Natural, Organic, and Biodynamic Wines Explained

May 16, 2024by Andrew Lowry

As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, the wine industry has embraced a range of sustainable farming methods. Among the most prominent are natural, organic, and biodynamic winemaking practices. While they share some principles, there are distinct differences between these three approaches. In this article, we'll explore each one and hear from experts on why they are beneficial.

Natural Winemaking

Natural winemaking is a minimalist approach that avoids any additions or subtractions during the winemaking process. The grapes should be (but aren't always) grown using organic or sustainable practices, and nothing is added to the wine except a minimal amount of sulfites (as a preservative) at bottling if desired. Many vignerons/winemakers pride themselves on making zero-zero wine which means not even sulfur is added. 

"Natural wine is about putting absolutely nothing in, but absolutely everything into it," says Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine and founder of RAW WINE. "It's made in the vineyard with minimum intervention in the cellar."

The idea is to produce a wine that is an honest, "natural" expression of the grapes and terroir. No artificial yeasts, enzymes, tannins, or other processing aids are used. Naturally occurring yeast does the fermentation.

Proponents praise natural wines for being more vibrant, pure expressions of their origins. Critics argue they can sometimes be unstable or have off-flavors due to less manipulation. To make fault-free, age-worthy zero-zero wine takes an immense amount of skill and attention to detail from the winemaker, so, when done right, natural wine is very impressive. Sadly, though, this is rare.

Organic Winemaking

To be certified organic, vineyards must follow strict rules established by governing bodies like the USDA's National Organic Program. Synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides are prohibited. Only approved natural products may be used.

In the cellar, organic winemakers must also avoid any non-organic additions like processed yeasts or acids. However, unlike natural wines, some manipulation is permitted such as filtration, adding sulfites, or using non-organic processing aids.

"Organic farming is really good for biodiversity and for the living systems in the soil," says Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines. "We see more life in the vineyards that's teeming and it seems to translate through to the wines."

Benefits cited by organic advocates include environmental sustainability, avoiding chemical residues, and promoting healthy soils and ecosystems. The higher costs and labor remain challenges.

An additional complexity is that many farmers and winemakers choose not to pursue official organic certification. This may be because the certification process is too expensive, or they believe the organic standards aren't stringent enough. As a result, numerous wines are produced following organic practices, but without bearing an organic label.

This raises the question - if a winery claims to use organic methods but isn't certified, how can you verify they are truly adhering to those principles? Conversely, if a wine does have an organic certification, how do you know if the certification body is regulating and inspecting that winery frequently enough to catch any potential violations?

The certified organic conundrum remains an ongoing issue without a clear solution. Consumers are left to decide whether to trust the certification seals at face value or investigate individual wineries' farming practices themselves. Ultimately, the organic wine landscape has complexities beyond just the philosophical approaches. A lack of transparency can make it difficult to ascertain how eco-friendly a wine's production process truly is.

Biodynamic Winemaking

Biodynamics takes organic practices further by also following a holistic, spiritual philosophy of achieving a balance between all living elements of the vineyard. It incorporates concepts like planetary alignments, herbal supplements, and animal-derived soil preparations in an integrated farming system. Yeah...kinda wonky, but if you look back 1,000s of years, this is what people used to do!

"Biodynamics is about honoring and respecting our role within nature's whole," explains Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. "Our approach aims to nurture agricultural biodiversity and soil health."

Biodynamic tenets include avoiding any synthetic fertilizers or chemicals, considering the vineyard as a self-sustaining ecosystem, and achieving balance through detailed growing calendars and regulatory certifications.

While skeptics question some of biodynamics' more mystical elements, supporters believe this approach produces more vibrant, nuanced wines that truly capture a sense of place. Additionally, the issue of transparency surrounding organic certification is echoed with Demeter Biodynamic Certification as well.

Comparing the Three

So how do these farming methods stack up? Here's a quick comparison:

Natural Wines:

  • Grapes grown organically or sustainably (hopefully)
  • No additives except minimal sulfites (zero-zero means no sulfites)
  • Nothing added/nothing removed during winemaking (no acid, no sugar, no nothing)
  • Wild/native yeast fermentation (need to be squeaky clean or bad yeast can infest and create wine faults)
  • Low intervention and manipulation (letting the wine ferment and do its thing with no punchdowns, no temperature regulation, no nothin'!)

Organic Wines:

  • Certified organic grape growing (no synthetic chemicals)
  • Some non-organic processing aids and additions permitted (like temperature controlled tanks, animal derived fining agents, oak chips for flavoring, tartaric acid, etc.)
  • Sulfites and other manipulations often used
  • Focus on sustainable farming practices and land health

Biodynamic Wines:

  • Certified biodynamic grape growing focused on the vineyard as an ecological whole — one big living system that feeds off each other
  • Incorporates astrological influences and homeopathic preparations when scheduling vineyard and winery operations
  • Very limited cellar interventions and inputs
  • Strong emphasis on biodiversity and soil quality and soil microbiome health (often the soil is sprayed with homeopathic remedies which promote soil and vine health)

There is some overlap between the three. For example, most biodynamic wines are organic, but not all biodynamic wines are 100% additive-free like natural wines.

Additional Voices on the Benefits

For supporters, beyond the philosophy, these eco-friendly approaches produce quality wines:

"Organic wines have purer fruit flavors. People say they taste more alive, vibrant, and energetic," states Chris Barriere, winemaker of Quivira Vineyards & Winery.

Tony Coturri of Coturri Winery praises natural wines: "These are honest, authentic wines from organic grapes made without manipulation. You get the true expression of the terroir."

And many feel biodynamic principles yield nuanced, complex wines as Alan York of Novy Vineyards explains: "Biodynamic practices give us grapes with incredible depth, purity, and terroir expression. The wines show beautiful vibrancy and life."

While adherents use different adjectives, the themes of authenticity, vibrancy, and terroir expression run through their perspectives on natural, organic, and biodynamic wines.

The Future is Green?

From boutique wineries to large brands, sustainable farming is gaining traction. Clean, "green" labels increasingly appeal to discerning consumers. While still niche segments, natural, organic, and biodynamic wines are leaving their mark. And we didn't even talk about regenerative organic! Another time...

As the industry evolves, these eco-friendly philosophies are likely to keep inspiring vintners to explore progressive winemaking practices. Environmental and ethical concerns remain at the forefront. If quality and expression remain paramount, this green revolution is poised to shape the future of wine.