The growth of Organic and Biodynamic and towards an understanding of Natural wine
Our list since 2015 to 2018 shows a marked increase in the number of certified organic * and biodynamic ** wines from 20% to 35% of the volume of all wines that we sell. This is not counting those who practice organic and biodynamic principles without certification. We expect this number to grow and in the words of one of our producers for “organic to become the new normal”. We don’t just choose wines because they are organic or biodynamic though we find ourselves increasingly drawn to such producers. But we are also pragmatic and appreciate the great challenges that some producers face.
There is much written and discussed about natural wine. Our position is that we have quite a few wineries who strongly identify with the term natural and actively participate in fairs such as Raw (Chateau le Puy, Vale da Capucha, Aphros, Quinta do Baixo, Niepoort). We also have another group of wineries who make wines that would fall into this category, but they do not actively identify themselves as such (including Pittnauer, Turner Pageot, Zieresen…). At a minimum what we can say is that there is nothing unnatural about any of the wines we represent. We have gone to great lengths to choose wines that are authentic and have a sense of place.
Some great books to read on the subject include Authentic Wine toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking published in 2011 by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW (who is winemaker at Peninsula Vinicultores). It recognises that “naturalness and authenticity is one of the key current debates in the world of wine and it is likely to become more heated over the next few years.” The debate certainly has developed since 2011. Anyone interested in the subject will have devoured Natural Wine by Isabelle Legeron MW, also a compelling read. We greatly appreciate orange wines (see Amber Revolution by Simon J Woolf) and though we are not aware of a book devoted to it, Pet Nat is another style we would like to see more of.
We do not indicate in our list the specific wines that could be described as Natural, mainly as there is no agreed definition of what this means. However, we are happy to taste and talk to you about the philosophy and approaches of any of the wineries we represent.
The requirement to include details of allergens on food was first introduced in the EU in 2005 though certain derogations were given to wine. Wines labelled before 25 November 2005 were exempt from the obligation to indicate the use of any EU listed allergens. Since 25 November 2005 it has been a requirement to indicate the presence of sulphites on a label above the level of 10mg/l.
Wines made from grapes harvested in 2012 and labelled after 30 June 2012 must comply with more detailed allergen information. These include the use of Lysozyme (produced from egg) and fining agents Albumin (also egg) and Milk (casein) which can be used in making wine though the are not an ingredient. An indication is only mandatory if the presence can be detected in the final wine above 2.5mg/l.
For all wines bottled since June 2012 the allergen information must be included on the label. If, you serve wine by the glass (where the consumer will not be able to see the bottle) you should declare the allergens if relevant. This however does not apply to older vintages bottled before 2012 whether served by the bottle or by the glass.
Jancis Robinson MW wrote an informative piece in the Financial Times recently which has prompted us to update our website with more information on the vegan status of the wines we sell. This is a work in progress as we gather the necessary data from the wineries.
To read the article
The vegan status of a wine is primarily connected with the process called ‘fining’. Fining involves removing particles to avoid hazes which make a wine cloudy, to improve colour and in red wines to reduce astringency, tannins and bitterness. There are alternatives to fining which include simply taking more time when making a wine so that particles settle naturally, racking, micro-oxidation and blending and in some cases filtration.
Some fining agents e.g. egg whites to manage tannins in red wines have been used for a very long time. Other fining agents that can make a wine not suitable for vegans include gelatine (protein from animal skins or bones), casein (milk protein) and isinglass (fish bladders). While technically a fining agent would be removed by filtration, it is theoretically possible that traces remain in the finished wine (even if below the thresholds for declaring allergens). Every winemaker will have a view on fining; from the view that it strips wine of texture and character to it being an important step in the stability of the finished wine. It comes down to philosophy and the style of wine being made.
We look for producers whose philosophy is to work sustainably, with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the cellar. Most of our wines are suitable for vegans.
Are organic and Biodynamic wines suitable for vegans?
Rules for organic wines do not rule out the use of fining agents. While it might seem complex it is important to appreciate that although organic is a guarantee of a more sustainable approach in the vineyard and low intervention in the winery it does not necessarily make a wine suitable for vegans.
It has also been argued that using animals or animal products when farming the vineyard makes a wine unsuitable for vegans. This view rules out most biodynamically farmed wines, due to the use of preparations such as horn or silica manure, and where horses are used for ploughing. At Chateau le Puy, they have never worked with any artificial pesticides or fertilisers since 1610 but since the 1990s have used horses to plough certain plots. “So, what is an effort to keep our soils in a better shape, which helps us to keep our biodiversity in a cleaner environment with no pollution may not be acceptable to vegans.”
*Organic – the focus is on the health of the soil and the avoidance of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) in preference for plant and mineral based treatments. The certification of organic farming is quite recent (1940s) though obviously it was practiced before then. EU rules for organic wines also exist though the requirements still allow many additives to be used in the winemaking process.
**Biodynamic – a traditional and holistic way of farming described by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. It involves using certain preparations and treatments in the vineyard as well as following the lunar calendar in the winery when carrying out work.
Barbara Boyle MW