Biodynamic, Organic, Vegan and Natural Wine: what's the difference?

Published the 01/21/2020 in Food & Wine

People's growing concern about what they consume and what impact products have on the planet is pushing the demand for "green" wine. The phenomenon is of course much broader than the wine industry and an environmentalist wave is washing over the world, pushing for a greater focus on sustainability.

The wine industry is in large parts a slow mover (at least the old world of wine) with emphasis on tradition.  Sometimes you get the impression that the world is moving but the wines stay the same, and that could also be part of the charm. 

Despite this, sustainability is a growing interest among consumers, and winemakers are following suit. Four types of more sustainable winemaking techniques are predominant in the market: Biodynamic, Organic, Vegan and Natural wine. But what do they actually mean in reality? And where do you find "green" wine in Bordeaux? 

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Sustainability is a growing focus

Biodynamic wine

A Biodynamic wine is made following the principles of Biodynamic agriculture throughout the winemaking process. Ideas of Biodynamic agriculture surfaced in the 1920s by way of the Austrian philosopher and jack of all trades Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic agriculture was drawn from Anthroposophy and is a holistic approach to agriculture and winemaking. Biodynamic winemaking combines organic farming techniques with spiritualism, astrology (following lunar cycles) and mystical perspectives. An important part of Biodynamic farming is the 9 preparations to aid fertilisation of the grounds. The use of dried flowers such as dandelion and chamomile, for example, is integral to composting within Biodynamic farming (see picture below). 

Dried flowers used in composting at Château de la Dauphine photo@ladauphine

Many consider Nicolas Joly the godfather of Biodynamic wines. His dry white wines from the Chenin Blanc grape in the Savennières commune of the Loire Valley (Clos de la Coulée de Serrant) are considered some of the absolute best in the world. Nicolas Joly studied Oenology in Bordeaux and has pushed the limits of Biodynamic wines, writing several books on the subject. On his plots in Savennières horses plough the fields and cow horns filled with manure are buried deep in the ground to help fertilise the grounds, all according to Biodynamic customs.

Horse power at Château Pontet-Canet i Pauillac 

A cornerstone in Biodynamic winemaking is the idea of preserving the grounds that you exploit and leave them in a better shape than they were before. The vineyard along with the lands and everything that belongs to it are seen as one unit and everything starts with the notion of sustainability. Here in Bordeaux, there are some really interesting implementations of Biodynamic wines. Château Mazeyres in Pomerol, for example, that makes classic Pomerol wines (charged with rich Merlot) according to Biodynamic principles. Another one, Château Fonroque (Saint Émilion Grand Cru) has been a Biodynamic winemaker since 2001. Château Pontet-Canet (Pauillac) is Biodynamic since 2010. Or, Château Falfas in Côtes de Bourg, a Biodynamic wine that offers great value for money.  

Organic wine

The world and demand for organic wine is undoubtably growing but applying organic farming practices to winemaking is not without complications. Many consumers mix up the concepts of organic and vegetarian (or vegan) which are not the same thing, an organic wine can still use for example egg whites and animal enzymes (check below for run-through on vegan wine). Despite an ever-growing interest in organic products, the market share for organic products, in food as well as in wine, is still limited. 

Painting the big picture, organic wines are wines made form organically grown grapes. And, organically grown grapes means that the use of artificial chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides and herbicides and so on are forbidden. For example, a common technique in organic vineyards is the presence bees to promote pollination as well as protection from unwanted bugs and pests. Depending on the location of the vineyard, for a winegrower to grow grapes organically and at the same time maintain quality and consistency, can be a daunting challenge. Vineyards in cooler and wetter locations, for example, are far more exposed to fungal disease and bad rot. And that's the case of Bordeaux. 

Bees ensure a healthy ecosystem photo@ladauphine

Another hot potato when it comes to organic wine is the use of sulphites (SO2). Sulphites are found naturally in wine but are also added to stabilise and preserve the quality of the wine, essentially "cleaning" the wine. In the US, sulphites cannot be added to an organic wine, whereas in Europe an organic wine can still contain quite a considerable amount of added sulphites. This is a deal-breaker when comparing American and European organic wines, and potentially very confusing for the consumer. Too much sulphites is bad for you, so buying organic is a good start when trying to avoid it. 

The share of organic wine plantations in Bordeaux is around 6%, circa 8000 hectares of a total of around 120 000 hectares. Here you can easily find organic winemakers if you keep your eyes open. Château Climens (Barsac), for example, make excellent sweet white wines that are since a few years back biodynamic and organic. Château de la Dauphine (Fronsac) is an example of excellent red wines with organic farming. Another favourite is Château d'Aiguilhe (Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux), excellent organic wines from the owner of Canon la Gaffeliere.

Sheep keeping the vineyards in check in the Médoc

Vegan wine

Here you might start to get confused. Are there animal-derived products in wine?! Intuitively you might not think so. But yes, in almost all the wine on the market the winemaker will have used animal proteins to filter the wine from small yeast particles and "cloudiness". To the winemaker they are called fining agents and can be egg whites, blood and bone marrow, milk proteins or even gelatine from fish bladders. These substances help to bind the small particles that are left in the wine after winemaking and in turn make them easier to extract.

Thankfully, if you prefer to drink a vegan wine, there is more and more to choose from in the market. In a vegan wine, things such as clay, limestone or carbon have been used as fining agents to clarify the liquid. Some wines simply do not go through any fining or clarification and are left to "self-clarify". These wines usually mention this on their label, but not always. It is tricky to know if a wine is vegan or not, because there are no real standards for labelling. We have chosen three good vegan wines from Bordeaux: 

Château Galoupeau (Entre-Deux-Mers), Château Macquin (Saint Georges Saint Emilion), Château Batailley (Pauillac, Medoc) 

Natural wine

Already confused about all this?! Let us then dig into natural wine, an area where pretty much all winemakers follow their own standards. The notion of natural wine was born in the French wine region Beaujolais in the 1960s when a bunch of hardcore winemakers got together under similar beliefs. The term "Vin naturel", as it is known in France, was coined. "Vin naturel" is perhaps a better description of what it is about than natural wine, in French meaning simply "plain wine" or "wine and nothing else". 

Grape juice and nothing else for natural wine growers

Natural wine is for most people a return to the roots, wine stripped of all the additives and modern techniques. Believers think that wine should be fermented grape juice and nothing else. Making wine like they made wine in the middle ages when chemicals, cultivated yeasts and tartaric acids were not available, and machine harvesting was stuff of dreams. "Low-intervention" wine, "naked" wine or "raw" wine are other ways of calling it that you hear sometimes.

Natural wine can strike you as very different from "normal" wine, both in appearance and taste. It may look cloudy with particles floating around because natural wine is not fined or clarified using animal-derived additives. It may taste different because you cannot add sugars to sweeten the product or add tartaric acids to enhance acidity. Making natural wine for a winemaker means to not go the easy way and to expose yourself to far more risk and inconsistency. Grab a bottle of natural wine today, you might discover something completely new.

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