Natural Wine & Sustainability

Two concepts have entered the world of wine in recent years which we feel we should update you on; “Natural Wine” and “Sustainability”.  Here, therefore, is our take on them with a quick reminder of a couple of other related terms:

Let’s address the concept of Sustainable Wine first, which we should consider alongside Organic and Biodynamic Wine.  You could think of these three terms as representative of increasing levels of commitment from wine producers towards the environment.  Of the three terms only Organic carries a recognised definition.

The definition of Organic wine (or more accurately wine made from organically grown grapes) differs slightly from country to country and it’s the definition of the country of origin that matters, not the country of sale.  Differences tend to be fairly minor though, with the general acceptance that no synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides are ever used in the vineyard.  There’s a qualification period of at least 3 years for a vineyard to gain organic certification and you are likely to find a badge on the back label of the bottle to let you know if a wine has been made from organically grown grapes.  Our usual caveat applies though in that we have always cautioned that it is perfectly possible to take a beautiful organically grown harvest of grapes and screw it up in the winery. 

The point about Organic Certification is that producers who work towards it and qualify do so because they care about the environment and think that doing so helps produce better fruit.  Although the certification only relates to that which happens in the vineyard, it is not unreasonable to also conclude that equal care will be shown at every stage of the winemaking process.

Biodynamic practices tend to exist at a level beyond Organic and are based on the principles laid down by a chap called Rudolf Steiner.  Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and social reformer who was approached by a group of farmers in 1924 seeking help and advice on the future of agriculture.  Steiner responded with a series of lectures setting out not only what we would recognise from the definition of Organic farming practices, but also going beyond that.  Steiner encouraged the view that a farm should be regarded as an entire self-sustaining organism with every aspect of its agriculture being both self-supporting and mutually supportive of every other aspect. 

Steiner also proposed that the timing of various agricultural activities such as pruning, weeding, sowing and harvesting, should be timed with the phases of the moon and planets to make use of their believed effects on plant growth.  The scientific jury is still out on several aspects of what Steiner proposed, but those who follow these practices do claim that they work.  Winemakers who treat the environment with this degree of respect are surely a good thing, regardless of what you think of the science (or lack of it) behind that.

Sustainable wine has no formal definition but is a sign that a winemaker is looking further than simply what happens in the vineyard – it’s really about being socially responsible in an economically sustainable way.  Running a business with an environmental conscience if you like.  Lengths taken to reduce packaging, minimise a carbon footprint, recycle water, clad all the roofs with solar panels, use rechargeable battery powered fork-lifts and pallet trucks (for instance) could all be considered under the banner of sustainability.  Such steps might be taken in addition to following organic or biodynamic vineyard practices, and there are some organisations in some countries that offer formal recognition of sustainability in wine production.

Central to the concept of sustainability is putting your workforce at the centre of your production, no longer underpaying itinerant pickers and warehouse grunts but ensuring training, a regular year round wage and, in less advantaged parts of the world, making provision of educational and medical facilities.

You may also have heard the term Natural Wine.  It sounds enticing at face value: who doesn't like the idea of wine that sounds so redolent of cleanness and purity?  Sorry, it's not as simple as that.   There is no official definition of "natural" but it is generally accepted that it refers to a “hands off” approach from the winemaker; letting nature do as much of the work as possible.  As long as this philosophy is in the hands of producers who have deep knowledge of their own geology, microclimate and fruit, together with a fastidious brilliance in their winemaking, you should be safe.  However, as produced by growers without the wherewithal and experience to embrace the whole principle of the idea, it can be a very disappointing experience.  Please be assured that Wines of Interest is not interested in sour wines buried in clay pots for ages and paraded in the name of tradition as an ancient craft fully in tune with today's zeitgeist.  Or some such marketing crap. Many winemakers have been doing this for decades before anyone uttered the words “natural wine”, and many continue to do so without feeling the need to jump on this fashionable bandwagon and claim their wines to be “natural”.  To do so would imply that some wines were somehow unnatural.  Less natural perhaps, in the case of some of the mass produced examples, but not unnatural.  Unnatural would be that fluorescent blue stuff sold in night clubs…  Any wine for which the sales stich is," Buy me, I'm natural", should be approached with care and preferably following research.

More recently people do seem to have got something of a bee in their bonnet regarding the “contains sulphites” wording that first appeared on wine bottles back in 2002.  We have always maintained that the precise levels of sulphites in any wine should be stated on the label just as the alcoholic content is, so that consumers could make a more informed buying decision, but we’re not there yet.  Sulphites are actually a natural bi-product of the fermentation process but winemakers generally add a touch of Sulphur Dioxide to wines because doing so brings added protection to the wine from oxidation and bacterial spoilage.  Wine left without this protection is likely to be less stable and spoil more easily but, as with the other aspects addressed in this blog, it’s all about responsible viticulture and vinification.  You may be interested to know that sulphites are also widely used in tinned and processed food, soft drinks and especially dried fruits where the legal limit for their use is ten times higher than the limit for wine.

So, what should you, as someone who enjoys and appreciates a glass of wine or two, do with all this information?  Organic labels are usually easy to spot, but there’s no definition or certification for those following biodynamic practices, or any clues about sustainability.  The solution is to “know your winemaker”.  It quickly becomes evident from their general ethos who the ones are that care for the environment and take a responsible approach to their activities.  You can bet that if a winemaker demonstrates a highly responsible approach to viticulture with organic or biodynamic practices in the vineyard he is likely to be taking a sustainable approach in the winery too, and equally likely to be leaving his/her wines as natural as possible. 

If “knowing your winemaker” still seems a bit distant and unrealistic the next best thing is to “know your Wine Merchant” so just ask them (us) instead, they will know who the good guys are… We currently identify wines made from organically grown grapes on our website (use the drop down box search facility on the left hand side of the webpage called “other” and select “organic” before clicking “search”) and you will find references in tasting notes to those who follow biodynamic practices.  We will also be working towards flagging up those producers who follow sustainable practices so you’ll be able to pick out those as well in due course.  In the meantime, just ask…

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