A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Wine
Know the difference between organic, biodynamic and vegan wines with this simple guide from Wine Selectors!
If you’re an attentive wine lover, you may have noticed an increase in the number of wineries using terms like organic, natural or biodynamic on their labels, or when speaking about their product.
These aren’t mere marketing diversions, either. Instead, each term reflects distinctive approaches to winemaking, many of which have emerged in response to a rise in the number of people practicing conscious consumption, and a desire on the part of growers and winemakers to experiment and embrace more sustainable techniques.
So, what makes each different from the next? Let’s find out.
At its simplest, organic wines are exactly what they sound like – wines produced with organically-grown grapes, free from herbicides, pesticides and other artificial chemical agents. To control for weeds and bugs, growers utilise cover crops to attract benign bugs known to repel the nasties, or have livestock like sheep graze between the rows to reduce weeds. The idea is that the vineyard becomes a self-regulating ecosystem.
It doesn’t mean that these wines are free from sulphur or other additives, however – many of which are also organic – but they are often present in lesser quantities. There are two certifying bodies in Australia that wineries will cite to prove their organic credentials. One is Australian Certified Organic (ACO), while the other is the National Association or Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA). Seeing their logo is your assurance that the wine you’re thinking of drinking has passed the requirements for organic classification.
They’ve certainly come a long way since they were first introduced to market, with wineries such as the Hunter Valley’s Tamburlaine turning out award-winning examples of the category. And with younger drinkers in particular choosing organic produce wherever possible, we believe organic wines will only grow in popularity.
Not to be confused with organic wine, biodynamic wine is an approach to winemaking that takes inspiration from the work of late 19th-century spiritual thinker Rudolf Steiner. Like organic wines, growers and winemakers refrain from pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and consider the vineyard as an integrated and holistic system.
One key distinction from organic wines however is the use of biodynamic soil ‘supplements’ and astrologically-informed planting, pruning and harvesting schedules. From chamomile and yarrow formulations to cow horns loaded with manure, buried and then dug up again according to specific lunar timings, it’s a blend of solid scientific thinking and inspired mysticism – with the resulting wines gaining increasing recognition for their quality and varietal expressiveness.
Think of it as a supercharged version of organic farming, which is finding more and more fans and proponents of its distinctive approach.
As mentioned above, just because you’re buying an organic wine doesn’t mean it will be preservative-free. For that, you’ll need to seek out a preservative-free wine – often referred to as a wine created through ‘minimal intervention’.
The most common preservative used in wine is sulphur dioxide (SO2). Often, you’ll see it listed on the label as ‘preservative 220’, or even ‘antioxidant 220’.
It’s an entirely natural by-product of winemaking, and not necessarily a bad thing at all. It’s typically produced by yeast during the fermentation process – and happens to act as protection against bacteria and other nasties, while helping neutralise the effects of oxygen exposure during the winemaking process.
Sulphites are common as preservative agents also – hence the ‘may contain sulphites’ notice you’ll see on many bottles. But the better the grapes are handled in the vineyard and the better the quality of the fruit, the less need there is to add any such preservatives. And, despite the common misconception, sulphites aren’t really to blame for your wine headache – a more likely cause is the phenolics (tannins), the alcohol content, or even the wine’s natural acidity.
However, if you’re someone who experiences tightness in the chest, coughing or symptoms similar to asthma when drinking wine, they are likely signs of a sulphite allergy or intolerance – making any wine labelled ‘preservative-free’ the best choice to indulge in when it’s time for a tipple.
A lot of people may wonder, how is my wine not vegan already? It’s a fair question, as wine is essentially fermented grape juice where yeasts facilitate the conversion of the fruit’s natural sugars into alcohol… isn’t it?
Well, yes… but that’s only part of the typical winemaking process. Where things get un-vegan is in the fining process, which is meant to clear up the ‘haze’ created by the proteins, tannins and tartrate during the creation of a wine. To speed the settlement of this haze, winemakers generally use fining agents such as isinglass (fish protein), gelatin (animal protein), catein (a milk-derived protein), and egg whites (albumin) to act as coagulants, binding the elements that make up the haze, and making them easier to remove from the final wine.
Happily for vegans, a number of wines are appearing today that use alternative fining agents like activated charcoal, or bentonite – a clay-based agent. More and more winemakers are also leaving their wines to ‘self-fine’ or stabilise without the use of any such protein agents.
That means that if you’re a vegan wine lover, you’ll find more options out there to satisfy that love than ever – but make sure to check the label for the vegan symbol, the words vegan-friendly, or for whether the wine is unfined/unfiltered. If in doubt, ask. For more info on vegan wines, check out our guide here.
A WIDER WORLD OF WINE
No doubt, innovation and an increasingly educated consumer base has broadened the availability and acceptance of such wines. And the best thing about it all is that there really is no trade-off in quality, unlike the bad old days when organic wines were largely to be avoided. Today’s organic, biodynamic and vegan wines are delightfully delicious expressions in their own right.
So, who’s for a glass of wine with fewer chemicals, a smaller ecological footprint and perhaps less chance of leaving you a little sorry the next morning? We’ll drink to that!
Interested in experiencing that organic flavour for yourself? View our range of organic and vegan-friendly wines here!