If a wine is described as organic, the grapes used will have been grown without the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. For many of the growers on our list this will also mean manually harvesting and keeping yields low – in short working in a much more sympathetic and sustainable way with their terroir. Proponents of organic farming believe that chemical methods not only harm the land, but that they also homogenise all the unique factors which give a wine a sense of place.
For example one producer we work with, Gonzalo Gonzalo, describes the impact on his family vineyard of the consistent use of chemicals during the 1970s. "The soil itself suffered, losing its vitality as witnessed in the deadening of the biodiversity in the vineyard. Wild flowers, insects, earth worms, snails and the various organisms of the vineyard ecosystem were no longer present as they were even two generations ago." Gonzalo now finds organic solutions to mildew, mould and pests, and has restored the natural vigour of the vineyard.
The principles of biodynamic farming are based on the work of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).The biodynamic approach seeks not only to rid the vineyard of chemical pollutants, but also to increase biological activity in the soil, primarily through the use of specially prepared fertilisers.
The vineyard is considered as part of an interconnected living system, with work carried out according to the seasons, the phases of the moon and even planetary positions. Steiner called this peasant wisdom. Biodynamic preparations based on cow manure, silica and medicinal plants are sprayed or added to the soil via compost.
Biodynamics can be seen in some sense as a more extreme, active form of organic farming, and requires a great deal of commitment from the producer. Many producers work biodynamically but do not mention this on their label, as for them it is simply a tool to help them produce higher quality grapes in a sustainable manner .
Although there is no official definition, natural wines (also known as 'real' or 'raw' wines) are generally agreed to be made from grapes grown organically or biodynamically and hand-harvested. They are fermented with natural yeasts and then (crucially) see as little intervention and manipulation as possible in the winery, including no use of new oak or about 20 additives that are allowed to be used in ‘conventional’ wine making. No cultured yeasts, sugars or acids are added and little or no sulphites (less than 10ppm) are used during fermentation or bottling. The wines will also generally be unfiltered and unfined.
There are some whacky examples, but we tend to stick to the more approachable wines, which we select for their quality and drinkability as well as their natural credentials. These are well-made wines full of character, which simply have a little more immediacy and authenticity than their chemically-induced counterparts. With minimal intervention, the wine is a true reflection of the vintage, the terroir, and the local winemaking culture. For a good summary on Natural Wine, read this article by David Williams in The Guardian.