Food & Wine Thursdays: Natural Wine, Organics, Biodynamics & Sulfites

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.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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7 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: Natural Wine, Organics, Biodynamics & Sulfites

  1. Lou says:

    Demeter certification has nothing to to with dry farming. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. Geomancy? Perhaps for Nicoals Joly, but Demeter certification leaves that sort of stuff up to the individual practitioner. For Demeter, certification is mostly about the application of the soil preps. Oh, and you might want to read up a bit more about sulfur and wine. Ever work with the stuff? It burns your eyes and nose–it’s not pleasant! That said, the Vin Naturel folks in France are motivated less about sulfur and health concerns and more about how the blind application of sulfur covers up subpar fruit and makes wild yeast fermentation more difficult. And there’s a lot more than that to the sulfur conversation as well.

  2. David D. says:

    I should’ve known better than to present my cursory gloss of farming practices to your trained eye. =^)

    Aren’t the soil preps themselves geomantic in nature? I mean, there’s not a lot of quantifiable science behind it, and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way.

    Sure sulfur burns the eyes, but so does capsicum. But isn’t capsicum delicious when judiciously applied?

    I agree 100% that sulfur should be used minimally and judiciously–just as all additives in wine-making should be used only as much as necessary to achieve a quality product. But there’s nothing inherently bad about it except for those allergic.

  3. Journalism 101 says:

    I suppose you read this article in October:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/oct/28/food/fo-wine28

    Not so many original topics for you to choose from, are there?

  4. David D. says:

    Nah, I don’t read the LA Times except by accident.

    I see the point you’re trying to make and I admire your effort at cleverness.

    I will also note that I haven’t read the hundreds of other blog posts and articles that have been written on this topic on Natural Wine in the last six months.

    Unlike the W. Blake Gray article I took issue with a few weeks ago, which dealt specifically with a (relatively) more esoteric topic (there are only a handful of articles discussing field blends as opposed to scores if not hundreds involving natural and organic wine) in a substantively identical manner to an article written in a paper the author was involved with at the time it was originally published, my article was an informative discussion of a broad current topic for the edification of my readers, most of whom are wine novices. This isn’t the wine section of a national newspaper. It’s a blog that discusses MMA, Law & Order, crappy movies, et al.

    Though if the LA Times changed i’s motto to “Pop Culture Clambake” I might read it more.

    And I wouldn’t’ve cared if that article was a NEW discussion on the topic of field blends, but it wasn’t. It was, again, substantively identical to a previous article. And the only part of the article that was new was an attempt at inducing a massive controversy into what was, at best, a minor irrelevant dispute.

    I’ll also mention that unlike Mr. Gray, I’m not paid for this. Nor do I profess to be a journalist. I also write most of my posts drunk. Maybe Mr. Gray does too on that last one. I don’t know.

    What I’m saying is that the analogy you attempt to draw is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. But it does make a comforting sort of immediate sense if you don’t think about it too hard.

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Journalism 101 says:

    You don’t read about the topics you write about, and you’re proud of it. That explains a lot! Thanks for clarifying.

  6. David D. says:

    Wow, you really like to induce your conclusions, facts be damned. Either that or your ability to perceive irony is Vulcanian.

    I do read about the topics I write about. I’ve read source texts, wine encyclopedias, organic/bio-D certification rules, et al. And most importantly, I’ve engaged the wines and winemakers themselves. I don’t read all the articles–I do read some, I was being facetious for attempted comedic effect (articles here being those written by wine bloggers, journalists, and magazine writers)–because I’ve read the source material. I like to reach my own conclusions and then write about them from this source material.

    Unlike most wine writers who are wine hobbyists who make their living trying to convince others of their expertise, I’m a wine professional who has made his living in the wine world since he could legally drink. I’m not saying I’m more qualified, merely that my motives are different. But I have tasted thousands of wine and have worked closely with winemakers, natural and otherwise, from all over the world. I have my own opinions on the facts at hand. I don’t need to read any interpretation of facts about natural wine from others when I know about natural wine already. Or rather, I gave up reading conventional wine journalism regularly when I found myself better informed than the authors of 99% of the articles I was reading.

    I prefer to draw my own conclusions instead of reading the drawn conclusions of others who are, typically, equally informed at best (and usually less informed) on the source material they’re writing about.

    The people I do read are bloggers and writers who are wine professionals (winemakers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, importers) who make their living actually working with wine–the writing is secondary. Or they are people who are actually entertaining in their writing. Or people who are both.

    They are not people who make their money by writing unoriginal articles that selectively manipulate facts to achieve a pre-supposed conclusion masquerading as legitimate journalism.

    And since clearly you’re an inattentive reader, let me state this: the topic of Natural Wine is a broad one. It’s like writing about Burgundy or Argentinian Malbec. The article I took issue with was very specific. It dealt with a topic that has only been discussed a handful of times in the media. It was, substantively, nearly identical–by that I mean it offered virtually no new insight, interpretation, or accurate information (and it was a less entertaining read)–to another article written in the recent past at a newspaper that the author of the later article had worked at when the original article was published. I’m not implying plagiarism, merely creative bankruptcy. If you find this distinction too nuanced, fine. I’ll respectfully disagree.

    If you have no connection whatsoever to the disagreement I’m referencing, then I admire your crusade for journalistic integrity (however misguided I think it might be). If you are in some way connected, I’d suggest spreading the word that perhaps conventional newspapers should spend time trying to engage with this huge and growing audience of people not reading your papers to find out why they’ve become alienated from them, instead of fighting with them.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. David D. says:

    Oh yeah, and I also realized that I wrote this article in May 2008:
    http://hornyforfood.blogspot.com/2008/05/organic-sustainable-biodynamic-sulfite.html

    And this article in November 2008:
    http://hornyforfood.blogspot.com/2008/11/biodynamics-worthwhile-geomancy.html

    I guess I plagiarized myself.

    So, in reference to that LA Times article from October 2009…. Not that many original topics out there for you to choose from, are there?

    Weird that a self-important, opinionated little prick like myself was writing about these topics over a year before some major newspapers. And I don’t even get paid or use it to pad my ego, I just like wine. It’s funny what happens when you just pay attention.

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