June 15, 2021 by Arden Montgomery
Organic Wine, Natural Wine, and Sulfites: a Complete Guide
“Organic,” “natural,” “biodynamic,” and “sulfite-free” are some of the buzzwords being thrown around the wine industry today. Marketing terms that make promises such as these conjure up very specific images in the mind of the buyer, who likely imagines idyllic, countryside vineyards and 15th-century fermentation barrels. For some, these words mean better wine. To others, they might seem pretentious.
But far from being just trendy descriptors thrown onto high-end labels to accompany their lofty price tags, these adjectives hold the key to important information about how this particular wine was grown, processed, and fermented — at a multitude of price points.
But what do words like “organic,” “natural,” “biodynamic,” and “sulfite-free” actually mean? What does it mean for the wine? Let’s find out.
What is organic wine?
The exact definition of “organic” gets a little fuzzy because it is usually up to the country in which the wine is being made. There isn’t exactly a universal standard for what constitutes an “organic farming practice,” but there are guidelines in place which have similar results.
First, the grapes used to make organic wine should be untreated with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides throughout the growing process.
Second, no sulfites should be added to the wine during the fermentation process. This is the most important factor in determining what is organic wine and what isn’t, although the allowable level of sulfites varies across different governments. The USDA certifies organic wine which has been grown using organic principles, and contains less than 10 ppm of sulfites.
Organic wines will often have a bolder, sweeter and more varied taste from bottle to bottle. You can also expect a little bit of funk as the lack of sulfites allows the wine to age more rapidly. Here are some of our favorite organic wines from the Argaux collection.
- 2018 Massimago MariaBella Valpolicella Ripasso – $30
A berry-and-balsamic-forward red blend from a certified organic, woman-owned winemaker in Veneto, Italy.
- 2018 Domaine de la Cote ‘La Cote’ Pinot Noir – $125
A rich Pinot made using organic farming principles and indigenous yeast cultures on the Central Coast of California.
- 2019 Land of Saints Santa Barbara County Chardonnay – $23
A balanced and sunny Chardonnay made with organic viticulture practices on the Central Coast of California.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine may be thought of as organic wine without the certification. Also known as “low intervention” wine, natural wines contain no additives, and are farmed in accordance with principles that have been around since humans first began tilling the land and planting seeds.
Many conventional labels contain things like lab-grown yeast, sugars, acids, and other supplemental ingredients which hasten or encourage the fermentation process. Natural wines, on the other hand, are made with grape juice, the naturally-occurring yeast on the surface of the fruit, time, and nothing else.
By contrast, organic wines may contain additives such as added yeast or sugar but can maintain their certification as long as those ingredients come from an organic source.
Natural wines have an undeniable funk to natural wines that comes from the wild yeasts being the main proponent of fermentation. They will also be slightly cloudy in appearance and might leave a bit of grit at the bottom of your glass — but this just means that every sip is going to be an adventure. Here are some of the best natural wines that Argaux has to offer.
- 2020 Le Coste Litrozzo Bianco Orange Wine – $28
A spicy, citrusy skin-contact white wine made with biodynamic farming practices and native yeasts in Lazio, Italy.
- 2015 Podere Erica ‘Il Picchio’ Toscano Rosso – $60
A ‘Riserva’ Rosso made with organic and biodynamic viticulture practices in Tuscany, Italy.
- 2017 Ottomani DOCG Chianti Classico – $32
A fruity, smoky Chianti made with biodynamic farming and viticulture practices in Tuscany, Italy.
What is sulfite-free wine?
To be frank, truly sulfite-free wine is a myth. Sulfites, as we mentioned earlier, are an inevitable by-product of fermentation and help to keep the wine fresh and unspoiled as it ages. It is however possible to find wine which is so low in sulfites that they are an insignificant aspect of its makeup, such as in many organic labels.
Conventional wineries typically add sulfites to their wines as an artificial preservative, which gives them a much longer shelf-life and greater chemical stability. This means that most conventional wines have a relatively high concentration of sulfites, and this is typically when sensitive drinkers will experience the dreaded sulfite-headache. Of course you can avoid high sulfite levels by buying natural or certified-organic wines, instead.
One of the reasons conventional winemakers use sulfites is to achieve a consistent flavor with each fermentation. But this can also dull the taste and dampen some of the nuances which make wine so delightful to imbibe. Like we said, you’ll be hard pressed to find a wine which is truly sulfite-free, but wines with no added sulfites will be more willing to show you their deep and subtle undertones. Here is a selection of excellent additive-free wines from Argaux.
- 2017 Young Inglewood VENN Skin Contact Sauvignon Blanc – $35
A truly dynamic orange wine made with sustainable farming practices in Napa Valley, California.
- NV Champagne Delavenne Père & Fils Brut Tradition Grand Cru Champagne – $50
A baked-good Brut made naturally in Champagne, France.
- 2007 Chateau Musar Blanc Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – $45
A spicy, floral white blend made naturally in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
What is biodynamic wine?
The concept of biodynamic farming takes natural agriculture one step further. Rather than planting a monocrop of grapes, which natural farming still does, it seeks to create an ecosystem for the crop that replicates as closely as possible how grapes might grow in the wild.
In nature, there are built-in checks and balances which allow plants to grow and thrive without being completely overwhelmed by weeds, pests, or fungi. And this informs how biodynamic wine is made. Grapes are integrated with other crops and often small numbers of livestock and other wild animals who, through their daily acts of living, will help to fertilize the plants and keep them in check so that one crop doesn’t take over the other.
The soil fertility is also a critical aspect of biodynamic farming. Chemical pesticides and others are avoided at all costs in order to support a rich and healthy microbiome which will help to feed the grapes.
Biodynamic farming is not a new concept, although there are still relatively few winemakers on the planet who follow these principles. And we’re not kidding when we say you can taste the soil in which the grape was grown. The plant’s proximity to wildness lends biodynamic wines an utterly unique and otherworldly depth of flavor. Here are some of the exquisite biodynamic wines we carry at Argaux.
- 2012 Chene Bleu Abélard Ventoux AOC Southern Rhone Blend – $100
A spicy, herbaceous red blend made with organic and biodynamic farming practices in the Rhone Valley, France.
- 2018 Moreau-Naudet Chablis 1er Cru ‘Vaillons’ – $72
A unique Chablis made on used French Oak wood using biodynamic farming practices in Burgundy, France.
- 2019 Poco a Poco Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – $22
An earthy Pinot Noir made with biodynamic farming practices in Napa Valley, California.
Final thoughts: organic, natural, and biodynamic wines.
The unique and utterly perceivable terroir of unconventional wines makes them worth a taste. And buying wines from these dedicated masters of viticulture allows you to support the people who make the wine you love to sip.