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Be real, then natural
Everywhere you turn, there’s a new article or comment about natural wine, or you might recognize it as the recently popularized “raw wine.” While this movement feels very millennial and modern, its message runs deep.
A lot of natural wine, unlike certified biodynamic wine, lacks a conventional “seal of approval,” aside from those repeatedly telling us, “This is natural, so you should drink it.” While a recommendation based on one’s personal preference is often in good faith, proceed with mindfulness. I am a good friend, a defender, of natural wine, as long as the wine’s aroma and palate justify its grape(s) and crucial sense of place. I am, however, wary about certain natural wines that put a winemaking style first, unassumingly shifting the characteristics of a grape and a place to the background, creating confusion for the buyer and the consumer. Do thoughts like “What exactly am I drinking here?” or “Why does this taste like kimchi?” sound familiar?
Since this movement, I’ve gradually become a bigger advocate of certified biodynamic wines. These wines play on the same team as natural wines but sometimes get kicked off the field for a negligible offense, like slight fining or a minimal dose of sulfur before bottling — both practices that ensure stabilization and prevent faulty aromas and flavors. While a formal certification doesn’t guarantee satisfaction and critical praise, it does guarantee a vetted level of quality and expertise that goes into every bottle. So for now, I’m betting on certified biodynamic wines that sometimes “happen to be natural.”
Based on the theories of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner, Demeter was the first organization to certify biodynamic agriculture way back in 1928. Based in Berlin, Demeter spread its global outreach when two of its ambassadors founded the Demeter Biological Farm in Melbourne in 1934. Demeter experienced a hiccup during World War II, when Nazi Germany dissolved the organization, but its message did not falter and it reestablished itself after the war. The name, Demeter, is a reference to the Greek goddess of grain and fertility, and today it represents a global network of 19 (and 4 guest) organizations that conduct independent Demeter certifications. It is, by far, the largest organization that certifies biodynamic agriculture (for food products as well), certifying more than 1,400 producers in Germany and 4,500 worldwide and is currently the only certifier for biodynamic farms and products in America. The term natural wine sounds sexier than “Demeter certified,” but let’s give credit to the producers who have passed through the meticulous (and expensive) wine hoops to earn the Demeter logo which graces every bottle. Here are a few Demeter-certified American wineries that put quality first:
Kelley Fox Wines, Oregon
Brick House Vineyards, Oregon
Hedges Family Estate, Washington
Porter Creek, Sonoma
Benzinger Family, Napa
Raymond Vineyards, Napa
Eisele Vineyard Estate, Napa
Roederer Estate, Mendocino
While Demeter has dual outreach (food products and wine), The Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-Dynamique (SIVCBD) is exclusive to wine. Founded in 1995, it is the leading group of European biodynamic producers that issue the official Biodyvin approval. Considered one of the highest honors for biodynamics (along with Demeter and respekt-BIODYN), Biodyvin maintains integrity by using an organization called ECOCERT to carry out independent inspections for the SIVCBD. Their controversial motto, “Nothing added, nothing taken away,” has become a cornerstone of today’s electric natural wine movement. “Controversial,” you ask? Yes, because within the Biodyvin guidelines you can “take away,” but not “rip away.” The organization does allow for minimal doses of sulfur as well as slight fining or filtration before bottling, as long as the producer adheres to the mindful thresholds. This is where the two paths, natural and biodynamic, can diverge — a little dose of sulfur or slight fining contradicts the hardcore guts of natural wine. For example, if you’re a biodynamic producer in Germany trying to be as natural as you can be, you use indigenous (versus synthetic) yeasts to carry out alcoholic fermentation. Since your fermentation is “natural” or spontaneous, it might take a while; it might stop altogether, and in the end the majority of your grape sugars might not convert to alcohol, leaving residual sugar in the final wine. So, now you’re stuck with a natural wine that has more residual sugar than you desired. So what do you do? You add a little sulfur so the wine doesn’t re-ferment in the bottle on its long, hard way across the Atlantic ocean. If you’ve ever had a natural wine that feels too spritzy on the palate, it’s most likely carbon dioxide, the result of a secondary fermentation happening inside the bottle. It’s especially unappetizing in red wines, which can taste overly sour, like kombucha — great for Champagne, not for still wine.
Despite Biodyvin’s 25-year legacy, I’m surprised by how many natural wine enthusiasts overlook its earliest members who include stalwart producers like Dirler-Cadé of Alsace, Pierre Morey of Meursault, and Château Falfas of Bordeaux (yes, Bordeaux and lots of it!). It’s sometimes easy to get wrapped-up in a colorful movement and go “all in” on a particular style, but it’s important to find the discipline to stay centered, dig in, and revisit the classics. Today, Biodyvin brings together 160 biodynamic estates throughout France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and Spain. Here are a few of our favorites:
Pierre Morey, Burgundy
Domaine Leflaive, Burgundy
Champagne Fleury, Champagne
Françoise Bedel, Champagne
François Chidaine, Loire
Claude Riffault, Loire
Monier-Perréol, Northern Rhône
Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Estate, Pfalz
The third, and arguably the most strict certification for biodynamic wine, is “respekt-BIODYN.” It began in 2005, when leading winemakers from Austria and one Italian outlier talked about forming a new biodynamic organization based on Steiner’s principles. In 2007, they founded “respekt” and presented the first certified “respekt” at Vienna’s largest trade fair in 2012. Renamed as “respekt-BIODYN” in 2015, the membership today reads like a “who’s who” of the wine world.
Their philosophy is as follows: “respekt-BIODYN is an ideal. It is a quality ideal of trying to get by in the cellar with a minimum of intervention. Just enough to get the typicality of origin, with the trusted autonomy of the individual we are familiar with, into the bottle. The aim is a wine that is in no way altered!”
Think of respekt-BIODYN as “Biodyvin 2.0,” with a focus on the wines of Austria and Germany. And like Biodyvin, respekt-BIODYN does allow for minimal amounts of sulfur as well as slight fining, as long as the purpose of these practices is stabilization and not “whitewashing” of the wine. Again, a divergence from natural wine, but with a smart, reasonable intention. Put these producers on your must-drink list:
Weingut A. Christmann, Pfalz (Germany)
Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz, Pfalz (Germany)
Weingut Wittmann, Rheinhessen (Germany)
Clemens Busch, Mosel (Germany)
Paul Achs, Burgenland (Austria)
Fred Loimer, Kamptal and Thermenregion (Austria)
Johannes Hirsch, Kamptal (Austria)
Karl Fritsch, Wagram (Austria)
Bernhard Ott, Wagram (Austria)
In the end, are certified Demeter, Biodyvin, and respekt-BIODYN wines the most natural wines on the planet? No, they’re not. But, do they strive to be natural? Absolutely. So, if quality matters, and if grape and place matter, then put aside a utopia and get real… then natural.