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Towards a better world of wine

Vine tying in spring

While some wine drinkers will be familiar with organic wine and the criteria necessary to label it so, other wine terms like ‘natural’ and ‘low-intervention’ have a more recent history in BC. This not only makes these terms trickier to define, it also leaves a lot of room for greenwashing and misrepresentation. Our advice? Learn about your favourite wine region, and ask pointed questions at your favourite wineries. 

With just cause, conventionally-produced wines–made with grapes from conventionally-managed vineyards–are subject to increased criticism. The productivist model is rarely sustainable, and these wines tend to be both less good for the environment, and for the people who drink them. The good news is that a growing number of wineries are committing to more sustainable models in the vineyard, and in the cellar. ‘Natural’ and ‘low-intervention’ wines, for example, are increasingly popular alternatives to conventionally-made wines. Producers in centuries-old wine regions are rejecting the narrow rules of their appellations to create young, fresh wines with low ABVs, funky labels, and a short shelf life. In many parts of Europe and the US, natural and low-intervention wines are almost mainstream. Natural (or natty) wine bars are popular in big cities like New York and Berlin. Even bars and restaurants in smaller cities like Victoria cater to a growing number of wine drinkers who are embracing a greater diversity of wine styles and tastes. But what exactly is natural wine? And what about low-intervention wine? And how, for that matter, do they differ from organic or even biodynamic wines? Let’s break it down:

For now, there is no internationally recognized definition or classification system for natural or low-intervention wines. This is, in equal part, cause for celebration, and concern. On one hand, wine growers and winemakers are free to create products without having to adhere to strict top-down rules about how they manage their vineyards and make their wine. On the other hand, ditto. Natural wine is an unregulated term that was born out of a distrust of established wine norms, wine industry additives, and rigid production methodologies (which are particularly challenging for small producers).

Generally speaking, natural wine is produced without the addition of, well, anything except grapes. Grapes (which are usually grown using organic methods) are picked, and ferment “naturally,” which is to say without the addition of yeasts, water, enzymes or bacteria, carbohydrate matter, or even sulphites (SO2). Perhaps controversially, some natural winemakers do allow for sulphite additions (it is worth noting that sulphites occur naturally during fermentation and that making a sulphite-free wine is impossible). There are no powdered tannins added to natural wine; no fining agents; nothing other than the grapes themselves. Barrels are often sidelined, too, in favour of more neutral concrete, steel, terracotta, or even plastic. As with any other wine, individual natural wines can range from exceptionally delicious to downright undrinkable. Low-intervention wine and natural wine are often used interchangeably, but theoretically at least, low-intervention wines allow the winemaker a little more latitude when it comes to additions in the winery and cellar.      

Organic wine production is strictly governed in most wine-producing countries, including Canada. Wine growers and winemakers work with certification bodies to ensure accountability and transparency in the vineyard and/or winery. Soil health and fertility is of critical importance in organic viticulture. The big no-nos are GMOs, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. In the winery, winemakers must ensure any additions make the certification grade.  

However, it is important to mention that the certification criteria for organic wine changes from state to state—there is no global standard for organic wine. If you purchase one wine labelled organic from Portugal and another labelled organic from Oregon, they are likely to have been made under two different circumstances of certification. For example, USDA-certified organic wines cannot contain any added sulphites. This is not true for wines labelled organic in BC. Another key consideration for BC organic certification is the differentiation between how the grapes are grown and then, how the wines are made. In effect, two certifications are required (one for the vineyard and one for the wine production space) before a BC winery can even use the word organic in their labelling. 

While robust and resilient farming practices and soil fertility are at the heart of both organic and biodynamic wine, biodynamic wine production often exceeds the minimum requirements for organic certification. The Biodynamic Association defines biodynamics as a “holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.” Demeter, the global certification body for biodynamic wine, ensures integrity in the vineyard, as well as in the winery and cellar. 

It’s an exciting time for our wine-producing regions in BC, and a doubly exciting time for wine drinkers who choose to support local. Given the nebulous nature of some wine terms (especially when they appear in a winery’s marketing strategy), the best way to get to the bottom of what’s in your glass is to visit the wineries in your area. Ask questions about the climate (and how it’s changing); ask about vineyard management; weed control, and grape varieties. Ask about practices in the winery and cellar. Since more than a passing interest in chemistry is required to understand wine making processes, ask why as well as what: What are sulphites and why might a winemaker need to add them? What are commercial yeasts and why are they more important in some climates than others? Invoke a childlike curiosity to complement your adult drinking age and with any luck, learning to drink better wine will be the work of a lifetime.

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