A Wine Is a Wine Is More than a Wine
illustrator Aurore de La Morinerie
One of the defining ironies of contemporary life is that products made in traditional methods, those products that in theory are able to lay the greatest claim to being exactly what they are and no more, must identify themselves in the marketplace by a profusion of new terms. Gertrude Stein’s famous riff on the law of identity, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” begs for qualification like never before. In the realm of wine—which, despite its occasional luxury associations, remains a form of agriculture, involving a lot of dirt and insects—there exist now three major terms used to denote wines produced in a more or less anti-industrial fashion: organic, biodynamic, and natural.
As consumers we are by now well accustomed to the first term, “organic,” it having been plastered all over everything from granola to instant pudding since its widespread adoption in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since its official definition and legislation in the agricultural industry in the U.S. and Europe in the 1990’s, it has suffered the fate of many legal terms and come to mean somewhat less than originally intended. By now it connotes only the intended avoidance of excess use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic additives. All are permitted in limited quantities under organic agriculture.
“Organic wine,” as a legal concept, does not actually exist in the EU. Wines labeled “organic” in fact state they are “made from organically grown grapes,” a stipulation that forbids none of the various modern interventionist techniques available to winemakers after the grapes are harvested. Such techniques range from the addition of wood chips for oak flavors to acid for acidity and sugar for higher alcohol content.
“Organic,” the term, then, is hollow at best, and misleading at worst. In my experience the racks of mass-produced “organic” wines one sees at supermarkets, many of which taste no better than their more baldly industrial counterparts, have had the deleterious effect of causing consumers to become skeptical of any efforts to promote more conscientious winemaking and viticulture. It would be better for the mass realization to take hold among consumers that you simply cannot purchase an expressive, individual, place-specific wine at a supermarket, any more than you can receive fine customer service in an airport. Some things are just particularly unsuited to mass distribution.
While in France six government-approved organizations exist to control organic certification of vineyards, there are no equivalent entities certifying what is called “biodynamic” viticulture. (A non-governmental organization called Demeter does certify biodynamic grapes and wines, using results from the government-approved organizations, but adherence is very far from total.) Perversely, either despite or more probably because of the lack of government-mandated definition, this rather more obscure term retains a very clear and specific meaning to those familiar with it.
Biodynamy, as a set of principles, was first laid out in a series of lectures by the turn-of-the-century Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, whose other contributions to humanity include the esoteric spiritual philosophy of anthroposophy, and Waldorf schools. If you ask me he was a bit of an inspired whack-job, but one whose considerable output of nonsense about angels and Lucifer (key components of the anthroposophical system) and occasional bouts of heavy-handed racial generalizations (his comparisons of the various races’ states of “spiritual advancement”) are increasingly overshadowed by his achievement in articulating what we now call biodynamic agriculture.
Biodynamic viticulture is, in brief, a mode of winegrowing that considers the vineyard itself and the earth it sits on as a kind of organism, one that must be nourished as a whole if it is to be healthy. Biodynamic agriculture emphasizes biodiversity, or the general balance of insects, animals, and plants besides vines in a vineyard. No artificial pesticides or herbicides are used. As an old boss of mine memorably put it, “If you have mice in the vineyard, you release cats.” This is a cartoonish scenario, of course, but one not measurably stranger than some of biodynamic agriculture’s more colorful practices, which include burying, in the vineyard, ram horns filled with powdered quartz at certain phases of the moon. Among French biodynamic vignerons these admixtures are known as “tisanes,” or “herbal tea infusions.”
In the wine world you find great winemakers who swear by these methods, and other great winemakers who deride the same methods as being essentially strange pagan rituals. For myself and many other critics, the proof of the benefits of biodynamic winemaking is routinely found in the glass, where the wines reliably display an inarguable vivacity and clarity of soul, alongside which many more conventionally produced wines appear wan and somewhat superficial.
In France the word “organic” translates to “biologique,” or just “bio” for short, which terminology has an unfortunate sonic proximity to the French for “biodynamic,” or “biodynamique.” “Bio” says very little and “biodynamique” encompasses a whole strict ethos; I cannot tell you how many times I have asked vignerons whether they are the latter and been interrupted by their response, usually a passionate critique of the former.
I’ll sing the praises of biodynamic viticulture to high heaven (where Steiner’s angels presumably join me in the chorus), but the fact remains that it is an eccentric, enormously labor-intensive system that is not suited to every winemaker. It is like the Bikram yoga of winemaking. And many winemakers exist who agree with the system’s general principles, but who are unable to commit themselves to, for instance, harvesting in precise accordance with the moon’s cycles.
Hence there is another term, comprising wines made somewhat more than organically, up to and including biodynamic viticulture: natural winemaking. The term is very much in vogue in contemporary French winemaking, where its meaning has come to be associated with a recent movement against sulfur use as a preservative in winemaking. But finally there is no universal agreement on what constitutes natural winemaking.
Mâcon vigneron Catherine Vergé, who along with her husband Gilles has grown vines since 1982 and made wine since 1998, is in favor of a strict charter of natural winemaking principles, “to prevent abuse of the term by people who want to make money, not wine.” She summarizes the contents of the proposed charter as follows: “No weeding, no foreign yeasts, minimum sulfite dosage, no additives to the vinification, and biodynamic cultivation.” (All these terms, and a few other common features of natural winemaking as currently practiced in France, are explained below.) In the absence of such an official charter, for the moment, the Vergés follow that of the Association des Vins Naturels, a loose coalition of like-minded natural vignerons in France, led by acclaimed Alsatian vigneron Christian Binner. A key feature of this coalition is, in fact, its looseness. Their mission statement, as expressed by Binner on their website (lesvinsnaturels.org) contains the following less-than-binding language:
A member of our organization has the right to not be perfect. We do not provide exacting specifications on how natural wine must be made, because there are many different ways to end up with a product that is natural, and our winemakers remain free to make mistakes and in the process perhaps create something truly natural and amazing.
Paradoxically, this freeform, peer-verified, actually quite cliquey agreement is, in practice, significantly more rigorous than most established wine charters. It’s sort of the contemporary, global-society equivalent of a neighborhood watch. The world of natural wine in France is, despite its varied abundance, still a niche industry, and its insiders encounter one another continually, allowing for quite effective oversight of their shared principles.
Natural winemakers share with biodynamic winemakers a commitment to biodiversity in the vineyard.
Conventionally farmed vineyards frequently employ grape-picking machines, which in addition to dictating a certain width of spacing of rows in the vineyard (so they can pass through) also manhandle the fruit quite a bit. Hand harvesting is essential to any conscientious winemaking operation, natural or no.
No pesticides, no herbicides, no fertilizer
Natural winemakers forgo all of these things, instead finding non-synthetic solutions to pest problems and soil maintenance. (The aforementioned ram horn tisanes are one way.)
This term has been criticized as being misleading, since, after all, the cultivation and fermentation of grapes in general is one big intervention in the earth’s “natural” cycles. Practically speaking, however, non-interventionist winemaking consists of doing as little as possible to the grapes from their growth to their eventual vinification. No additives to correct “flaws,” the use of wild yeasts (the ones wafting through the air in any given area, rather than the commercially-proven foreign strains used by many winemakers), and increasingly in France, no added sulfur.
Natural winemakers by and large neither filter their wines nor fine them with egg-whites. The result is the sediment in the last glass of the bottle that can scare away novice drinkers. Ales Kristancic of the Movia estate in Slovenia, who makes a positively turbid, undisgorged sparkling Pinot Noir, once justified his wine very succinctly to me by explaining that filtering it would be like removing the live cultures from a yogurt. The funk in the bottom of the bottle goes some way to keeping some wines alive and kicking.
Sulfur use is perhaps the single most controversial topic among natural and organic winemakers at this point in time. To understand it, one must first dispense with the idea that sulfur is an unnatural additive. Tiny quantities of sulfites are produced naturally in the fermentation process; its judicious addition has been used for generations as a preservative and stabilizer in wine. It is antibiotic and anti-oxidative, which means it prevents the growth of bacteria that can spoil a wine, and prevents the wine from oxidizing, or turning into vinegar. It’s no exaggeration for me to say that sulfur dioxide essentially permits the existence of the international wine industry, since without it, most wines would not withstand the temperature changes and general handling entailed by even the most careful export operation.
But in contemporary French winemaking, there is a small but vocal movement against sulfur use. A number of vignerons I greatly respect are against it: the aforementioned Vergés, and Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, from the Mâcon, and Pierre Overnoy from the Jura, to name just a few. In fact there are not very many mediocre vignerons I can think of who rail against sulfur use. My suspicion is this: that it is indeed possible to construct beautiful, durable wines without sulfur dioxide, if the wines are downright brilliantly crafted in the first place. Great unsulfured wines are kind of like people who look good naked: they’d also look fine with clothes on. It comes down to how much sensuousness you happen to seek in a given wine.
I should add that I don’t think a glossary ought to be necessary to buy a bottle of wine. As societies, however, we have come that far from what was originally meant by just “wine,” a word whose meaning is, I believe, best restored through natural and biodynamic viticultural practices. Historically, wine was not a consistent product; nor was it stocked on supermarket shelves. But great wines have always had the capacity to express honestly the circumstances of their production, from the earth the grapes were grown on, to the weather that year, to the various regional traditions and techniques that informed their vinification. It is our challenge, as contemporary consumers, to continue to demand just that.