Natural and Organic and Clean (Wine), Oh My!

By:  Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier

Just like Dorothy and her cohorts in the Wizard of Oz, there is a lot of chatter about the virtues of these wine ‘styles.’  Are these just marketing terms to capture our discretionary wine dollars or is there real substance and value?

First, let us look at a bit of history. Once upon a time, vineyards were planted, fertilized, and protected by using manure and other animal by-products. After World War II, the focus was on growing food rather than on the production of munitions. It began the age of science in winemaking which served to give people the illusion that everything could be controlled, and perfect wines could be crafted.  That is, until the realization that using a lot of chemicals for any type of food production was not a good thing, for the health of the people or for the environment.

While the ‘natural wine movement’ began in Beaujolais around the 1950s, it was in the 1970s that the Gang of Four, took up the torch of the natural wine movement where old vines are prized, synthetic herbicides and pesticides are not used, harvest is late, grapes are sorted rigorously to remove all but the healthiest grapes, with minimal additions of sulfur dioxide (or none at all) and disdaining chaptalization.  (While all this sounds fantastic, it was also when the marketing of Nouveau Beaujolais began in an attempt to invigorate wine sales.)

By 2005, consumers’ tastes were changing, and organic products entered the marketplace.  People shopped at farmers’ markets, drank craft beer, ate heirloom tomatoes at farm-to-table restaurants and were concerned with the reports of lab created yeasts, grapes doused in weed killer and huge conglomerates being in charge of the products and produce they were eating.  The natural wine movement fit in with the urban appetite for movements that evoked a slower, more earthbound past.  ‘Natural’ wine is, in fact, very trendy today. 

So, what is natural wine? Natural wine has no ’legal’ definition and the use of the term is not managed by any regulatory body (while France has formally recognized natural wine, it is approved for a three-year trial period and the term ‘natural’ cannot be used).  For natural winemaking, the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed which requires following a long list of rules and paying for costly certification.  If lab created chemicals are not utilized, there is an expectation that this is natural, pure and the end-product superior. This vagueness is part of what has allowed natural wine to become a cultural phenomenon. However, the product can be cloudy, fizzy and have VA (volatile acidity) along with other off aromas due to using indigenous yeast for fermentation. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…that seems to be part of the allure of natural wine!

Organic wine is a bit trickier.  First, farming organically is regulated, there are annual fees to be organically certified, and various regulatory bodies exist around the world.  You can farm organically and not be certified which many growers and wineries choose to do because of costs. I certainly respect those growers that are farming organically as doing so is being kind to our planet which is a noble cause.

To be ‘organic’ is not just a result of vineyard practices.  Once the grapes arrive at the winery, there are a list of accepted practices that must be followed to be considered organic.  These include:

– fermentation with indigenous yeasts as natural yeasts are part of the terroir

– no water additions to dilute the sugars which result in high alcohol wines (Note: the practice is legal in California for commercial production)

– no enzymes (commercial enzymes are commonly used to improve extraction and aromatic profile of a wine while also accelerating the winemaking process

– no additives such as tannin, coloring (Mega Purple), yeast nutrients; sulfur dioxide is not used or is used in moderation

– no filtration or fining

– malolactic fermentation happens naturally rather than the typical practice of added bacteria

 to name some of the practices.  Whew! A lot to keep up with!

So, to be clear, organic wine is made from grapes which are grown according to the principles of organic farming. Having ‘certified organic’ on a wine label only speaks to the farming.  There is no organization that guarantees or oversees the actual winemaking function (and even the French ‘certification’ only speaks to the amount of Sulphur in the wine).

Finally, the marketing concept of ‘clean’ wine (vs. ‘unclean’ wine?) is the latest addition to this stable of special wine category styles.  To name a few companies touting ‘clean’ wine: Good Clean Wine which ‘pairs with a healthy lifestyle’; the Wonderful Wine Company, which offers ‘wellness without deprivation’; and Scout and Cellar, a multi-level marketing company that boasts ‘clean-crafted wine’ with hopes to ‘disrupt the wine industry and do better for the planet.’  Wineries do not have to list ingredients on their labels. As a result, these opportunists are fearmongering, seeking to make a profit by claiming other wineries are using harmful chemicals in their production.  So why don’t wineries list ingredients?  Because winemaking is not an industrial process with a standard recipe that you can replicate every vintage.  Winemaking decisions change each vintage and it would be costly to make changes to labels every year.

According to Jamie Goode PhD, wine writer and author of wine textbooks, ‘you can’t grow grapes from Vitis vinifera without spraying eight to 14 times a year. The problem is mildew and then, at the end of the growing season, rot. One of wine’s paradoxes is that the most prized, expensive grapes come from regions prone to fungal diseaseswhich can only be treated with commercial pesticides or, for organic growers, applications of copper sulfate. It is all about the concentration,’ says Goode, adding: ‘there are strict regulations concerning their use and concerning residue levels that are permitted. Wine is one of the most regulated and safe products there is.’

‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ and ‘Clean’ (wine), Oh My!  I am off to see the Wizard to see if he can shed any light on this controversial subject!