Organic, biodynamic and natural wines are all the rage at the moment, and are changing the way makers and consumers think about Australian wine.
All three approaches have a similar goal - to create healthy and sustainable fruit and wines, that have had had minimal interference in the winery and vineyard and truly represent the climate and soil in which they were grown.
Whether or not you believe in the principles at hand or think the wine quality supports them, organic, biodynamic and natural wines aren't going anywhere and it's important to under the difference between each philosophy.
Put simply, organic wines are those made from grapes that have not been exposed to synthetic chemicals. This includes fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. In Australia it also means that allowed levels of added preservatives (sulphur) are capped at 50% their normal rate (this percentage varies internationally).
Preservatives prevent wine from being spoiled by bacteria, yeasts and oxygen, and in doing so make the wines more consistent and able to age. Acid, tannins and alcohol act as natural preservatives, and as such red wines don’t require as many sulphur based preservatives to be added in.
Limiting the unnatural preservatives provides relief to wine drinkers with higher sensitivity to sulphur, but does it hurt the overall quality of the wine? With lower natural acids than many European wines I think preservatives definitely have a positive effect on most Australian wines, but limiting the amount is an effective way to prevent some winemakers from getting a bit carried away.
To claim your wines are organic you must receive official certification, which takes at least three years and is not an inexpensive process!
Like organic wines, biodynamic wines are all about how you treat the fruit and vineyard. It really takes the idea of organic grapes to the next level, and essentially refers to treating the entire vineyard as a single eco-system.
The philosophy comes from an Austrian man named Rudolf Steiner, who back in the 1920’s developed an approach to agriculture whereby all animals, plants and even the solar system are considered as being inter-related. Put simply, his teachings state that if you create a supremely healthy and sustainable environment, plants (including grape vines) will grow at their optimum.
Many Australian wineries are now implementing biodynamic principles, including the burying of manure filled cow horns under the vines and picking grapes based on lunar cycles. Australia’s most famous practitioner of biodynamics is Vanja Cullen in Margaret River, who claims that "Biodynamic grapes are a great expression of terroir and a sense of place".
Many wine drinkers consider biodynamics to be all a bit hocus pocus, but there is definitely a growing belief in the approach. One of Australia’s premier wine commentators Max Allen swears by it, stating that “I believe, in well made biodynamic wines, I can taste a difference. I can taste a liveliness on my tongue that really is quite different from conventionally grown wines."
Until I see more evidence I’m still on the fence with this one, but I can’t deny that the biodynamic wines I've tasted recently have been pure-fruited and wonderfully balanced. You be the judge!
Then finally, we have natural wines. While organics and biodynamics are all about what happens in the vineyard, natural wines refers to the what transpires in the winery.
Unlike the other two approaches natural wines don’t require any official certification, but are generally considered to contain no added acids or yeasts (must be all naturally occurring) and also less sulphur. The wines are regularly unfiltered and/or unclarified, and can thus appear cloudy.
Aside from the marketing impact these increasingly popular approaches may have, you may be wondering what the point is of organic, biodynamic and natural wines.
Even with hugely varying approaches and execution, all of these producer have two things in common:
1.) They believe in sustainable agriculture and in looking after the land.
2.) They believe that ‘minimal intervention’ wines tell a story and truly reflect their terroir - including their climate, soil and vintage.
And finally, when you speak to these passionate artisans first hand, you’ll see that they are crafting wines that they enjoy and love to drink!
It is still far too early in the piece for us to make any bold claims about the overall quality and future of organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Producers are still experimenting, and the quality and techniques vary wildly.
What we are definitely seeing though is a growing interest amongst consumers, and there is no doubt they are going to play a big part in our winemaking future.
As James Halliday points out, "If it gets people interested in wine who might not otherwise be interested, you cannot argue against that being a good thing”.
We couldn’t agree more, and whether or not you believe in the above approaches we strongly encourage you to seek some of these wines out - they truly are unique.
What do you think? Do you believe organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking results in better quality wines? Please leave a comment below, we'd love to hear your thoughts!
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