Nothing added, nothing removed. The natural wine movement celebrates the purest expression of terroir with organic or biodynamic farmed grapes cultivated using a low-intervention approach. But is natural winemaking better for the environment? Does it translate to more resilient vines, increased biodiversity, lower carbon emissions, and other indicators of environmental health? Here at VIVANT, we believe the answer to that question is yes. Read on to find out why.
What Is Natural Wine?
Unlike certified organic and biodynamic wines, natural wine doesn’t have an official or regulated definition (except in France, which recently imposed stricter restrictions). Generally speaking, this category encompasses wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes that are free from additives like commercial yeasts, powdered tannins and colorants. In lieu of these artificial manipulations, natural winemakers rely on the gifts of nature (adequate sun and rain and healthy soil) to impart flavor, structure, and the other necessary components of a delicious bottle.
Natural wine has become trendy in recent years, but this style of viticulture is actually the pre-industrial way of making wine, a practice that’s at least 6,000 years old.
Better Tasting, Better For You, Better For the Environment
A recent study found that critics in blind tastings scored wines with eco-labels an average of 4.1 points higher than those without certification. And while it’s difficult to pin down what makes natural wine so delicious (some say it’s the generous fruit flavors, others say it’s the tangy, yeasty taste), the guilt-free consumption certainly doesn’t hurt.
Natural winemaking isn’t a silver bullet solution. It’s still beholden to a supply chain that negatively impacts the environment, but it represents a shift toward more sustainable and ecologically-minded practices that take the overall health of a vineyard—and your health—into consideration. This philosophy starts from the ground-up, literally at the level of the soil.
Soil health is integral to sustainable food production. Healthy soil allows beneficial microbes to flourish, makes farms more resilient to both droughts and heavy rainfall, sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, and minimizes erosion, to name a few benefits.
Natural winemaking supports these aims through a variety of different measures.
First, natural winemaking bans the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, which seep into the soil and groundwater, threatening biodiversity and upsetting nature’s delicate balance. Synthetic fertilizers are especially dangerous, as they release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than carbon.
Natural winemakers can also maintain soil health by refraining from using heavy equipment like tractors. While time-saving and cost-effective, these machines compact the soil, killing life within it, and also potentially damaging the vines and surrounding plants. This is why biodynamic farmers use horses and other animals to till the soil—a method that has the added benefit of serving as a natural fertilizer and weed suppressant.
Winemakers who use natural, more sustainable methods can also opt not to use machinery during harvest. Hand-harvesting grapes is associated with reduced fuel costs and carbon emissions, as well as improved vine and soil health.
Many natural winemakers embrace “dry farming” to shrink their environmental footprint and enhance the taste of their wines. This is a practice whereby winemakers will choose not to irrigate their vineyards, relying only on rain. In some countries, such as France, vineyard irrigation is heavily regulated. The downside of this approach is lower yields, but the benefits are impossible to quantify. By forcing the vines to search deeper underground, they become stronger and absorb water that is more nutrient-dense and carries more properties that better reflect the terroir.
No vineyard is immune to the effects of extreme weather, like frost, drought, and heat waves. But a vineyard that’s cultivated naturally, without the use of vine-weakening chemical treatments and machinery, is believed to have more natural resilience against these weather patterns, which are becoming more commonplace as the result of global warming.
At its core, natural wine is a celebration of living things. By choosing to drink sustainable wine, you’re supporting independent farmers who work outside dominant food production systems. You’re also advocating for more transparency and accountability, factors that make it easier for consumers to make informed choices. Sign up for our Organic & Biodynamic Wines experience and get your tasting kit to dive deeper into the world of natural wine.