Here at Chain Bridge Cellars we work mainly with wine made by people who drink what they make and serve it to their family and friends. Overwhelmingly, they care about health and the environment and reflect that care in how they farm and make wine, whether or not they meet the various standards for organic and biodynamic farming or winemaking.
Still, because more and more of our customers want to know how the wine was grown and made, we recently decided to include the words “organic/bio” in green in our wine descriptions and on our “shelf talkers.” But what exactly does this mean?
A Focus on the Farming
Winemaking can be divided into two stages: the farming of the grapes in the vineyard and the fermenting, aging, and bottling of the wine in the winery. When we mark a wine with our “organic/bio” label, we’re referring to the farming: It means that the grapes were farmed either organically or biodynamically.
Organic farming is much like what you would expect: compliance with bans on herbicides and systemic pesticides and limits on what growers can use to nourish their vines and protect them from disease. For example, organic vine growing allows use of copper sulfate and sulfur, which are sprayed on the vines to prevent mildew and other fungi from growing.
What about Biodynamic?
Developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics not only bans chemical or manufactured sprays, it also governs what growers do and when they do it.
For example, growers must follow a lunar calendar of root, fruit, leaf and flower days that determine when a grower can prune and harvest. In addition, all growers must spray two preparations on their vineyards: 1) a spray made from manure that has been buried in a cow horn for six months, and 2) a dilution of fractured quartz. Other preparations that vinegrowers can choose to use include herbal and homeopathic preparations.
And while some of this might sound a little crazy, it’s important to understand that biodynamics also relates to a bigger picture: how farming contributes to the overall health of the world. Standards apply to what grows on the edges of a vineyard, for example, and many biodynamic winegrowers grow cattle, chickens, and vegetables in addition to grapes. Biodynamics requires ecological diversity.
The Winemaking Piece
For a wine to have the USDA organic seal, both the wine growing and the winemaking must meet organic standards. And even though many organic wine growers make their wine with minimal intervention, one big issue keeps them from achieving USDA organic status: sulfites.
Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation – anytime you ferment grapes, you’re left with wine that has sulfite in it. If you ever find a “sulfite free” wine (which I bet you can’t!), the sulfites would have to be chemically removed … along with much of the wine flavor.
In the winery, almost all winemakers add sulfites to grapes and wines at multiple points in the winemaking process to protect the grape must from oxygen, kill off unwanted bacteria, and to ensure adequate levels of “free sulfur” in the finished wine at bottling to keep it fresh and tasty over time.
For reasons of both cost and philosophy, modern winemakers generally use as little sulfur in the winery as they can consistent with turning out a sound, healthy, fresh wine for you to enjoy. But that means they almost always end up with greater than 10 ppm of residual sulfite – the level that triggers the “Contains Sulfite” label and prevents a wine from being awarded the FDA Organic label.
Even so, wines have far less sulfur in them than your typical package of dried fruit. And, over the last few decades, winemakers have been steadily decreasing the amount of sulfur they add to their wines: no one likes wines that taste like sulfur! And, especially under screwcap, over-sulfured wines can taste rubbery and reduced. So each winemaker must decide: do I add just enough to be confident the wine is stabilized? Do I see how little I can get away with? Here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we favor wines made the first way.
Biodynamic practices also extend into the winery. That root, fruit, leaf and flower calendar also governs winemaking. In addition biodynamics forbids use of cultured yeast – all yeasts must be native to the winery or vineyard. And many biodynamic producers have begun to focus on how to keep winemaking from interfering how the wine reflects the vineyard’s terroir: Do the wines taste like the place the grapes were grown? This question leads winemakers consider how much they should manipulate the grapes, how much wood to use, if any … to consider how “natural” their wines can be.
A Word about the Word “Natural”
But if you see the word “natural” on a wine, our advice is to run! Wine, much as we might like the pretend otherwise, is not a natural product. It’s a manipulated product, and winemakers “interfere” with the process for good reasons. Unsulfured wines tend to go bad, for example. Call us crazy, but we like our wine to taste good!
Where do we approve of “natural?” In the phrase “as natural as possible.” We like to work with winemakers who are careful, who work to have their grapes express the best that the varietal can be in their region, but who also are willing to intervene when things seem to go wrong. The line can be fuzzy – but we think you can taste the difference in the bottle. An overly manipulated wine tastes … manufactured. And an overly “natural” wine can taste, frankly, bad.
Then Does this Organic/Bio Label Make a Difference?
We think the answer is yes … and maybe. We know some excellent winemakers decide not to get officially certified in organic or biodynamic farming—sometimes because of the expense, or because they want to be able to use certain non-organic treatments when it’s necessary. Still, vine growers who go organic or biodynamic are willing to spend extra time and energy in the vineyard, monitoring and caring for the vines and their land—and that attention shows in the glass.