Sistine Chapel ceiling art depicting the drunkenness of Noah off natural wine, painted between 1508 and 1512 CE by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo

Natural winemaking: Twelve things to know about natural, organic and sustainable wines before you buy  

Noah Started The First Natural Wine Vineyard

It has been four thousands years since the birth of natural winemaking, when Noah planted the world’s first wine vineyard and proceeds to get drunk on natural wine. (Genesis 9:20). We learned that grape juice naturally ferments into alcohol (if you let it sit) and a really bad idea to make fun of a drunk Noah. Natural winemaking has its risks, but the reward for human health and the planet could be far reaching. 

Here are twelve things you need to know about the natural winemaking movement before you decide to buy:

(Natural) (Certified Organic) (Biodynamic) (Vegan) (Zero-zero) (Sustainable

12. There is no legal definition for natural wine.

The most commonly agreed upon definition for “natural” is a wine fermented spontaneously with native yeast, and contains only trace amounts of added sulfites. 

Natural wines typically are neither filtered or fined, resulting in composites or cloudiness from undissolved solids still floating around. Natural wines are generally produced in smaller quantities and have shorter shelf lives.   

The point of natural wines are that they taste unique and have broadening appeal among newer and younger wine drinkers.

These “natty wines” are wines made with the bare minimum of chemical and winemaker intervention in the cellar ––no additives, no filtering agents, no cultured yeast, no chemicals. Barrels are not typically used so they lack the typical wood barrel character.

Intended to be consumed fresh, most natural wines will not improve resting in a cellar or bar. They are best shortly after being bottled. 

Sistine Chapel ceiling art depicting the drunkenness of Noah off natural wine, painted between 1508 and 1512 CE by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo
Sistine Chapel ceiling art depicting the drunkenness of Noah off natural wine, painted between 1508 and 1512 CE by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo.

11. Fragmented government regulations on natural wine can be confusing and misleading.

 

The regulatory safeguards currently in place in the United States are enforced through a list of federal agencies: 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that regulates pesticides, particularly their application to crops, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that sets the standards for food, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) which also sets standards and continuously inspect mean and poultry products, and the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) with regulations that includes specific sulfite labeling requirements.

This multilayered, sometimes competing, approach to regulating what is “natural”, “organic,” “vegan” or “sustainable,” is confusing and might even weaken regulatory effectiveness, as it allows for some winemakers to take advantage.

 

10. When is natural wine considered 100% "certified organic"?

In organic viticulture, natural methods are used to keep grapes vines safe from weeds, bacteria and pests, while doing as little harm as possible to the environment. The USDA Organic Program goes through an extensive process. 

 To be labeled Certified organic and carry the USDA organic seal:

Wineries need to have grown their grapes in soil that has no prohibited substances applied, including synthetic fertilizers, for three years prior to harvest. In addition, the winemaker must forgo added sulfites and ensure that all ingredients used in making the wine, including yeast, is certified organic by a licensed certifying agent.

USDA Certified Organic Seal
USDA Certified Organic Seal

“Partially organic” wines are often labeled, “made with organic grapes,” meaning that 100 percent of the grape varietals used were certified organic by a certifying agent. But it takes more than grapes to make wine, and government regulations sometimes permits the use of additives, including yeast and fining agents that are not 100% organic. Even though these partially organic wines can say they are “made with organic grapes,” they still cannot use the official USDA organic certification seal on their label.  

9. The organic certification check list.

The USDA National Organic Program (NOC) accredits third-party certifying agents to assess organic farms’ and business’ compliance with USDA organic regulations.

Certifying Agent on the label

Organic alcoholic beverages must meet the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations, including specific labeling requirements.

Here are the steps:

1. Certifying agent reviews the alcohol label to assess compliance with USDA Organic regulations. 2. Certifying agent stamps and signs label verifying compliance with UDA organic regulations. 3. TTB permittee (organic operation) completes the Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) application. 4. TTB permittee submits COLA application and label(s) approved by the certifying agent to TTB.

Even if the wine is not officially certified USDA organic, it still can state the individual organic ingredients that have been certified. Lastly, labels must also state the name of the certifying agent used to certify the claim.

What is deemed organic in the United States is not the same for European wine, where the most notable difference is the amount of added sulfites permitted. Certified organic products made in Canada and Europe can be labelled as such and exported to the U.S.  

Label indicates the wine contains sulfites

8. What are sulfites?

Wine is fermented using yeast which produces naturally occurring sulfites. Nearly all wines contain sulfites and it has several benefits to the winemaking process, including:  

  • Protection against oxidation, which can affect the color and taste
  • Prevention of the growth of unwanted micro-organisms
  • Preservation of the color
  • Promotion of the growth of yeast for optimal fermentation
  • Improving the releasee of desired compounds from the grapes skin and seeds
 
We often hear that allergic reactions to wine are caused by sulfites. Though the majority of people have no reaction, those with sulfite-sensitivity can have severe respiratory episodes after taking in too many sulfites. Other sulfite-sensitivity symptoms include skin reactions, such as hives, or digestive problems like abdominal pain or diarrhea.
 
If you have a sensitivity, you will probably have a reaction within 15 minutes of ingesting too many sulfites. Consult your if you think you might be allergic to sulfites.
 
Drinking low-quality wine is more likely the cause of headaches, or something else.
Drinking low-quality wine is more likely the cause of headaches, or something else.

Probably Not. The sulfite levels don’t add up.

 

Those who get wine headaches often say that they get them after drinking red wine. Since white wine contains more sulfites than red, it is unlikely sulfites are to blame. 

U.S. regulations state that wine that  contain 10 or more parts per million (ppm) of sulfites must state on the label that it contains sulfites. This rule applies to both imported and domestic wines. In the United States, wines labeled as organic cannot have sulfites. But that is not to be confused with naturally occurring sulfites from yeast fermentation. 

7. What is greenwashing? How does it lead to brainwashing if you're not careful?

As the natural wine category grows, so does the potential for greenwashing
As the natural wine category grows, so does the potential for greenwashing
Green washing is a play on the term “whitewashing,” meaning to cover up or present information that is false or misleading. It is important to do your own research. Greenwashing can become a form of brainwashing if you are not careful. Green washing can trick the less informed into touting they are doing the right thing for their health and environment and paying more to support the cause. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.  

6. What is "biodynamic" winemaking?

Biodynamic treats the earth as a living organism 

 

The practice behind biodynamic farming started in the 1920s with Austrian philosopher, educator and Rosicrucian, Rudolf Steiner who believed it was a mistake to leave out the spiritual side of nature. A warning that Western civilization would bring destruction to itself and the earth if it did not begin to develop a better understanding of the spiritual world and its relationship to the material world.

Steiner was of the first public figures to warn that the widespread use of chemical fertilizers would lead to the decline of soils, plants and animal health ––and the subsequent devitalization of our food supply.  

Biodynamic viticulture could help store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting biodiversity and soil health. In addition, as climate change continues to affect the wine industry, biodynamic practices may be a way to make the industry more resilient and able to adapt.

Unlike organic classification that varies across countries, biodynamic classification does not. The best way to tell if a wine is biodynamic is to look for the Demeter certification which lets you know that the wine is made using strict biodynamic standards.

Biodynamic farming instructs followers to use certain fertilization practices. One biodynamic practice uses fermented cow dung to maintain the soil fertility and the renewal of degraded soils.

. One of his most unique methods was filling cow horns with compost, burying them in the vineyard, and digging them up later to spread as fertilizer.
. One of biodynamics most unique methods is the filling cow horns with compost, burying them in the vineyard and digging them up later to spread as fertilizer.

5. What does it mean to be "sustainable"?

USDA Sustainable Agriculture logo
USDA Sustainable Agriculture logo

What Is Sustainable Agriculture? 

According to the USDA, the term “sustainable agriculture” under the U.S. Code Title 7 means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices with site-specific applications that will over the long-term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and natural resource upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
 

Sustainable agriculture is understood as a process of striking a balance with nature through employing complimentary methods and practices, instead of competing ones. 

4. What makes a natural wine "vegan"?

Vegan Wine contains no beef, no pork, no chicken, or any animal matter.

You might think that all wines are vegan (given that they are made with grapes and yeast), but that is definitely not the case. If a wine is considered vegan by definition it contains zero animal matter, including egg whites, that are often used in the refining process of traditional winemaking.

Vegan winemakers either leave the particles in (where they appear at the bottom of the bottle), or use non-animal fining agents like limestone or pea protein to filter them out. The difference in the fining process does not necessarily affect the taste of the wine, as fining agents are filtered away or evaporated.

3. Zero-zero wine means no intervention PERIOD.

Zero-zero means zero intervention. Nothing is added and nothing is taken away from the winemaking process

 Zero-zero” means zero intervention. Nothing is added and nothing is taken away from the winemaking process: Not water, not sugar, not commercial yeast, and certainly not sulfur.

Zero-zero is a more extreme version of natural winemaking which forbids any intervention. Zero-zero wines strive to attract younger wine drinkers, many of whom are drawn to the natural winemaking approach.

In this minimalist mindset, winemakers achieve fertilization from relying on the naturally occurring yeasts that grow on grapes, rather than utilizing commercial yeasts. 

Zero-zero winemaking can be a risky proposition as the final wine can result in what is described as having off flavors from undesirable microbes that were not eliminated by refining agents like sulfur. The most catastrophic of these unpleasant notes are what as known as tasting the mouse, or the sensation of tasting a dead rodent as you swallow.

On the plus side, by not adding sulfur, which is antioxidant, wines can taste fresh and fruity right away. Without preservative agents, zero-zero wines often do not age well. 

Zero-zero winemaking is still considered fringe. Questions remain on whether there is a point when winemakers should intervene before a wine gets to “funky” and potentially poses food-safety risks. Some believe that these zero-zero wines showcase greater complexity, while others think zero-zero wines simply taste bad. The jury is still out.

2. Modern winemaking is not all natural for good reasons.

phylloxera infestation is a destroyer of grape vineyards
phylloxera infestation is a destroyer of grape vineyards
Fertilization, grafting, pesticides and more have been used to greatly reduce the calamities that have occurred when nature has been allowed to run completely wild. But it cannot be ignored that many of today’s wines are made with genetically-modified seeds and treated with hundreds of different synthetic pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. Our bodies and the planet suffer from the known and consequences. 

Still no one can argue with the fact that the best wines are made in the best vineyards –– and those with longstanding impeccable reputations can charge more for the grapes and wines they produce. So it is not surprising that established vineyards are not willing to lean in too quickly on producing natural wines. Things can go wrong
 

While wines made with organically-grown grapes are free of these harsh chemicals, the taste experience can be radically different. But as natural viticulture improves, discovering new and more natural favorites will increasingly become part of the wine lover’s repertoire. 

1. Natural winemaking is not practical for the most expensive wines, at least not yet.

Experimenting with natural methods on very expensive grapes could spell disaster for established vineyards. Cheaper grapes maybe more worth the risk to attract new Wine drinkers.  

Vineyards honored with coveted appellations are more highly regarded and tend to be more expensive. The cost of doing business in these regions is also higher. Barrel-aged wines cost more to make as barrels must be replaced frequently. Many wineries will use one set of barrels for three vintages and then replace them after all the flavors have been drawn out of the oak. 

Further, forgoing traditional preservatives like sulfur can result in the wine continuing to ferment after being bottled ––having wine bottles explode on customers is never good for business. But that doesn’t mean prestigious wineries are not trying. As younger consumers experiment with more natural expressions, it is in the wine industry’s best interest to keep in open mind.

Let’s give Noah credit for discovering natural wine, without his happy accident who knows where winemaking would be today. Striking a balance between what is natural, sustainable, and delicious is still well worth a try. The last time I checked, we only had one planet earth. 

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