Natural, organic & bio-dynamic wine; what's the difference?

"Natural wine" is a term that has been bandied about over the last few years but it is open to very loose interpretation. 

It is regularly used as a substitute for "organic" and / or "biodynamic", two terms which themselves are also often confused. Several other words are also freely used to embrace the three concepts of natural, organic and bio-dynamic - raw, authentic or real wines. There are at least three natural wine trade fairs in the UK all aimed at showcasing "natural, organic and biodynamic" wines. Confused? It's no surprise so let's try to narrow it down.

What is natural wine?

There is no official definition of natural wines so it's no wonder there is confusion.

Regular readers of my wine blog posts and followers of Wines With Attitude will know that I like wines from smaller, artisanal producers who practise minimal intervention and let the wines speak for the terroir, the vintage and the condition of the grapes - see my blog post on terroir for more information. This usually means that these producers:
  • use grapes often farmed according to organic and/ or bio-dynamic principles; the smaller producers show respect for the environment and sustainability,
  • often harvest the grapes by hand,
  • use yeasts that occur naturally in the winery rather than adding any manufactured (specifically cultured) yeast,
  • do not add vitamins or enzymes or intervene with the natural acidity, tannins or sugar of the wine (something that commercial wine producers regularly do)
  • do not alter alcohol in wine by harsh processes such as spinning or reverse osmosis
  • add minimal sulphur - sulphur is allowed even under organic guidelines - see my blog post on sulphites in wine
  • don't produce huge quantities of wine and therefore are much less likely to have their wines in UK supermarkets
And this is actually a great explanation of what natural wines are - in my opinion. But that's the trouble - for others natural wines go even further.

An alternative definition of natural wine?

I have been to natural wine trade fairs and been seriously disappointed with some of the wines as they can be cloudy, overly yeasty and basically taste a bit rough, even unclean or faulty. There are those who would suggest that this means I just don't "get" natural wine. But I am not alone - it has been said by several wine experts including Masters of Wine that these particular natural wines, let's call them "niche wines" to avoid confusion, may be marketed as natural wines simply to give the winemaker a convenient label under which to sell poorly-made wine or non-organic and non-bio-dynamic wine. After all any winemaker can call his or her wines natural.
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These "niche wines" just go a little too far for my own personal taste by:

  • not filtering the wines at all so that often all the gubbins from the wine-making process is left in the bottle
  • leaving the grape juice in contact with the grape skins for a long time. Over-extraction of this nature can lead to bitter wine and harsh tannins which mask the naturally-occurring flavours. Orange wines are the result of prolonged skin contact
  • adding such small amounts of or no sulphur dioxide that there is often too much oxidation and a great deal of variation in quality of the wine per bottle
These "niche wines" are unusual in style and appeal to only a small number of people. Not that that is a problem - but for the majority who don't like the style, and like me prefer wines that are clear, that smell and taste great and that reflect the terroir, we need to know what we are getting when we open a bottle. I don't like to have to take a chance that a natural wine is "niche" since natural wines by their very nature are not the cheapest.

Organic & bio-dynamic wines

Biodynamic and organic wines are more easily identifiable than natural wines because they have certification criteria that they must meet - and the wine label will proudly display their status.Biodynamic wine label.jpg 

But there are different certifying bodies with different criteria and regulations about growing grapes. Biodynamic rules are generally considered stricter than organic and require farming according to the lunar calendar which is often dismissed as baloney. We'll go into more detail on biodynamic wines in a future blog post.

In fact organic regulations may be stricter in some instances - more confusion. And don't forget that uncertified wines may still be produced according to organic and/ bio-dynamic principles as producers may be working towards certification or prefer to remain uncertified for whatever reason. 

So, which are best - natural, organic, bio-dynamic or "niche" wines?

As always it is a matter of personal taste, certainly in deciding between the broader natural wine field and "niche wines". Whether anyone could say on tasting a wine that it is organic, biodynamic or natural is very doubtful.

Until the wine industry adopts a common definition of natural wine or we have more detailed labelling of wine, we will have to contend with some unexpected surprises from time to time - although reputable sommeliers and wine merchants should point out the nature of any unusual wines when you order.

There are several wine associations trying to create a common definition and I note that this week Decanter published a natural wine charter. These are steps in the right direction. And anything which is a rebellion to the industrialisation of wine-making is good news to me!


© Wines With Attitude Limited,

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up her online wine business, Wines With Attitude, to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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