When it comes to buying wine, there are just so many different labels to consider. From region to grape variety, maker to vintage. Recently you may have also seen some lesser-known labels and phrases appear (Biodynamic, Organic, Regenerative), especially when trawling through increasingly popular 'natural wines'.
We are breaking down the different forms of farming that make up this new crop of natural wines…
What is Organic Wine?
The most simplistic definition of Organic wine production is “grown or made without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.”.
Organic farming often focusses its rules and mentality around the rejection of more conventional methods of wine making, by putting a stick in the ground and clearly drawing a stark distinction between chemical inputs and utilising natural materials. It was born out of a backlash against chemical farming that grew to such prominence in the 20th century.
Organic methods are most distinguishable when dealing with pests, when farming organically there are stringent rules around which insecticides, herbicides and fungicides the farmer is allowed to use, with a ban of all synthetic materials. Synthetic sprays are not allowed for suppressing weeds, instead sprays made from organic compounds, ploughing or hoeing is encouraged.
While Organic farming has huge benefits, especially around banning and discouraging many chemical inputs, compared with other styles of farming that are gaining ground today, it has lost some traction in addressing some of the problems facing farmers, and indeed our environment, such as restoration of soil health and the complexity of symbiotic relationships in ecologically diverse farms.
Organic certification requires fairly rigorous paperwork which is incredibly onerous for a small producer. To become fully certified can be quite expensive, which often puts off many small scale growers, who are practicing these methods but unable to justify the additional cost.
There are also vast differences between good organic farming, laid out by the original pioneers of organics, with some of todays versions of organic that have been taken over by corporations looking to greenwash their products for profitability.
What is Biodynamic Wine?
Just like Organic farming, there is a simplistic way to look at the rather complex system of Biodynamics, it is the emphasis on the importance of; hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon to encourage a healthy ecosystem. Unlike Organic farming, Biodynamic farming greatly encourages incorporating livestock into the farm in order to boost the ecological diversity and value.
The principals of Biodynamics were laid out by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, in 1924, predating the organic movement. Steiner was also the founder of Anthroposophy, a philosophy which delves into the spiritual questions of humanity, often dubbed Spiritual Science. There are many connections between these two sciences.
Within a Biodynamic system, the grower is encouraged to change the way they think about plant life - taking into account the entire environment of the farm, and to see the farm as a self-contained organism, one with its own energy, embedded into the Earth.
The most important teachings that Steiner gave for the modern farmer were in relation to improving and regenerating soil health. He did this by compiling a key list of natural preparations that can aid in supporting the plant and soil health; from invigorating, calming or improving.
One of most famous biodynamic techniques is the usage of ‘horn manure’, cow manure that has been fermented in a cow’s horn, buried in the soil during winter. This promotes a healthy root system, revitalises the soil and helps the plant to find the nutrients and minerals it needs.
This is where Steiner believed so passionately in the symbiotic relationship between animals and plant life. Animals are used to graze around the vines, fertilising the soil and keeping weed growth to a minimum. By using animals to naturally fertilise and control pests means there is far less human intervention than in more conventional Organic farming. Steiner’s goal was to encourage balance within the ecological community to build a harmonious environment.
Another key part of biodynamics when it comes to growing vines, is the importance of the moons influence on the farm. The moon orbits the earth once every 27.3 days, and as it does so, it passes through the 12 constellations. It is believed that the constellations bring influence to the soil through the elements of earth, air, fire, air and water. These elements then affect the way in which a plant grows and it is said to greatly impact the health and energy of the vine.
Some find the more philosophical elements of Steiner’s Biodynamics far too ‘hippy’. There is no doubt his teachings are not simple, it may take a lifetime to fully understand the depth of his passion for ecological balance. However, there is no doubt Biodynamic principals have improved soil health and many vine growers and wine experts, do believe there is a distinctive energy held in a glass of biodynamic wine.
What is Regenerative Wine?
Regenerative farming began gaining traction as a result of the climate crisis that we face today. It largely focuses on farming systems that reject pesticides, artificial fertilizers and chemical inputs, and instead focus on regenerating topsoil, increasing biodiversity, improving water cycles and increasing resilience to climate fluctuation to strengthen the health and vitality of farming communities.
Unlike Organic and Biodynamic farming, Regenerative farming does not focus on one singular method of farming, instead, it focuses on a multitude of different techniques such as; permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, holistic management and both organic and biodynamic techniques. These principals can be combined in order to improve ecosystems and importantly sequester carbon from the atmosphere and fix nitrogen in the soil.
Key to the foundation of Regenerative farming is the health of the soil, often with an aim to regenerate land that has been depleted over time, allowing nutritious food to be produced, communities to thrive and greater ecological diversity.
Within Regenerative farming, you will find the introduction of ‘no till’ systems for growing vines. This is where the soil is not broken or ploughed at all. The aim is not to disconnect the web of mycorrhizal fungi and good bacteria that live in the soil. Tilling will remove the vital links of these bacteria and destroy the connections between the inhabitants of a living underground farm. Avoiding tilling also slows soil evaporation which helps improve fertility in drought-prone areas. By not disturbing the soil, deeper roots are promoted which further creates drought resistance and keeps carbon locked in the soil.
Cover crops are also used in Regenerative systems. These are plants that are sown amongst the vines. Introducing cover crops promotes diversity and allows wildlife to flourish on the farm, from nesting birds to small mammals and insects. Cover crops with their complex root systems also aid the healing of the soil by fixing nitrogen. They also help with erosion, which can be a big problem on steep vineyards, or areas that are prone to flooding, their deep roots act as anchors and soak up excess water like a sponge ensuring less topsoil is washed away in heavy periods of rain.
Regerative farming also encourages the use of livestock on the farm as part of a ‘mixed farming system’. Often you will find hens laying eggs, a herd of native cows producing milk for farmhouse cheese or cattle and sheep reared for meat. Not only do these animals contribute to the livelihood of the farmer, making them less dependent on one sole crop, they also contribute greatly to the ecosystem and soil health of the farm. Livestock is incredibly important in reducing disease burden, naturally fertilising the soil and bringing harmony to the ecosystem.
It is our mission to encourage you to look past what may be on a label, and instead embrace the complexity and diversity of farming systems, choosing produce that contributes to our society and environment.
With the help of our friend Alex, from Trouvaille wines, every single wine we have sourced has been chosen with as much care and attention for flavour, as it has for its environmental impact.
Shop our range of Natural Wine here.