entertainingFood & Drink

Sustainable and All-Natural Wines: Everything You Need to Know

by Amy Azzarito

I used to be one of those “red wine gives me a headache” people. Then a good friend and my personal food authority suggested that I make the switch to organic wines. She was right! Headache disappeared. I hadn’t realized how many chemicals are often added to mass produced wines. Since then when I buy wine, I’ve been buying only organic or biodynamic. Organic wine used to get a bad rap as being a little too crunchy granola and not great wine – it was more about being organic and making great wine. Luckily, there are many small producers who working to make delicious wine that is as chemical free – making it healthier to drink and better for the environment. Since Earth Day is right around the corner and we’re focusing on all things green this month, I paid a visit to my local wine store to get all my questions answered. Luckily, my local wine shop is the awesome Vine Wine, and they do an amazing job labeling wines. At Vine, there are four categories of natural wines – biodynamic, organic, natural and sustainable. I asked owner Talitha Whidbee to give us the run-down on what each of the four categories means and why we look for natural wines. Has anyone else had a great experience with natural organic wines? Talitha also agreed to answer any questions you might have about natural wines so ask away! –Amy Azzarito

Photographs by Maxwell Tielman

Design*Sponge: First, what are the advantages of drinking wines in these categories?

Talitha Whidbee: In my opinion the advantages to drinking wines in these categories are many; firstly I really believe these wines are better, often more reflective of the terroir, and more interesting, but more than that wines in these categories are made in a way that is better for the world. Wine is one of the most heavily sprayed, fertilized or otherwise manipulated agricultural products, and I would no more choose to eat mass produced eggs, meat, or cheese than I would to drink mass produced wine. I think anyone who reaches for local products from the farmers market, will understand the difference. This also aligns to my belief that it is better for my body to search out products that are less manipulated. (I am linking to a tirade I once went on about mass produced wines in case you are super bored)

Design*Sponge: What’s the best way to discover wines in each of these categories? Are they labeled or do you need to ask?

Talitha Whidbee: At Vine Wine we sort our wines into these four categories through the use of colored dots on the wine tag.  Most reputable wine stores should carry a selection of wines from these categories, or in some cases they will be labeled as such by the wine maker.  Or barring all of that you can also check for the importer on the back of the wine; Jenny & Francois is one of the preeminent importer of Natural Wines, you can also look for Louis Dressner Selections for another option for wines that are Biodynamic and made as classically as possible.

Learn about each of the four categories of wine after the jump!

Biodynamic Wine
Talitha Whidbee: Biodynamic wines are made under the auspices of biodynamic farming. Biodynamic farming was first introduced by Rudolf Steiner, and it differs from organic viticulture most significantly in its overall holistic approach to farming.  Under biodynamic methods you take into account all aspects of growing including the cycle of the moon and the health of the soil/land, planting, fertilizing, pruning, picking grapes, crushing the grapes and bottling all happens based upon the moon.  Some of the more controversial practices of biodynamics include the burying of certain crushed minerals and herbs inside of cow horns, and the use of copper in pest control.

Organic Wine

Talitha Whidbee: Organic wines are grown under the auspices of Organic viticulture. Due to the fluid nature of the governing committees across the world, there is yet to a be single unifying set of guidelines but generally speaking certified organic wine is grown without the addition of chemicals either in the field or in the bottle.  Generally speaking you can be assured that the wines are made with as few chemicals and additives as possible.

Natural Wine

Talitha Whidbee: Natural wines, okay this is a rabbit hole but lets go, by nature “natural wines” are undefinable.  The ethos behind these wines are to be as hands off as possible, allowing the grapes to grow and express the terroir as much as possible, so you could say that this category is one of minimal intervention.  Since by definition it is impossible to classify what is natural there is very little governance around this category. This can make these wines, at their best, exciting and delicious representations of wine at it’s most alive and passionate sense, it can also encompass some incredibly flawed wines, that because there is so little intervention in the cellar the wines can possess one of the terrible flaws of wine making. Making natural wine the most highly contentious category of wine making.

Sustainable Wine

Talitha Whidbee: While this category seems like a catch-all, and in a way it is, there are many wine makers who are sustainable and will either choose not to certify as either biodynamic, or organic due to the cost associated with certification, or because they don’t want to be confined by the rules of either. There are also wine makers who just are not interested in any sort of classification, especially when it comes to old school European wine makers. Basically sustainable means the grapes were grown with as few chemicals as possible, and wine making takes place with as few additives as possible.  Sustainable winemakers will take from all three categories but might differ in certain ways.

Design*Sponge: And finally, before you drink, should you decant?

Talitha Whidbee: Whether to decant or not is an interesting question.  At times, with wines of a certain age it is absolutely necessary, other times decanting is a personal preference.  I once talked at length with a wine maker about this and despite the fact that we were drinking Barolo he still felt decanting spoiled the surprise, the wine changed enough in the glass as the evening progressed that decanting was unnecessary. That being said, if you are like me you want to enjoy the wine at it’s best right now, while you finish cooking dinner, or do other chores, in which case I say decant!  It will often open the wine up in interesting and unique ways that would be missed if you didn’t decant the wine. Recently I have been really enjoying my natural white wines after they are decanted, so I am pro decanting.

Image above: The ladies at Vine, from left: Chelsea Kaiser, Talitha Whidbee and Sarah Chappell

Image above: The tasting table at Vine.

Image above: The Vine window display.

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  • Interesting, though being French I can’t help but mention that you probably mean “terroir” (the geographical situation of the vines) instead of “terrior” (a word that looks very ominous!). Maybe it’s different in the US but in France “natural wine” generally means with no sulfites added at any stage (high contents of sulfites are the cause of those horrible headaches), often on top of organic or biodynamic certification, while organic wine is allowed to contain sulfites (they’re an easy way to stabilize and preserve the wine), but in much more limited quantities than mass produced wine.

  • … (after reading “the rant”): I am sorry to read that it is impossible to buy a nice organic/natural/biodynamic bottle of wine under 10 or 15 dollars in the US. Or is it only NY?

  • Thank you for this article. I am very inexperienced with wine, but perhaps that’s because it always used to give me such a headache. Thanks for the tips!

    Also, in case anyone else was like me and had not heard of this word before, here is a link to what “terroir” means according to Wikipedia:

  • If you don’t believe it – try it!
    In Sweden we have what we call eco-wines, and the difference in how it makes you feel the day after, compared to regular wines, is amazing. And if the impact on the body differs so, the impact on the environment must be substantial. I just wish there were more alternatives.
    Great post!

  • Great report! As a wine grower in Greece, I can add that bio-dynamic is really a revival of ancient agriculture. The lunar phases are a no-brainer: you never cut when the juices flow. Also, you never, ever water, even in the dry Mediterranean summer. Watering throws the vine’s growth way off. In heat waves, we thin the crop. The winter weeds, eg. stinging nettles, give us the perfect fertilizer. We ferment and settle with sun-charged crystals, eg. amethyst in the Syrah. We never filter. That removes much of the wine’s characteristics, which means that decanting the reds is essential because of the bitter sediment. So, there is a lot to consider with what we call natural wine. The bottom line for us is to produce a full and lively beverage that benefits both body and soul. Love your blog!

  • I found this so informative, I’m cutting and pasting into my wine folder. I do consume red wine, with or without a meal. I was introduced to Summerhill’s OM (Organic Meritage) and love it, love it!!! and I know that Summerhill is using biodynamics for some of it’s products (if not all, not sure here). But I’m with all of you, there are some red wines that give me a headache or make my eyes itch so I know right away there are more chemicals than normal used. I’m very supportive of less chemicals in everything I consume, so red wine is no exception; and I will pay more for them.

  • Great article! I’ve stopped drinking red wine almost completely because of headaches. Was recently at an organic vineyard and was surprised that I didn’t start feeling ill. Now I understand the connection. So insightful!

  • @Julie: In my area, Eastern MA, it is possible to get many types of organic wines for $10 a bottle. My favorite organic and sulfite-free wine is from Frey Vineyards in CA but Trader Joe’s carries organic wines for $10 and under as well.

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