The year was 1924 and Europe’s farmers had reported their soils seemed less productive, their animals less healthy.
Coming after the advent of modern agricultural chemicals in the 19th century, as well as the first World War, with its mustard gasses and explosives, the farmers felt chemicals must be to blame.
In stepped Austrian psychic, social reformer, and architect Rudolph Steiner.
More on that in a moment. But first… Where can you get the best pinots on the west coast?
This week, resident wine expert Julien Miquel gives the lowdown on Oregon wine… from the region’s pinot affinity (noir and gris)... to the next hotspot for American cab sauv… and more…
Bio, Organic, or Natural Wine? (Continued)
In a series of lectures delivered in Poland in 1924, Steiner confirmed the farmers’ fears. Man and his labors had come out of sync with nature.
Animals, crops, and soil, he argued, were all a single ecosystem. Rather than treating each separately with its own chemical intervention, he suggested, each element of the system should regulate the whole. With proper management, a farmer could replace all artificial herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers with simple manure and composts, plus special tinctures, formulated by Steiner, to be sprayed on plants for pest control.
And so was born organic agriculture, or to be more exact, biodynamic agriculture.
Steiner had some rather whacky ideas. When he talked about treating the natural world as one ecosystem, he really meant the WHOLE natural world — supernatural realm included. Accordingly, he also recommended sowing crops following the astrological calendar and working in harmony with the lunar cycle by burying horns full of manure at the full moon.
Today some biodynamic farmers continue to uphold Steiner’s original vision. We grew up on a farm where, for a time, the manager was a devout adherent of the old school – rams’ horns of manure were, indeed, buried at the full moon. (He also espoused the medical theory of humors, offering to treat us children when we fell ill.) (He was a nut.)
Most modern biodynamic farming, however, leaves out the astrology. Think of it like organic+, the “+” being the focus on an ecological balance between animal, plant, and soil, rather than the simple eschewal of chemicals.
The Partnership’s flagship wine, the extreme altitude Tacana malbec from Bill Bonner, is a biodynamic wine. The Schiavenza Barolo Serralunga 2016 from our 2021 Italian Collection was also biodynamic (though certified as organic).
Biodynamic is less common than organic in wine (and agriculture generally). The term is less well known, and hence less marketable. For your purposes as a wine consumer, the thing to know is that if it’s not allowed under the organic label, it’s DEFINITELY not allowed in biodynamic. So all biodynamic wines are organic.
That said, not all biodynamic wines are certified organic. Though to be fair, plenty of organic wines aren’t certified organic either.
And here we enter a rather thorny issue in the wine community: what does it mean to be “organic?”
If your wine was made with organic grapes but got additives, like sulfites, during the winemaking process, is it still organic?
And if sulfur is a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process, does it really count as a non-organic additive?
Who gets to decide what is and is not organic, anyway?
Depending on where you live, the answers to these questions vary.
Several decades ago, in Europe, a wine could not be organic. The grapes themselves could be organic. The wines could not (despite plenty of Italian winemakers using organic methods for generations and generations). The Europeans finally changed their standards. A wine can now be labeled organic. An organic wine can have added sulfites (beyond what occurs naturally).
(A common source of confusion is the European designation “Bio.” The name is simply a synonym, used often in non-English speaking countries like France, for organic. You can consider bio and organic one and the same.)
The United States follows a different standard for certification, which makes for much grumbling by US winemakers, who contend that European winemakers have it much easier and are therefore getting an unfair advantage in the marketplace. The US does not allow added sulfites, and requires that overall sulfite levels, even if purely natural, must be below a 100 parts-per-million threshold. Beyond the grapes and the wine, the yeast, too, must be organic and non-GMO.
But the bigger gripe farmers have against the organic certification is the expense and hassle of it. Plenty of wine growers and makers who might qualify as organic are loath to comply with a certification process more friendly to the skills of an MBA-grad or government bureaucrat than a farmer. With the amount of paperwork involved, the middle men, and the inspections required (along with the expense of compliance), you might think you were opening a bank.
“Low Intervention” Wine
The words “low intervention” are often code for “organic without the certification.” There is no standard or certifying body for a “low intervention” wine. It can mean whatever the winemaker wants it to. However, among trustworthy winemakers a low intervention wine falls into one of two categories: either the winemaker prefers his own standard on what makes a good wine, regardless of whether or not it lines up with organic US or EU guidelines; or he doesn’t care to submit to the certification process.
We’ve sourced many great low intervention wines for the Partnership – small producers who scoff at submitting to authority, whether that be the strictures of an appellation or a certification body. Members may fondly remember El Viticultor 2020 from our 2021 Calchaquí Valley Collection (from rising star Cafayate winemaker Daniel Guillen), the Château Vieille Tour 2018 from our most recent French Collection (winemaker Jérome Gouin, who runs his operation like a small family farmstead), and the Cannonau di Sardegna 2018 (the wine enjoyed by some of the longest lived people on earth) from our 2020 Mediterranean Collection.
Finally, a hot trend of the last few years has been “natural” wine. In 2019, you could scarcely open your internet browser without an all-out assault by natural wine clubs promising fewer hangovers, no additives, and a guilt-free wine drinking experience.
Like the low intervention label, there is no set standard for natural wines. That said, they are, in theory, wines made without any human intervention save for harvesting, crushing, and bottling. Thus a natural wine has zero additives, no added yeast (fermentation happens through yeast bacteria already present on the grape skins), and no filtration. The lack of additives strikes some as cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are plenty of all natural additives, egg whites for instance, that increase depth, mouthfeel, or taste (or aging potential). Why forego them simply to be able to say a wine is natural?
We’ve profiled natural wine several times now. It is its own genre. Comparing natural wines to a classic wine (organic or otherwise) is like comparing apple cider to...well... wine. We would not find much to argue about with someone who professed to like one but not the other. It’s a pure question of taste.
That said, natural wines generally tend towards a kombucha-like flavor and a fizzy mouthfeel. They don’t tend to be deep, complex wines; aging them would be a mistake (they go bad). They are the only wines in recent memory where we’ve found a trace of TCA (the dreaded wet cardboard taste otherwise known as cork taint).
On the other hand, a chilled bottle of natural wine on a hot summer evening or cool fall day can be a pleasure. And we have fond memories of a bottle of Bichi, from Mexico, which had a smokey flavor almost like mezcal.
We did not, however, notice the absence of a hangover after the entire bottle was consumed.
Until next week,
The Wine Explorer