Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wines Explained

By Ronan Sayburn MS
A version of this article originally appeared in print in the pages of 
Imbibe UK.

While judging at a recent Sommelier competition I saw a lot a varied answers to the question "Explain the differences between Organic, Biodynamic and Natural wines." It’s a good question and one that guests may well ask, so hopefully this article could help clear up some of the confusion. With all three, the end result is the same: simply to make good wine, that is derived from good grapes that are grown in good soil and achieved by returning to more traditional methods and working closer to nature. During the post war years, chemical scientists were working hard to improve our lives; inventing things such as polyester shirts and freeze-dried noodles in pots. The agricultural industry received its share of attention in the form of artificial fertilizers that promised to be labor-saving, cost-effective and to produce great results. Routine spraying and additions of nitrogen, magnesium and potassium to vineyards left soil barren, devoid of life and low in nutrients. Famed microbiologist Claude Bourgignon was quoted as saying that some of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy had less microbiological life than the Sahara desert, their soils depleted by the use of chemical fertilizers. Something had to change, and over the last thirty years a new approach has been adopted for many agricultural crops including wine grapes.

Organic Wines

Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in vineyards that exclude the use of synthetic chemicals—fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

The idea is that the best grapes possible are used in the manufacture of the wine. The soil is respected and biodiversity of the environment is encouraged. Vines grow in soil rich in worms, insects and bacteria. Cover crops of mineral rich leguminous plants, herbs and flowers are grown. This results in soil being full of nutrients and trace elements that the vines can take up. The vines are also stronger, healthier and more resistant to disease. Natural predators are added to the vineyard: ladybirds to tackle aphid problems, insectivorous birds to eat spiders or beetles, and chickens, emerging from mobile chicken coops placed around the vineyard, to eat grubs and vine weevils from the ground.

In some regions it is easier to grow organic grapes. In places like Alsace, where there is a hot, dry continental climate and vineyards are located on windblown slopes, mildew and rot is less of a problem. In Bordeaux—a warm, damp maritime climate with flat vineyards—rot and mildew can be a real problem. These places will usually practice lutte raisonée ("reasonable prevention"), in which a minimum amount of chemical spraying is adopted and only used when necessary. So they never become truly organic but they do adopt many of the same principles.

Converting from a conventional vineyard to an organic one is a three-year process that involves regular inspection. Organizations such as the Soil Association in the UK and Ecocert in France award the certification.

Vegetarian wine is not necessarily organic; as was once explained to me. It is wine made without the use of animal products at the fining stage—no egg whites or fish-derived gelatins are used. It is certainly not, as explained to me by an obvious lunatic, "a wine that is not suitable for serving with meat dishes."

Biodynamic wine

For a vineyard to be considered biodynamic the vine-grower must follow the organic criteria plus some or all of the philosophies first voiced in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian cultural philosopher, social reformer and spiritual scientist; a genius who also worked on artistic media, drama, education methods, architecture and finally agriculture. On request of the Austrian farming industry he produced a series of lectures on an ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture that increased soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. His idea was to apply a holistic approach to the farm wherein every organism contributes and has part to play in the "circle of life." The farm should encourage biodiversity, be self-sustainable and resist monoculture through cultivation of a variety of plants (vineyards are normally monocultures as they grow just vines). It combines a planting, sowing, harvesting and pruning regime determined by the position of the sun, moon and planets. This approach, later refined by agriculturalist Maria Thun, provides the basis to modern biodynamics. 

It is the circle of life. Animals eat the plants and plants eat the animals, everything is reduced to its basic carbon state and then rebuilt, it’s a continuous cycle.
~ Alvaro Espinosa, Chilean biodynamic superstar, winemaker of Emiliana and Antiyal

Steiner outlined nine preparations (500-508) these are made from cow manure, quartz (silica) and seven medicinal plants. Some of these materials are first transformed using animal organs as sheaths (the animal organs are not used on the vineyards). Of the nine biodynamic preparations three are used as sprays (horn manure, horn silica and common horsetail) and the other six are applied to the vineyard via solid compost. Preparations intended for sprays are mixed with water and go through "vortexing" where the liquid is vigorously stirred in one direction then another for up to an hour before use. This induces a slight glycerin-like thickness to the solution. I have seen silica sprays in use at Milton Estate in Gisborne—the tiny silica "lenses" sprayed in the vineyard create a myriad of rainbows and increase photosynthesis in the vine leaves by concentrating sunlight. Although there are some bizarre elements to the whole biodynamic philosophy, most advocates do not know why or how some of these preparations work; but admit they do. Bodies such as Demeter will grant a certificate for those reaching the criteria. Biodynamic growers see the vines as just part of the whole operation. It is very much considered to be a lifestyle choice for themselves, their workers and their livestock.

Things got much easier between myself and my cow when I looked him in the eye and realized he genuinely wanted to help.
~ Bertie Eden, Château Maris, Minervois la Livinière

Rudolph Steiner's Preparations 500-508

  • COW MANURE - Preparation 500: Cow manure is buried in cow horns in the soil over winter. The horn is then dug up, its contents (called horn manure or "500") are then stirred in water and sprayed on the soil in the afternoon. The horn may be re-used as a sheath. Stimulates soil life and root growth.
  • QUARTZ - Preparation 501: Ground quartz is buried in cow horns in the soil over summer. The horn is then dug up, its contents (called horn silica or "501") are then stirred in water and sprayed over the vines at daybreak. The horn may be re-used as a sheath. Enhances light metabolism and photosynthesis.
  • YARROW - Preparation 502: Yarrow flowers are buried, sheathed in a stag's bladder. This is hung in the summer sun, buried over winter, then dug up the following spring. The bladder's contents are removed and inserted in the compost (the used bladder is discarded). Encourages uptake of trace elements.
  • CHAMOMILE - Preparation 503: German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) flowers are sheathed in a cow intestine. This is hung in the summer sun, buried over winter, then dug up the following spring. The intestine's contents are removed and inserted in the compost (the used intestine is discarded). Stabilizes nitrogen and calcium and enhances soil life.
  • NETTLES - Preparation 504: Stinging nettles are buried in the soil (with no animal sheath) in summer, dug up the following autumn, and inserted in the compost. Stabilizes sulfur and stimulates soil health.
  • OAK BARK - Preparation 505: Oak bark is sheathed in the skull of a farm animal and buried in a watery environment over winter, then dug up. The skull's contents are removed and inserted in the compost (the used skull is discarded). Provides "healing forces" to prevent disease.
  • DANDELION - Preparation 506: Dandelion flowers are buried, sheathed in a cow mesentery (peritoneum). This is hung in the summer sun, buried over winter, then dug up the following spring. The mesentery's contents are removed and inserted in the compost and the used mesentery is discarded. Stimulates the relationship between silica and potassium so silica can attract "cosmic forces" to the soil.
  • VALERIAN - Preparation 507: Valerian flower juice is sprayed over and/or inserted into the compost. Stimulates compost so that phosphorus will be properly used by the soil.
  • HORSETAIL - Preparation 508: Common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is used to prepare either a fresh tea or a fermented liquid manure; it is then applied either to the vines (as a tea) or to the soil (as a liquid manure). Lessens the effect of fungus.

Natural Wines

This is the tricky one, the controversial one, and the confusing one. There is no official or legal classification or standard set of operating procedures, which makes natural wine hard to define. A natural winemaker once told me: "conforming to standards and criteria goes against the principles of natural wine," but there are unofficial definitions and codes of practice published by various associations such as the l'Association de Vins Naturels, Vinnatur or Simbiosa.

Natural winemaking is very much a philosophy and a nose-to-tail approach to producing wine, extending from vineyard to bottling. In general, organic and biodynamic philosophies concentrate on the vineyard (and similar standards of care should pass into the winery), but with natural winemakers stricter, self-imposed standards exist. For example, copper sulfate sprays and cultivated yeasts are never used in natural wine. The biggest misconception is about sulfur dioxide, which has been used since Roman times as a disinfectant and an antioxidant. It is the only additive used in natural winemaking, and then only in small quantities—and only if the winemaker wishes to do so. By the very nature of this philosophy, natural winemakers are small-scale, artisan operations that may risk their entire year’s production by sticking to their principles, following an ancient and historical method that combines great care in the vineyard and winery to produce the best product that nature can provide. So why does it provoke so much criticism? Industry heavyweights such as Robert Joseph and Tim Atkin MW are openly scathing and Robert Parker called it "one of the major scams being foisted on the wine public." Is it the lack of rules—even though they are very strict about what can and cannot be done—or the fact that natural winemakers are called a "movement," yet deny such a movement exists? And what about the wines themselves? I have had many delicious natural wines—but also cloudy, fizzy, oxidized, laughably faulty wines; both seem to be acceptable to fans of the philosophy. The zealot-like following amongst some people is worrying—I was told by a young sommelier that "Lafite-Rothschild is not a real wine because they use sulfur," a statement born out of stupidity and ignorance. Wine lists that contain nothing but natural wines are in my opinion ridiculous; they offer limited choice and run the risk of creating patronizing Sommeliers that quite literally force their opinions down customers throats.

France and Italy area amongst the greatest advocates of natural wine—is this a strike back at New World "vin-technologies" that have taken so much of their market share over the last twenty years? Are the extremists and the most opinionated giving natural wine a bad name? Is it the wording; "natural, or real—implying all other winemakers are making unnatural or un-real wines? If natural wine was a company they would score highly in the arena of corporate responsibility but its marketing department would get the sack.

Finally, an analogy with chickens.

  1. Go to Whole Foods and buy the very best chicken they have. It will be corn-fed, free-range and it will taste great. This is organic wine.

  2. Search out a local butcher, the best you can find, and buy his most expensive chicken. It will be corn-fed, free-range, and coming from a small farm—the feet and head are still attached. It tastes fantastic. This is biodynamic wine.

  3. Raise your own chicken, kill it, pluck it and eviscerate it. Then spit-roast it on an open fire. If you have some chicken skills it will taste amazing. If not you risk salmonella, chewing on feathers and your friends thinking you are bonkers. But you won't care and will still insist it’s the best chicken ever.

    This is natural wine.