently described as being jazzed-up juice, funky, or barnyard-like (or even kombucha). However, the appeal of natural wines is their distinctive flavor, even when coming from the same producer or vintage. Many natural wines have a smoother taste that can be comparable to a wine prepared with greater intervention, even though many of them do taste sour like vinegar. A lack of homogeneity in flavor is simply a result of the absence of additional sulfites or processing chemicals.
Natural wine is a hard category to define because there is no official classification. While many wines may not adhere to the natural wine movement’s standards, they may be affected by its aesthetic labels or eco-friendly wording. For instance, actress Cameron Diaz is well-known for releasing a “clean” wine that doesn’t actually adhere to the guidelines that the majority of natural wine experts follow.
Because of this obscurity, it’s crucial to research the manufacturers while selecting a bottle of natural wine if you’re interested in doing so. Slowing down, learning about the land and people who planted the grapes, and savoring the end product are all aspects of wine culture.
An essential distinction All organic wines are natural wines, yet not all organic wines would fall under the natural wine category. Some regulations governing organic wine cellars allow the use of additives and fining agents, which go against the principles of natural winemaking.
Produce can be labeled as organic by the USDA if it was grown on soil without the application of any prohibited substances for three years previous to harvest. The criteria for organic certification for wines are different in the U.S. and the E.U. Similar to this, wines can receive organic certification from regional certifying agencies in other wine-growing regions, including Argentina and New Zealand. Wineries in the US must cultivate grapes without the use of synthetic fertilizers, avoid the addition of sulfites, and verify that all materials used in the production of the wines, including yeast, are organically certified in order to receive the USDA organic seal.
How about wine labeled as being “crafted with organic grapes”? Despite the fact that wine cannot be produced using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, this means that other substances used in the process, such as yeast, do not necessarily need to be organic. These wines are nevertheless unable to use the USDA organic certification even if they can claim to be created using organic grapes. Because added sulfites are permitted, even an organic wine that has received E.U. certification may only be referred to as “produced with organic grapes” in the United States. The USDA permits 100 mg/L of additional sulfites when grapes are labeled as “produced with organic grapes.”
The definition of a wine as biodynamic does not vary across continents, unlike with organic wines. The techniques used in biodynamic winemaking were developed in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who supported an agricultural strategy centered on a certain astronomical calendar. The Biodynamic Association defines biodynamic farming as “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production, and nutrition” in its official definition. Steiner saw the technique as a means of developing a system of winemaking that is sustainable and views the vineyard as a self-contained organism.
Followers of biodynamic farming are also advised to utilize certain fertilization techniques. One that piques my curiosity is the compost-filled cow horns that are buried in the vineyard and afterwards dug up. Many biodynamic wines are also organic in theory because the majority of biodynamic farmers also utilize organic techniques like avoiding pesticides and relying on compost rather than chemical fertilizer.
However, not all biodynamic wines are natural or organic, as some of them may include up to 100 mg/L of added sulfites. On the other hand, the use of techniques by the winemaker, such as the calendar and compostings, determines whether natural or organic wines can be considered biodynamic. Wines that are natural and organic can also be biodynamic if they adhere to these guidelines.
A biodynamic wine will not necessarily taste different from a non-biodynamic wine, but you will be able to tell that it was made with great care. The Demeter emblem on the bottle is a useful indicator of whether a wine is biodynamic, according to sommelier André Mack in World of Wine. This foundation promotes biodynamic farming methods and establishes criteria for wines to be certified as biodynamic.
Given that wine is derived from grapes and yeast, you might assume that all wines are vegan, but this isn’t always the case. As more individuals become interested in cutting out animal products from their diets, many wines have recently started marketing themselves as vegan-friendly.
Wines are often inedible to vegans because of traditional fining agents, which help eliminate sediment that can’t be removed by filtration. If a wine is labeled as vegan, as many wineries do, “you know that this wine is not refined with egg whites,” according to Mack. Additionally used frequently are gelatin, a protein derived from animal collagen, and casein, a protein found in milk.
Vegan wines are either left to settle to the bottom of the bottle or have the particles removed using non-animal fining products like pea protein or limestone. Due to the fining agents being filtered or evaporated, this variation in the fining procedure does not necessarily impact the wine’s flavor.
Beeswax, which is used to seal bottles, and agglomerated corks, which can employ milk-based glues, are not used in the production of vegan wines. Since neither U.S. nor European Union regulations presently compel wineries to identify fining agents on a label, finding vegan wines may entail relying on a store or a particular producer.
Not all vegan wines are organic. Vegan winemakers must adhere to tight regulations regarding the fining agents they use, but they nevertheless utilize fining agents—even though they differ from those used in “normal” wines. On the other side, natural wines often don’t utilize any fining agents at all.
Zero-0 wines, a subclass of natural wines, claim that the wine has had zero added and zero subtracted. To put it another way: It’s a stricter variation of natural wine that excludes any winemaker involvement (no added sulfites or other additives, no fining or filtering). Some members of the zero-zero movement contend that non-zero-zero wines cannot even be categorized as natural. The naturally occurring yeasts on the grapes and in the cellar are used for fermentation instead of artificial yeasts in this minimalist approach to winemaking. Producers who support the technique claim that although these yeasts are more difficult to manage, they provide a more complex flavor.
Many zero-zero wine producers manufacture in lesser amounts and only create a few hundred cases annually, such Unturned Stone Productions and Deux Punx, both of which have a few zero-zero wines in their natural wine lineups.
Zero-zero winemaking is still unconventional and divisive in the wine world. Some people say these wines exhibit more subtlety, while others claim they taste awful and are overly extreme. With zero-zero winemaking, the issue of when a winemaker should step in before a wine grows too funky or even poses a risk to food safety arises.
Zero-zero still holds the belief that minimal involvement leads to maximum flavor. “It’s like comparing an Ikea dish to a Heath bowl. It is more sensitive. It is well made. Graham Shelton of Slow Dance Wines in Petaluma tells the San Francisco Chronicle, “And okay, maybe it’s a bit chipped.
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