Organic, biodynamic, natural, living, S.A.I.N.S. ... so many terms associated with wine among which it becomes difficult to find one's way.
Between truths, false pretenses, information and intoxication, we help you seeing more clearly and navigating this fascinating universe with more clarity and assurance.
From how to treat the vines to cellar practices, from founding principles to ideals, we take a detailed look at the main categories encountered, in all simplicity.
Synthetic treatments and chemical weedkillers in the vineyards. Sulfur, yeast and a whole lot of additives in the cellar, a possible recourse to filtration, osmosis or acidification techniques resulting in rigid and standardised wines, without soul or personality.
Organic agriculture is governed by a vast and precise set of specifications covering all aspects of vine cultivation, limiting the use of additives and prohibiting synthetic products or GMOs. Since 2012, the practices in the cellar are also supervised and certified, the use of various additives and products, such as yeast is still allowed, but they must be certified organic.
Biodynamic agriculture is based on the theories developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, and takes into account the lunar and astral cycles. Biodynamic winemakers favor the use of plants, flowers and mineral treatments, the horse is back in the vineyard and cellar practices are as non-interventionist as possible.
Or the "zero-zero" wines, grapes, nothing but grapes. The vines are cultivated organically or biodynamically, a return to ancestral practices, and indigenous grape varieties. In the cellar, work without oenological nets, nor sulfur, just the yeasts naturally present on the grapes to carry out the fermentation. Unfiltered, unfined wines, bottled in their simplest form, free and alive.
The big bad wolf of natural wine drinkers... the so-called "conventional" wines correspond to the category of wines that emerged during the second half of the twentieth century, in parallel with the rise of synthetic treatments and products and industrialised agriculture. These wines have also been driven by the strong growth of the world wine market and the ever-increasing pressure on prices, and consequently the increase in production and the industrialisation of many practices that were previously more traditional and ancestral.
In the vineyard, these winegrowers, often of larger size, favor the use of fertilisers, synthetic treatments, penetrating products and a regular and sustained rhythm of passages. Monoculture is the rule and the soils, mainly chemically weeded, are not worked. The grapes are often harvested by machine and the use of a tractor is common throughout the season.
In the cellar, the use of sulfur is generalised, from the arrival of the harvest to the fermentation and the bottling. The use of all oenological techniques and technologies is also the norm: filtration, gumming, acidification, osmosis, chaptalisation, clarification... The list of authorised additives is chilling: albumin, bentonite, casein... that is to say more than sixty products that can legally enter the composition of conventional wine.
The maximum doses of sulfur allowed are 150 mg/L for red wines and up to 200 mg for white wines.
The principles of organic agriculture go back to the 1920s and 30s and the writings of Jean Giono and Albert Howard, who were already questioning the introduction of science and technology in agriculture. It is then in the 1960s that the regulatory foundations were put in place with the creation of the French Association of Organic Agriculture in 1961 or Nature et Progrès in 1964. Winegrowers such as the Guillot family in Mâcon are among the flag bearers of this viticulture respectful of the soil and the living.
As a general rule, organic agriculture bans the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and in the cellar. Although at the beginning the specifications of the labels at the European level regulated only the practices in the vineyard, then certifying "wines from organic farming", since 2012 the standards have been revised and the appellation "organic wine" certifies that beyond a clean viticulture, no synthetic products have been used during the winemaking or any other stage of wine production.
In the vineyard as well as in the cellar, although regulated, the use of chemical products remains authorised, but they must be of natural origin and certified organic. Winegrowers can continue to use oenological aids such as yeasts or enzymes, and techniques such as filtration.
The maximum doses of sulphur allowed are 100 mg/L for red wines and up to 150 mg for white wines.
Biodynamics, a contraction of biological and dynamic, is deeply bonded with the name of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founding father of anthroposophy, of Austrian origin. In 1924, he gave his famous Cours aux Agriculteurs, a series of eight conferences in Poland, to a hundred or so participants, peasants and farmers.
Here too, the current originated as a reaction to the arrival of fertilisers and chemicals with industrial agriculture threatening the natural balance of crops. Based mainly on esoteric principles and close to homeopathy, biodynamic agriculture defends the balance of the soil and the living and takes into account the influence of the lunar cycles and the planets in the different interventions, in the vineyard as in the cellar.
Preparations based on horn dung, the famous 500, or silica for the 501 are sprayed in the vines, in infinitesimal doses diluted in dynamised in water. Herbal teas and infusions of various plants such as horsetail, achilea or nettle, replace conventional treatments and naturally improve the vine's defenses.
Following the research of Maria Thun (1922-2012), the Lunar Calendar goes even further and defines "fruit", "root", "flower" or "leaf" days, framing the different works in the vineyard and in the cellar, such as planting on "root" day or harvesting on "fruit" day.
In the cellar, biodynamic winegrowers, led by ambassadors such as Nicolas Joly of the Coulée de Serrant in the Loire, often approach the most natural practices, refusing the use of yeast or any other input, and minimising the doses of sulfur used, these being authorised up to 70 mg/L for red wines and 90 mg for white wines.
The natural wine world owes a lot to the work of Jules Chauvet (1907-1989), born in Beaujolais, his writings, experiments and conferences can be considered as the foundations of the current movement, especially with L'Arôme des vins fins, a text delivered at the Mâcon wine fair in 1950. A work that has greatly influenced the famous Gang of Four composed of Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton in the Beaujolais in the eighties, or Pierre Overnoy in the Jura, all concerned with preserving the natural balance of terroir in their wines.
For natural wine producers, everything starts with the vineyard, where the culture is organic or biodynamic, although they often prefer not to display labels or certifications on their bottles, avoiding rules and specifications. The vines are grassed, the soils are worked and enriched with natural organic matter, mixed farming is favoured, as well as the use of animals, oxen or draught horses, sheep or chickens, beehives for the bees, and trees or hedges to encourage the return of birds. Native grape varieties have been brought back into use, as has the use of field blends.
A restored ecosystem and rich biodiversity are the foundations of a healthy and balanced harvest. Treatments are reduced to a minimum, the use of sulfur and copper being avoided as much as possible. Harvest dates are carefully chosen, the grapes are pampered and harvested in small boxes to be brought back to the cellar.
The vinification process is often limited to the most simple stages, de-stemming or not, maceration for varying lengths of time, pressing, natural fermentation and then maturation and accompaniment throughout the transformation of the juice into wine.
The bottling is often done without pumping or racking, without filtration, and mostly without adding sulfur. The maximum doses of sulfur tolerated by the AVN, or Association des Vins Naturels, are 30 mg/L for red wines and up to 40 mg for white wines.
To go even further, some winemakers, mainly in France, have founded the association of Vins S.A.I.N.S, that is to say without any inputs or sulfites (Sans Aucuns Intrants Ni Sulfites), pure grape juice and as close to the terroir and the free expression of the wines as possible...