ORGANIC, NATURAL OR BIODYNAMIC?
Despite being in vogue, organic wine is not a new concept. People have been making wine organically for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the early-20th century, following an intensification in farming and an increase in man-made synthetic treatments, that ‘organic viticulture’ was coined as a way of explaining the alternative to modern farming practices. Today, the world’s certifying bodies continue to debate what ‘organic’ means and the rules and regulations vary, but largely these vineyards are ones that eschew pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers in favour of plant and mineral products to combat pests and disease. Natural wine, sometimes referred to as raw wine, goes further than this by avoiding fining agents, filtering and added sulphites if possible, resulting in some occasionally cloudy looking and even funky-tasting wines.
Biodynamic viticulture, meanwhile, takes the whole idea of organic farming to a more holistic, ecological and ethical level. All biodynamic wines are, by definition, also organic, but biodynamic winemaking goes further by taking into account the lunar and celestial cycles. While organic vineyards treat problems and avoid harming the environment, biodynamic vineyards strive to prevent problems before they arise and improve the health of the farm’s entire ecosystem with the use of polyculture (mixed crops) and animal husbandry. “To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane,” warned scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who founded biodynamics in the 1920s, and he was right.
For decades, many dismissed his ideas as nonsense, but almost a century on some of the world’s most revered wines – including Domaine LeRoy, Château de Beaucastel (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht – are made using his methods.
“From a technical perspective, biodynamism toughens up vines and enables them to be productive for a longer period,” explains Harrow. “You might lose your first three years’ harvest to pests and rot but the vines learn to cope and become more resilient as a result.” With time, these producers say soil biomass improves, roots grow deeper and stronger, indigenous plants and wildlife return, and the grapes become more receptive to climate and weather. These are the ingredients that go into creating a wine’s flavour profile, and with minimal intervention and low sulphur – the cornerstones of any good organic winemaker – critics argue you can actually taste this living environment, the wine’s ‘terroir’.
A MATTER OF TASTE
“Initially it was the flavours that attracted me to natural wines,” agrees Doug Wregg, a sommelier-turned-buyer for award-winning supplier Les Caves de Pyrene. “The wines possessed something that I would characterise as real or raw ‘energy’. The flavours would ricochet around the palate. They were also mutable, forever changing and developing. This seemed to suggest that they were alive.” For Harrow, that ‘extra energy’ is found more readily within biodynamic wines, while natural wines can be more savoury, feral, barnyard. “None of which sounds attractive necessarily,” he admits, “but only because we have come to associate wine with a more limited spectrum of aromas and flavours.”
Not surprisingly, the best way to truly understand organic, biodynamic and natural wine is to taste them for yourself and in London you’re spoilt for choice. Established in 1698, Royal Warrant Holder Berry Bros. & Rudd reigns as the ultimate London wine shop, with regular tasting events and dinners, while Natural Born Wine at Primrose Hill Market (every Saturday) offers a story behind each of its bottles. At Jason Atherton’s Social Wine & Tapas in Marylebone, where all the waiters are sommeliers, the restaurant’s executive head sommelier Laure Patry estimates that at least 70 per cent of her wine list is biodynamic. “Biodynamics is a lot of work but it brings much more to the wine: purity, authenticity, the wines are more alive and not masked. It also shows respect for our planet and it is better for us. I couldn’t sell a wine I didn’t believe in.” Proving, perhaps, that there is already a thirst for a healthier, more sustainable and honest glass of wine.