Organic vs. Biodynamic vs. Natural Wine—What's the Difference?
Interest in organic, biodynamic, and natural wines is at an all-time peak. But what do those terms really mean?
The term “organic” is tricky when it comes to wine. First, the U.S. and EU have different requirements for organic certification. Second, to acquire the USDA organic seal, wineries must forgo the use of sulfur dioxide in winemaking—a preservative that prevents oxidization and refermentation in the bottle and has been used since Roman times. What’s actually most crucial for anyone concerned with chemicals in their glass is that the vineyard is farmed using organic practices: no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, and no herbicides. That’s something the four wineries here are devoted to.
2016 Domaine La Réméjeanne Côtes Du Rhône Les Chèvrefeuilles Rouge ($16)
This small, organically farmed estate lies in the oak-strewn hills above France’s Rhône Valley. The wines are fresh and less heavy-handed than many, as shown by this strawberry–white peppery red.
2015 Capezzana Barco Reale Di Carmignano ($18)
Documents show that grapes were grown at this historic Tuscan estate more than 1,200 years ago. Organic farming then; organic farming now. Barco Reale, a perennial steal, is a cherry-scented red with a light hint of rosemary.
2018 Momo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($19)
For his affordable Momo line of New Zealand wines, vintner (and cinematographer) Michael Seresin sources organic grapes from around the Marlborough region. The lightly grassy 2018 is full of vibrant citrus intensity.
2016 Kings Carey Grenache Spear Vineyards ($35)
When not at the acclaimed Liquid Farm winery outside Santa Barbara (his day job), winemaker James Sparks makes this aromatic, silky Grenache from the organically farmed Spear Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
The biodynamic approach to grape-growing, which derives from the writings of the spiritual philosopher (and oddball) Rudolf Steiner, sees the vineyard as an ecological whole: not just rows of grapevines, but the soil beneath them—an organism in its own right—and the other flora and fauna in the area, growing together interdependently. However, biodynamics differs from organic agriculture in its belief that farming can be attuned to the spiritual forces of the cosmos. This might mean linking harvesting to the phases of the moon—or burying cow manure in a cow’s horn over the winter, unearthing it in the spring, diluting the aged manure in 34 liters of water, and then spraying the mixture over the vineyard. But regardless of its more outré aspects, the intense attention that biodynamics forces growers to pay in the vineyard can’t be anything but good.
2015 Querciabella Chianti Classico ($33)
Querciabella is one of the few biodynamic producers in Chianti Classico. And owner Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni also keeps vegan, using no animal-derived products (e.g., no cow horns). Unusual? Sure. But the wines—like this mouth-filling red with its wild-berry flavors—are excellent.
2015 Emiliana Coyam ($35)
Emiliana Vineyards has been one of the leaders in Chile for biodynamic and organic viticulture, and currently farms over 1,470 acres under one or both designations. Coyam, a savory, black currant–y red blend, comes strictly from the winery’s biodynamically farmed vineyard sites.
2016 Tablas Creek Vineyard Côtes De Tablas ($35)
At Tablas Creek, flocks of sheep weed and fertilize the vineyards, fruit trees grow amidst the vines, and hives of bees support pollination of the plant species on the property. That approach plays out in wines like this luscious, strawberry-scented Grenache blend.
2015 Montinore Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($38)
Oregon’s Montinore Estate has practiced biodynamics since the early 2000s. For its reserve Pinot, the top barrels from each vintage are selected and blended together for the final cuvée; in 2015, think ripe raspberries, fine tannins, and a ghostly hint of cola.
"Natural" & Low-Intervention Wines
The hot-button wine term of the moment, “natural wine,” has no legal definition but broadly refers to wines made without adding or subtracting anything in the cellar—no additives, no chemicals, no sulfur, no oak character from barrels, no filtering, no cultured yeasts, you name it. (Low-intervention winemaking is another term that crops up in this context, though it’s functionally a bit less extreme.) In theory, natural wines are more alive, less manipulated; in practice, die-hard adherence to the philosophy sometimes wins out over actual appeal: Some natural wines are delicious, and some are just flat-out weird. But the passion behind the movement makes the natural wine world hard to ignore. At their best these wines can be thrilling. Just be ready for unpredictability.
2016 Domaine Rimbert Le Mas Au Schiste Saint-Chinian ($23)
A powerful, peppery blend of old-vine Carignane, Syrah, and Grenache, this Languedoc red is one of many fine wines brought in by the groundbreaking natural wine importer Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François.
2017 Can Sumoi Xarel-Lo ($24)
Pepe Raventós of Raventós i Blanc fame recently launched this natural wine project at a mountain estate in Spain’s Penedès region. The first vintage is superb: an unusually earthy, savory Spanish white that’s impossible to resist.
2016 Foradori Teroldego($30)
The charismatic Elisabetta Foradori says of natural winemaking, “I am an advocate of science, but science without a philosophy is all technique, and technique has no soul.” Her vibrant, berry-rich Teroldego is indisputably a wine with soul.
2016 Donkey & Goat Eliza, Barsotti Vineyard ($42)
Berkeley-based Donkey & Goat is arguably California’s premier natural wine practitioner. A raft of southern French white varieties go into the lightly tannic, gold-hued, melon-y wine: Clairette, Picpoul, Vermentino, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc.