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Browse the endless wine shelf at the supermarket and you might grow curious: what's behind this bottle of red besides fermented grape juice? These days, we're more savvy than ever about where our food comes from and how it's produced. But most of us can't say the same thing about that glass of vino we're enjoying along with it. The truth is, the method of wine production is as varied as Big Ag chicken versus pastured-raised farm birds. Some wines are more natural—or "cleaner"—than others. To understand the difference between organic, biodynamic and natural wine, it first helps to have a little background.
Wine is the product of two processes: wine growing and winemaking. Wine growing encompasses planting, farming and harvesting grapes in the vineyard. Winemaking includes crushing, transforming and bottling these grapes into stuff you might sip by the glass at your favorite restaurant, bring to your brother's holiday dinner or swig on the couch during Seinfeld reruns.
Though the intricacies of a good glass are all held in the bottle, variations between wines aren't always transparent. One thing is clear when strolling through the aisles of polished pinot noirs and rieslings at your local shop: aside from seemingly simple decisions—do I want red or white tonight?—there are more qualifications to consider. Like "organic," "biodynamic" and "natural."
To help make sense of the wine aisle, let's break down some phrasing.
Though the legal definition of organically grown wine varies from country to country, here's the gist: organic wine is made from grapes grown according to government-regulated principles of organic farming. Now let's be more specific.
Using the "organic" label means that the wine has been certified by a licensed third-party organization and has been grown, harvested, processed and packaged according to rigorous standards.
Related: 12 Foods You Should Buy Organic
Organic grapes are cultivated in vineyards banning the use of artificial inputs, including synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. In organic vineyards, a bountiful growing year relies instead on maintaining strict standards for soil health—for example, upping biodiversity through crop rotation.
In the fermenting and bottling phase of winemaking, organic wines cannot contain added sulfites. Sulfites—also known as sulfur dioxide, a naturally occurring preservative in most wines and an inherent by-product of alcoholic fermentation—can be manually added by the winemaker to up the sulfite level in their bottle of vino, thereby increasing its lifespan. If a winemaker opts to add sulfites, but otherwise follows organic farming practices, the wines can't be labeled "organic." However, they can be classified as wine "made from organic grapes."
The exception: bottles produced in Europe and Canada, where organic wine standards allow small amounts of added sulfites as long as the total quantity doesn't exceed 100 parts per million (ppm) for reds and 150 ppm for whites. (To compare, conventional wine standards in these countries allow sulfite levels up to 150 ppm for red wine and 200 ppm for white.)
Biodynamic wine adheres to all organic criteria, plus some (or all) of the doctrines established in the late 1920s by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and academic known for exploring the synthesis of science and spirituality. To put it simply, biodynamics is the practice of viewing the vineyard as an ecological entity regarded from the soil up.
At the base level, this means increasing soil fertility by barring the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamics, then, is organic wine taken a step further: just as the care for your health shouldn't prioritize lungs over kidneys, so must a vineyard operate as a series of balanced interactions. While many vineyards are monocultures (the cultivation of a single crop alone), a biodynamic farm must be diversified and self-sustainable, resisting monoculture through interactions between a larger ecosystem of plants and animals. Planting, harvesting and pruning practices are determined by a specific calendar, taking into account both lunar cycles and the position of the sun and planets.
Like organic wine, "biodynamic" is a registered certification with a definite roster of requirements. Wines labeled "biodynamic" will have approved recognition from the Demeter Association, a branch of Demeter International—the nonprofit organized in 1928 following Steiner's first lectures on biodynamics in agriculture.
Natural winemaking, despite its more recent popularity, is technically the first and oldest method of growing wine. However, natural wine is tricky to pinpoint in a single definition; all natural wine follows a similar ethos, but winemakers might vary in their personal codes of conduct.
Natural wine—from growing and fermenting to bottling and cellaring—is made entirely without chemical intervention and with the bare minimum of technological manipulation. It's as natural as a wine can get, with little to nothing added or subtracted in the vine to vat process. To put it very, very simply, it's fermented grape juice and little else.
But, it's crucial to note that "nonchemical intervention" doesn't mean an absence of intervention entirely. Wine growing and winemaking across all categories is precise, painstaking labor, and it's extraordinarily so in natural wine. Soil fertility and diversity in the vineyard's ecosystem are vital, meaning problems among the vines, like an invasion of leaf-munching Japanese beetles, require rethinking symbioses within the entire operation rather than locating a tank of pesticide spray.
Another but: the ethos of natural wine doesn't necessarily mean these wines are "real" while others are not. Instead, think of "natural" as an indication of wine that's as unmanipulated as possible. Any naturally occurring flaws are included, and often celebrated. Ever hear the phrase a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square? Keep that in mind: a natural wine is organic and sometimes biodynamic, though organic and biodynamic wines are not always natural.
Though natural wine is among the strictest and most self-imposed versions of winemaking, there's no legal classification or regulated standard to define the actual process. Unlike biodynamic winemaking, the natural wine movement is not attributed to a single individual. That said, there are established organizations, like VinNatur, that aid in defining and regulating those who make natural bottles.
With talk of "real" wine versus "fake" comes talk of "good" wine versus "bad." Here's the catch: the term "bad wine" is as vague, individualized and variable as is "good wine." A reliable way to judge good versus bad is the "Sip Test." Taste the wine in front of you. Do you want another sip? And another? The point: "good wine" is wine that you enjoy drinking. Stripped of its label, it should taste good to you, period.
Though "good wine" doesn't comprise organic, biodynamic and natural wine alone, bottles beyond these distinctions have less restriction on the additives allowed in the final product.
The list of allowed substances in U.S. winemaking is about two pages long. These additives and treating materials, marked by the FDA shorthand "GRAS" for "Generally Recognized As Safe," are not listed on the back of the wine bottle. They might include added preservatives; engineered yeast strains; or super-concentrates, like Mega Purple, used to correct a wine's color, mouthfeel and flavor. Wines made in the U.S. and other countries may also include foaming agents, coloring agents, acidifiers, deacidifiers, casein, pepsin, trypsin, dimethyl dicarbonate, ammonium phosphate, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, potato protein isolate, acetaldehyde and isinglass (the dried swim bladders of fish, used for wine clarification).
Even if a bottle of conventional wine includes the additives listed above, you won't see them listed on the bottle's label, with the exception of sulfites, cochineal extract/carmine and FD&C Yellow No. 5. Of course, the movie-night bottle of chardonnay you snagged on sale at the grocery store may not contain any of these inputs. The only way to know for certain is to research how the wine is grown and processed.
Ever sipped a grippy glass of cabernet sauvignon and found a dull ache blooming across your eyebrows? Wine, and red wine in particular, is so often blamed for inducing headaches that it's gained its own shorthand: R.W.H. (for "Red Wine Headache"). Although red wines more often contain lower sulfur levels than whites, sulfites are frequently held as the main culprit. The theory is that drinking wines with the absolute lowest amount of sulfur—organic, biodynamic and natural wines—should keep the headaches at bay. But is it true?
Yes and no. Wine may cause headaches in some, but sulfites are rarely to blame. In fact, the amount of sulfites in dried fruit can far exceed that in a typical bottle of vino—sometimes by five, six or ten times as much. An estimated 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulfites, which would spark typical symptoms of sensitivity like congestion, headaches, nausea, skin rash and dizziness.
For the rest of the wine-drinking community, headaches prompted by a few glasses of merlot are more likely due to factors beyond sulfites. Dehydration, alcohol levels, sugar content, tannins and histamines are all more viable culprits.
The best way to combat a R.W.H. is to drink at least one glass of water for every glass of wine. Wines that are lower in alcohol—say, the 12 to 13 percent range—might also reduce the likelihood of uncorking a headache.
The old adage helps, too: everything in moderation.
• Robert Sinskey Vineyards for certified-organic wines raised biodynamically
• Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant for an enormous selection of wines that often skew organic, biodynamic or natural
• Selection Massale for natural wines from smaller-scale winemakers hailing from France and Germany
• Jenny & Francois Selections for natural wines culled from across the globe