Once upon a time, buying a bottle of wine was simple: All you had to do was look for the name of the grape or the region you liked, in the price point you could afford, and BINGO! You had your bottle of wine for the evening.
Then things got a little more complicated. Consumers were faced with wine lingo like malolactic fermentation, sur lie aging, tannin structure and brix levels. Books offered definitions and information designed to make wine easy to understand, in an effort to demystify the complexities of this high-brow beverage.
However, just when we thought we’d gotten it all figured out, we were faced with a whole new series of wine jargon—organic, biodynamic, natural, vegan … vegan? Wait, you mean wine—made from grapes—isn’t already vegan?!
Unlike the terms from yesteryear, these new categories of wine have devout followers and a cult-like status in the wine world. Alas, it’s all enough to make someone want to start drinking Jack and Coke.
So … what does it all mean? While these terms, like organic and natural, seem to be one in the same, they are, in fact, quite different.
Natural wine is the new cool kid on the shelf. Often graced with funky, artistic and quirky labels, these wines are the beverage du jour for millennials and industry-insiders. They are often called the kombucha of the wine world because of their sometimes tart and borderline sour fruit component; their hazy, unfiltered appearance; and occasionally a fizzy sensation on the palate. More often than not, if you’ve never heard of the grape—like Jacquere, Trousseau, Poulsard or Valdiguie—chances are it’s a natural wine.
Wines don’t need to adhere to specific laws or regulations to be called “natural,” but there is a sort of unspoken code among the makers of these wines. Simply put, they approach winemaking more like a midwife than a doctor: They are there to interfere if something goes wrong, but other than that, they let nature take its course. The wines are often described as low-intervention or minimally handled. The fruit is picked early, so sugar levels (and ultimately alcohol levels) are low; producers don’t add additional sulfites; and the final product is usually unfined and unfiltered, which can make the wine a little cloudy and gritty. In short, the principle behind these wines is that nothing is added, and nothing is taken away.
Organic wines, on the other hand, are extremely regulated. There is a War and Peace-sized manual detailing every aspect of the process—farming, harvesting, producing and bottling—that must be followed to the letter, if certification is to be granted. The vineyard and winery must adhere to organic practices for at least three consecutive years before they will even be considered for a certification—and you’d better hope your neighbors aren’t using any nonorganic material that could possibly float onto your property, because you could be doomed for rejection. Once you have achieved your designation, you’re not out of the woods: You must pass inspection from the governing body every single year.
I think biodynamics may be the most-misunderstood of all the farming practices. It’s rooted in mysticism and guided by the lunar calendar, so some people tend to think of it as woo-woo, hocus-pocus nonsense. Really, it was created as a way to look at all the elements of farming as a whole. Rudolf Steiner created this philosophy in 1924, maintaining that the soil, plants and livestock should be treated as one all-encompassing entity. The philosophy also adheres to the belief that days of the month are divided into four categories: Leaf days are meant for watering; root days are for pruning; on fruit days, you harvest; and on flower days, you leave everything alone. There is also the cow horn you fill with manure and bury in the vineyard, and a copper solution you spray over the crop. I am definitely oversimplifying the process, and those who follow biodynamics will surely cringe at my dumbed-down explanation. Looking to try a biodynamic wine? Look for the word “Demeter” on the back label. This is the biodynamic governing body.
OK, so what about this vegan wine? How can a wine possibly be nonvegan? It comes down to the process of fining, which removes all the little floaties that standard filtration misses. The common agents used for this are egg whites, fish bladder, gelatin or casein (a milk protein). Before you throw up in your mouth, please note that these products don’t stay in the wine; their only purpose is to bind to the floaties so they can be removed. However, vegans are not likely to appreciate any animal part being used in production, even if they aren’t ingesting it. As a result, some winemakers have turned to substances like bentonite, a type of clay, to capture the cloudy bits. Vegan wines will also steer clear of beeswax to seal the bottle, and agglomerated corks, which use a milk-based glue.
But is vegan wine organic? Is organic wine vegan? No and no. Organic wine can use animal parts for fining as long as those parts are certified organic. Vegan wine doesn’t have to adhere to organic practices to be vegan.
Is biodynamic wine organic? Is organic wine biodynamic? Yes and no. Biodynamic farming employs organic practices, like not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, in favor of natural compost; it also doesn’t include the addition of sulfites. Organic wine is not obliged to follow the holistic and metaphysical approach of biodynamics.
But what we really want to know is … do these wines taste better?
For whatever reason, in blind tastings around the world, biodynamic wines have been rated higher than their counterparts. Ironically, it’s been shown in other blind tastings that there is no discernable taste difference between organic and nonorganic wines.
But don’t take my word for it. Go grab some organic, non-organic and biodynamic wines. Wrap them in foil, and have your own blind tasting. After all, what else have you got to do today?