As with most things on the leading edge of the food world, natural & organic is a current hot topic amongst the wine cognoscenti. And just like those who shop at Hot Topic, most wine cognoscenti are overweight Goth girls.
Some facts to know about organic/natural/biodynamic wine.
1. Small production wine is largely good for the environment. Grapes grow in soil not particularly good for other crops, they need minimal irrigation, and can largely be managed with minimal and/or natural pesticides. In many ways, a small production craft wine that isn’t certified organic has a better environmental foot print than a mass-produced certified USDA organic wine. Organic certification doesn’t really have much to do with how the wine is grown other than some specifics about what pesticides you can use.
2. Biodynamic wine is not “organic on steroids” as some like to say. Biodynamic wines, in fact, are inherently not big-O Organic because of their allowance (and in some cases requirement) of the use sulfur dioxide. More on SO2 later. Rather, Biodynamics is a certification process (run by the Demeter Association) that indicates the grapes have been grown according to a combination of holistic vineyard management, dry-farming when possible, natural pesticides, and some good old-fashioned geomancy. Biodynamic wines are largely more interesting than traditionally-farmed wines not because of any specific Bio practice but because the practices put in place require the vineyard managers to simply pay more specific attention to their crops.
3. Natural Wine is a non-specific term. It means whatever the person selling the term wants it to mean. In general it means wine made using traditional grapes for the region (an odd question mark for the New World) that are also farmed traditionally without excess irrigation and minimal pesticides. The grapes are then fermented using indigenous wild yeasts, often through spontaneous fermentation (as opposed to deliberate yeast inoculation) and aged in old oak barrels, stainless steel tanks or concrete tuns so that the end product tastes primarily of wine and not of wood. But the term is largely bullshit as there are some very prominent advocates of “natural wine” who for instance use oak chips in their wine-making to produce a bigger oak-y flavor on the cheap.
4. Sulfites aren’t bad for you. Did I just blow your mind? With the exception of the tiny percentage of people who have an actual allergy to sulfur dioxide, SO2 is harmless and a necessary part of wine making. It acts as a preservative and stabilizers and it’s been a part of wine-making for at least two thousand years. The Roman’s used to dry their amphorae with candles and noticed that wine stored in candle-dryed (i.e. sulfured) amphorae produced more stable wine. The deliberate addition of sulfur has been going on for at least a thousand years. That headache you get from drinking wine? That’s a hangover, not the sulfites. It’s the alcohol, dehydration, tannins and other histamines and cogeners. The sulfite allergy is a rare allergy and it produces an anaphylactic response. That means you swell up and flush. It doesn’t produce headaches or nausea. And white wine has more sulfites than red wine (red wine has more natural inherent preservatives, so it needs less additional sulfur) but most people think the opposite since red wines often give them a more pronounced hangover. That’s because red wines have more hangover-inducing histamines and cogeners than white wine due to the longer contact with the skins.
Final conclusion? Don’t worry much about any of the above. Wine is a product that’s good for planet. Just focus on wine that you like, buy locally and buy often.