“If there is an attraction (for organics/biodynamics) in the marketplace, then there will be some unscrupulous people that will come along and fill that attraction, and do damage to everyone else in the process.” – Wayne Ahrens, Small Fry Wines.
Wayne Ahrens told me this, back in October 2013, when I interviewed him for a story on The Wine Idealist about his wine label, Small Fry Wines, from the Barossa Valley, South Australia.
Wine has changed a lot in Australia over the last five years or so, and, even more so over the last twelve months. There seems to be a greater emphasis on sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and natural wines being offered in many of the latest bars and restaurants to have opened up recently, or appearing on updated wine lists of pre-existing bars that are smart enough to stay up to date with the current trends.
Of course, this is all merely
anecdotal, and it might just be a simple case of observer-expectancy effect, or confirmation bias on my part. But, when you think to a few of these new bars and restaurants, many located in Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as in Sydney, and a few online wine stores that have popped up of late, they all seem to have a strong focus on natural, organic, and biodynamic, or otherwise, sustainable wines, and utilise them as part of their unique marketing and selling point… which, when you think about it, is actually pretty damn awesome, for a wine idealist!
But do any of these places – the owners, the staff, and their customers – even know what natural, organic, or biodynamic wine actually means, let alone the perpetually obscure word, sustainable, and how these words apply to wine? In most cases I would suspect that, yes, the owners of these places do know what these terms mean, otherwise, why would they put so much energy, time and money into starting a business that places such an emphasis on these types of wines? – then again, that could just be the (wine) idealist in me talking – But do their staff know, and, more importantly, do their customers?
“We all have only a very small window of opportunity to communicate with consumers… and it’s hard to do more than scratch the surface.” – Stuart Knox, Fix St James
It’s hard enough for most wine writers to properly explain such complicated terms in as concise and simple a way as possible, in a story that can be read and re-read over and over again until it’s properly understood, let alone a sommelier who only has, as Stuart says ‘a very small window of opportunity’ – probably 30 secs at the most, most of the time, to explain the story behind the wine, and potentially using words like natural, organic, biodynamic, or sustainable…
I’m no wine authority. I’m a self proclaimed wine idealist, wait… The Wine Idealist, but I have been writing weekly about natural, organic, and biodynamic wines for almost three years, on this very website, and in various publications, including Decanter, Gourmet Traveller Wine, JH’s Wine Companion, and the Guardian.
And, I’d like to think, humbly of course, that I’ve learnt a few things along the way… At least enough to be able to develop a (slightly) informed opinion on these matters. You can read many past editions of The Wine Idealist, featuring many Australian and New Zealand winegrowers who live and breathe this stuff every single day, and know way more about it than I do, here, and here.
But, for those of you who imagine themselves as being ‘time poor’ or have become recently accustomed to reading lists, here is a handy guide for anyone who works in wine sales and marketing, or in hospitality, for a bar or restaurant that specialises in natural, organic, biodynamic, sustainable, artisan, at times green-washed, or, hand crafted by hand, boutique, preservative free, soil friendly, small batch, authentic, real, or non-fake wine.
The Wine Idealist‘s Top 4 Words You Oughta Know About Wine, Right Now!
Natural wines are wines that are made from wine grapes that have experienced no human intervention or manipulation – nothing is added or removed – other than to encourage a change of state, from a bunch of grapes grown in a vineyard, to a bottle of wine. There are no additives, such as packet yeast, acid, tannin, enzymes, poly-vinyl-poly-pyrrolidone, or hydrogen peroxide etc., no use of new oak, and there is, usually, no finning or filtration to remove any excess sediment. Instead, the wine is meant to be a pure and honest, (sometimes too honest!) expression of the fruit, the season, and the place where it was grown. Only a minimal amount (75ppm or less) of sulphur-dioxide (SO2/220) is sometimes used, as required, in order to help the wine travel safely.
“While currently not regulated by an official definition, natural wines are made from sustainably farmed, organic (or biodynamic) grapes, with nothing removed or added during winemaking, bar at most a dash of sulfites. It is good old-fashioned grape juice fermented into wine just as nature intended.” – Isabelle Legeron MW.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines organic as, “(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.” In relation to organic wine, this simply relates to the management of the vineyard itself; that no ‘chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals’ are used in the vineyard to increase yield, and kill pests and disease, weeds and so on. In theory, you could practice organic farming out in the vineyard, and still add to, and manipulate the fruit once it arrives in the winery.
In Australia, an independent certifying body must certify a producer’s wine if that producer’s wines are to be promoted and sold as an organic product.
“The process for achieving certification, going from a conventionally managed vineyard to an organic or biodynamically certified one, involves an application process, which details the history of the property, how it’s been managed in the past, but most importantly how it’s going to be managed in the future.” – John Keep, Australian Certified Organic Inspector
Put simply, biodynamic viticulture is a philosophy that combines the maintenance of sustainable soil fertility with the recognition of the link between plant growth and the rhythms of the cosmos.It is a method of farming that treats the vineyard as a living system that interacts with the environment to build a healthy living soil, which in turn helps to nourish the vines and general environment.
Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner initially outlined the practice of biodynamics, in 1924. His lectures outlined a new approach to agriculture, which include:
- methods for composting using renewable resources,
- farming according to the natural rhythms and phases of the moon, and planets (working to the lunar calendar),
- a sense of spirituality with regards to the earth, and all living and natural things existing upon it.
With regards to wine, many biodynanmic winegrowers will use the preparations 500-508, as prescribed by Steiner, in their vineyard and conduct their composting, general maintenance, harvesting and so on, according to the lunar calendar.
In Australia, an independent certifying body must certify a producer’s wine if that producer’s wines are to be promoted and sold as a biodynamic product.
“Key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system. To this end, biodynamic farms are supposed to be closed, self-sustaining systems. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right.” – Jamie Goode PhD.
Sustainability can be a confusing word, and one must be very careful how and when it is used. Most of the time, sustainability gets inextricably linked to clean, green notions of environmental custodianship, which, to be fair, is most often true. However, when spoken from the mouths of the unscrupulous, sustainability can easily be greenwashed to disguise some undesirable intentions, say, for example, helping a marketing department meet it sales targets (think, Coke Life). It’s easy to confuse sustainability with organics and biodynamics, and the average wine purchasing punter will almost always connect the word, sustainability, to its environmental connotations and forget to consider the equally important elements of economic and social sustainability. Natural, organic, and biodynamic wine is not the same as sustainable wine, and so, therefore, sustainability needs to be defined.
“A sustainable farm or vineyard was defined as, ‘one that is able to economically provide for the farmer while maintaining its ability to consistently produce and improve quality over time… Most (sustainability) programs incorporate a triple bottom line approach, which evaluates entire production systems considering the interrelationship of economic, environmental, and social factors’,” – Santiago-Brown et. al.
Just to be clear… Organic means non-(synthetic) chemical, or chemical free. Biodynamic is also the absence of synthetic chemicals. Sustainability, on the other hand, means, to endure, keep up, carry on, keep in existence, maintain, preserve, perpetuate, protract, and well, you get the idea. What it doesn’t mean is free of synthetic, potentially toxic, chemicals.
BONUS BUZZ WORD!
PRESERVATIVE FREE simply means no preservatives (usually, sulphur/SO2/220) have been added to the wine at any stage during the transformation from grape to wine. Some sulphites will occur naturally in all wines, due to the process of fermentation. Wine in Australia can only contain a maximum of 300ppm of SO2. Certified organic and biodynamic wine can only contain a maximum of 150ppm. Most table wine – organic, biodynamic, or not – usually contains between 50-150ppm of SO2. Typically, more for whites and less for reds. Preservative free wines can still have acid, tannin, enzymes et. al. added to them. Therefore, they are not, necessarily, natural wines.
“Sulphur dioxide is almost universally used in winemaking, and is one of the few compounds for which legal maximum limits exist (… depending on the sweetness of the wine, with sweeter wines containing more).” – Bryce Rankine, Making Good Wine.
For some perspective, most dried fruits, such as dried apricots, can contain up to 3,000ppm of SO2. Also, those manipulative bastards, the Romans, apparently, used to use sulphur to preserve their wines… so, additions of SO2 is nothing new. In mindful amounts, sulphur can actually be a good thing in wine.
I hope that clears up a few things for anyone wanting to know more about just what is is they are marketing, selling, talking about with friends, or just simply drinking from day to day.
Thanks for reading…
D// – The Wine Idealist.
Links and Further Reading