The Difference Between Natural & Organic Wine
Why I think natural wine is a better option than organic wine.
Why natural, rather than organic?
Sometimes when I talk to someone who hasn't heard of natural wine before they think I'm talking about organic wine. But no, it's natural wine that I'm harping on about and they are, in fact, quite different. And if I had to choose, I’d pick natural wine, hands down, every single time.
There’s a couple of key differences between them that dictate my response, which I’ve outlined below.
Farming for organic wines is fairly tightly controlled. But it doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, mean that there are no sprays or fertilisers allowed, although it does need to be fairly exceptional circumstances to be allowed to use the more heavy-duty ones. It also doesn’t prohibit irrigation, which is often used to boost yields, resulting in grapes with less flavour because they have a lower concentration of phenols. Natural wine producers work with unirrigated grapes, so the flavours aren’t diluted, making for tastier, more nutritious wines. It also places less pressure on our river systems and other water reserves. Farming practices are organic at a minimum in all of other respects though a lot of the producers that I work with use biodynamic practices or even better, farm ecologically, taking a systems-based, intuitive approach to optimising their relationship with the land.
Sulphur dioxide is the most commonly added preservative in wine. It’s added to improve shelf life and stability for transport. In Australia, the highest permissible addition of sulphur dioxide to a wine is 250ppm. Organic wines do have a lower permissible sulphur dioxide limit than conventional wines but it’s still pretty high compared to natural wines, as follows;
· Red wines - 100ppm
· White and rose wines - 150ppm
· Wines with more than 2g/L residual - permitted an extra 50ppm
· Liqueur wines < 2g/L residual sugar - 120ppm added
· Liqueur wines < 2g/L residual sugar - 200ppm
· Sparkling wines - 150ppm
Natural winemakers generally go a lot lower than this. I tend to stick to a maximum allowable limit of 30ppm when I’m buying wines. Aside from the fact that I’m don’t want to give myself or anyone else a headache, I also dislike the overtly sweet fruit flavours that I associate with higher sulphur additions. Most producers that I work with aim to go as low as possible with their additions. There are also plenty of wines available in Australia with no sulphur additions at all.
There’s a list in Annex III of the Australian Certified Organic Standard detailing all of the additives allowed to be used in manufacturing a variety of foodstuffs. Here’s what's allowed for wine; sulphur dioxide, potassium metabisulphite, citric acid, tannin, tannic acid, potassium carbonate, di-ammonium phosphate, silicon dioxide, bentonite, casein, egg white albumen, isinglass. It’s nowhere near as long as the list for conventional wine but natural wine producers only use one addition: sulphur dioxide.
Fining and filtration
Centrifugation, fining and filtering are allowed in organic winemaking. Centrifugation is a process that involves spinning wine to separate the larger particles from the liquid. Fining uses four of the animal-derived ingredients that I listed in the section above. It’s the process of binding larger flavour molecules in the wine with protein, forming even larger particles, which become heavy and fall to the bottom of the wine. The top part of the wine can then be racked off, or it can be filtered to remove them. Filtration is simply what it sounds like, passing the wine through some kind of material to filter out larger molecules. Although I’m not really a fan of it, pore size is limited to no smaller than 2 micrometres, which is fairly large. In natural winemaking, filtration is pretty rare – the only times that I can think of it being used is perhaps in a sparkling wine or more delicate white wines and then really it’s only to remove very large particles or debris in the wine. Fining and centrifuging are straight-out no no’s. They remove a lot of the wine’s natural antioxidants (phenols), plus leave the wines tasting flat and thin. Just remember the mantra “nothing taken away”.
Organic wines are allowed to be heated to 70oC. Pasteurization is typically conducted at 60oC, so this temperature threshold allows producers to perform pasteurisation to kill any live micro-organisms or yeast in the wine – including all the good ones. It also has the potential to destroy the phytonutrients and antioxidants found in wine. Basically, it destroys the bits in wine that are incredibly beneficial to us.
Flavour is affected as well. A few years ago I was at a pub trying ciders that were on tap with another winemaker as we were trying to decide what to drink. One of the ciders that we tried seemed like it would be right up our alley – made from traditional cider apples by a small local producer. Yet on tasting it, I was shocked by how flat and bland it was. It had been pasteurised. No natural wine producer would even dream of heating their wine. I don’t even think that any wine producer worth their salt would consider heat treating their wine, full stop. It’s sacrilege.
Machine vs handmade
Organic wine production has no specific rules around manual vs machine work. This means that machine picking and mechanical bottling lines are permitted.
Natural wines are truly bespoke. Pretty much everything is done by hand. Grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted, ensuring that only the best grapes at the right ripeness go into the wines, without leaves or (as many) bugs. It’s also much more gentle, keeping the grapes intact and thus more stable than the more rough handling that comes from machine picking. A lot of the actual work in the winery is done by hand as well. Last year we destemmed a bin of Savagnin by hand. This was mostly because we couldn’t afford a destemmer but it had rained the previous night and we didn’t have the option of holding off for a couple of days until the grapes dried out before picking. Luckily it was only a small amount of grapes. Not everyone hand de-stems, given that it’s tedious and time consuming but doing these kinds of processes by hand or even just with smaller machines allows for further sorting and more delicate handling. Some producers won’t even pump their wines, doing everything by gravity. Bottling is generally done by hand, rather than through a bottling machine, which can be a bit rough and produce a noticeably different result. This is the primary reason why natural wines are more expensive than conventional wines – there’s so much more labour that goes into them. The farmed grapes can also cost a bit more because of lower yields and the extra labour that goes in there, but you’re getting what you paid for.
Certification & bureaucracy
Six years ago, I graduated from my environmental science degree at Monash University. Phew. I was glad to get that over and done with – I’ve never been good at learning on someone else’s terms.
But I did really enjoy completing my honours thesis, part of which involved me interviewing stakeholders in the Australian beef industry. I uncovered a lot of interesting information. One interviewee, a certifier for organic, biodynamic and Demeter, who also happened to be a beef producer, had played a significant role in introducing these certifications in Australia. While he still worked as a certifier for some extra income, he no longer had his beef production certified. The reasons? When they initially introduced the practice to Australia all those years ago, the goal was to create a way for people to be sure that the food they were eating was healthy and nutritious and had been produced without harmful chemicals. Over time though, he consistently saw shops and supermarkets using the certifications as a branding tool, an excuse to put higher mark-ups on certified products - even if the farmers weren’t necessarily charging more for them – and making them inaccessible to the average shopper when compared with the prices of conventionally produced foods. The amount of paperwork and costs involved in obtaining and maintaining certification is now a lot more than what it was originally. He expressed the view that it was strenuous stopped farmers from doing what they should actually be doing – farming. He still farms according to Demeter principles but, rather than get his production certified, he sells his meat direct to his small, local butcher via a local abattoir where he knows that the cattle will be slaughtered humanely and treated with the care and the dignity that they’re entitled to. The butcher that he works with can tell his customers how the animals are grown, and he works with other producers who share a similar ethos. He also pays a decent price for the animals because he has a relationship with his customers built on their desire for quality and the trust that they put in him. They know that while they might pay a little bit more with him than at a supermarket, their relationship comes with a quality guarantee, sans paperwork.
That interview was the clincher for me. It sold me completely on the idea of getting to know producers or retailers who shared the same ethos as me, so that I would never have to question the origins of their produce. While I still buy a lot of products that are certified organic if I can’t establish that kind of relationship, it’s not my first preference. Organic is a minimum standard, albeit one that’s better than conventional, that I can fall back to if necessary.