vineyard with a person picking grapes

What is organic, biodynamic and natural wine?

More and more people ask me about organic wine, and what I think about it. The demand for organic products in general, or at least products which are produced in a more sustainable way and in more in harmony with nature are still on the rise.

Whats’ the difference between regular and organic wine?

The main difference between biological or organic wine production and regular wine production is the use of chemicals and synthetic. To protect grapes from diseases and pests, and to enhace the grwoth of the vines, a lot of farmers use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Additionally, winemakers may use various chemicals and additives during the fermentation and aging process to adjust the flavor, color, and texture of the wine. This means that in wine production we look at how we work in the field as well as in the wine cellar. Conventional wine production authorises products and additives that are not permitted in organic production.
The use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in wine production of course varies depending on the practices of individual vineyards and wineries, as well as regional regulations and agricultural norms.
But all this leads to the question: what are synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers good for?

Conventional Wine – or: Why use chemicals?

Here are some factors to see why most farmers still are using chemicals:

  • Pest and Disease Pressure: Wine grapes are susceptible to various pests and diseases, which may necessitate the use of pesticides to protect the crop. Common pests include grapevine moths, mealybugs, and leafhoppers, while diseases like powdery mildew and downy mildew can affect grapevines. Especially in more humid climates it can be hard to have a good disease control without using chemicals.
  • Weed Management: Weed competition can reduce grapevine yields and quality, so herbicides are often used to control weeds in vineyards.
  • Fertility Management: Fertilizers may be applied to vineyards to provide essential nutrients to the grapevines and optimize grape quality and yield. Synthetic fertilizers are commonly used in the regular wine production.

Compared to certain crops like grains or vegetables, wine grapes typically receive more intensive management due to the premium quality expectations associated with wine production. However, there’s a growing trend towards sustainable and organic viticulture practices, which aim to minimize synthetic inputs and promote environmental stewardship. Many vineyards and wineries are adopting integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, cover cropping, and organic practices to reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals. Good examples show that this is possible and certainly makes sense in the long term, as the soil quality and health, and thus the grape quality, increases.

A hand which swirles a white wine glass.

What’s Organic Wine?

In biological or organic wine production, the chemicals and synthetic materials described above are not allowed in the farming practice. Instead, biological or organic winemakers rely on natural methods to protect the grapes and enhance growth, such as using natural predators to control pests and using organic fertilizers.
A good example is the use of sheep in the vineyard. It’s a popular method of keeping weeds under control while at the same time fertilising the vines with the sheep’s manure. And after all you can feed the sheep with fresh fodder. Other vineyards employ alternative practices such as mechanical cultivation or mulching to minimize herbicide usage.
As when it comes to disease control, cupper is often used to spray the wines and protect them. It also helps not to have to big areas with the same variety – as with almost all crops, monocultures are more susceptible to pests, as these can spread more quickly. So the ideal is to have smaller plots or even have mixed plots of the different vines.

What is also becoming increasingly popular are new grape varieties that are more resistant to fungi and pests. This trend is sure to continue.

Additionally, during the fermentation and aging process, biological or organic winemakers may use only natural additives, such as bentonite clay, to clarify the wine.

In Europe organic wine can still use Sulfur in the process to stabilize the wines. It has to be indicated on the bottle label tho.

What’s Biodynamic Wine?

Biodynamic wine is a type of wine produced following the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which is a holistic and ecological approach to farming that views the farm as a self-sustaining organism. Biodynamic farming is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, and involves treating the farm as a unified system, considering the interrelationships between soil, plants, animals, and celestial forces.

Also here the synthetic chemicals are not allowed, but more than organic wine, biodynamic production goes a step further and follows the lunar and celestial cycle for planting, cultivation, and harvesting. If you want to look further into these practices, you can check for example the Demeter label and regulations.

What is natural Wine then?

Natural wine is a absolute trend at the moment. I see so many new natural wine bars popping up and many people ask me about natural wine tastings and the differences between natural and regular wine.
Natural wine is still not clearly defined, as it’s a smooth transition from organic wine to natural wine. Natural wine describes wines made with minimal intervention both in the vineyard and in the winery (this approaches you can also find with organic producers). The main difference between organic and natural for me is really in the winery practice. With organic wines there is still a control over how the wine is fermenting and made, and lots of wine producers use standardized yeasts. To produce natural wine usually For natural wines only native yeasts are used, and the fermentation is not as controlled (for example through temperature regulation). Natural Wines are usually non-filtered, and processed and bottled without sulfides. It is winemaking as it used to be done before all the technology was invented. And so the result of natural wine can be surprising sometimes. You can find wonderful, interesting natural wines, but I also had some horrible or way too funky ones for my personal taste.

And I know I’m not making any friends with this, but for me the attitude of some producers is also a bit too much. It’s definitely not the ONLY way how “good” or “Sustainable” wine is produced, and the arrogance of some producers and consumers doesn’t help me to find my way in this scene. I agree that for sure it’s interesting to experiment and explore new (old) ways of winemaking. And I absolute agree with the trend of lower intervention wines. But at the end of the day if I spend money on a bottle of wine I rather know that it has a certain quality. But I do look forward to see where this scene is heading to.

Table in a winery with some bottles of wines on the table and oak barrels in the background

Conclusion: is one better than the other?

Is organic wine better than conventional? Well, define better.. It always depends on the perspective. What can be said is that soil health is higher in organic production, compaired to intensive agriculture practice. For me personally, this is an important factor in my purchasing decision. For other people, their own health may play a greater role.

At the end of the day it’s hard to tell what is really better. But my advice is to just ask the winemaker how they produce. This gives you at least an idea on the standards. As even if a wine is not labeled as organic, you can find producers that only use the minimum of synthetic products and produce with lower intervention, which may already fulfil your standards. Either way, I think it’s important to address this issue – because ultimately we influence the world around us with our consumption decisions. This does not mean that conventional wines should be thrown away – conscious consumption is always best.