Organic vs. Natural Wine: What's the Difference?

Organic and natural wines are all the rage these days—but what's the difference between them and why should we care? Read on...

Natural vs Organic Wine 1
Getty Images

"Wine is sunlight, held together by water."—Galileo

So you've heard about natural, organic and biodynamic wine and want to know what all the fuss is about. Maybe you've been diligently purchasing organic food when possible and decided that choice should extend to what's in your glass. Bravo!

If you're not sure where to start or are confused by the buzzwords surrounding this complicated and wonderful category in the wine world, read on, fair wine lover.

Let's begin with a couple of important notes:

  • Be open to new types of wine and flavor profiles. Natural wine often presents new sensations and flavors if you've only drunk conventional wine previously, but this doesn't mean that natural wine is bad—it's just a little different.
  • Employ the buddy system: find a small wine merchant whose selections you like, whose taste you trust and from whom you can seek a recommendation when you need little direction.
  • Get a decanter. Natural wine often needs a little time to open up.
  • Ask lots of questions. If you don't like what is in your glass, ask the merchant (or sommelier at a restaurant) if the wine is flawed or if this bottle just isn't for you yet. Taste is personal, so don't feel like you're not advanced enough to join the party.
  • Remember what this is all about: wine is meant to be enjoyed. Trust your taste, and drink what makes you happy.

So, let's talk about the actual difference between organic, natural and biodynamic wines.

Natural vs Organic Wine 2
Getty Images

"Organic wine" is made with grapes grown on an organic farm—the same way an apple orchard could be organic. Some labels may say "made with organic grapes," or there will be a certification indicator from the USDA, CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), or an international governing body. It's important to note that organic farming is not chemical-free; it does employ organic chemicals and treatments.

"Natural wine" is a loose term that describes wines made with minimal intervention in the vineyards and in the cellar, but it can be a bit of a misnomer. Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt recently summed it up in Glou Glou Magazine: "I know many people who say 'natural' but they don't grow their grapes that way... we have to just use the word 'wine.' You have 'natural' yogurt from Danone, from Nestle, you have 'natural sugar.' Everybody uses 'natural.' That's not a good word."

So if the word "natural" can mean nothing and everything, it may be better to think of natural wine as simply low or minimal intervention wine instead.

Low intervention can mean many things in the vineyards: dry farming, practicing organics and/or enlisting biodynamic principals and treatments—each grower must choose what is possible for their specific site. Low intervention in the cellar might mean choosing to limit sulfur use and filtration. These wines typically come from small, independent producers, and growers are often several generations deep into farming their plots. Low intervention wines are made all over the world, and vary greatly in style and flavor.

Some people associate a funky character with low intervention wines, but funk and flaws do not have to be the markers of natural wine. Laura Brennan Bissell, owner/winemaker at Inconnu, explains:

"There is a connotation that volatile, mousey, or otherwise 'flawed' wines are 'natural,' and a false sense of 'organic-ness' or 'handmade' is concluded. In reality these qualities have nothing to do with farming, and centuries of craft winemaking have sought to weed them out, or at least temper them. The term 'natural wine' for some has transitioned into an excuse for bad behavior in the cellar, a catalyst to lie about farming and more than anything a green-washing marketing slogan to sell more wine."

Natural vs Organic Wine 3
Getty Images

Wines made naturally, with minimal intervention, can show all the character of fine wine and do not need to be flawed. They can be made cleanly, made to age and made to enjoy. Much comes down to care in the vineyard and care in the cellar, or as Brennan Bissell puts it, "the thing that's most important when I'm drinking wine is that it is really good wine... and wines that taste like real wine are crafted with care."

Many low intervention wines are made biodynamically or from biodynamic grapes. Biodynamics, as defined by the Biodynamic Association, is a "holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming," created by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Dr Steiner was a holistic scientist and philosopher who advocated for the application of holistic scientific understanding to age-old farming techniques, though the concept has grown and evolved since his era.

Demeter International is the largest governing body for biodynamic farming, which requires that the whole farm, and not just a specific crop, is certified. The Demeter certification can often be found on the back label of a wine bottle, so this is an indicator to look for in the pursuit of low intervention wine.

So how do you find an organic or low intervention wine on the shelf or on a restaurant list? Certifications like Demeter are certainly a helpful starting place, but there are many producers that choose not to certify for various reasons. Domaine Michel Lafarge has been farming organically in Burgundy since the 1950s, but doesn't necessarily put that on the bottlings. Getting to know a great wine merchant, or finding an importer/distributor whose wines you like will give you a greater chance of success in finding the type of bottle you want. Familiarize yourself with a few producers that you like and seek them out or talk to the sommelier next time you're out to dinner at a restaurant and explain your search. Wine industry professionals take pleasure in sharing their knowledge when they recognize enthusiasm in their customers. Remember the tips from above: approach with an open mind, ask lots of questions and at the end of it all, don't be afraid to speak up if you absolutely can't stand what's in your glass.

It is worth noting that many not-so-tiny players in the wine industry are making strides towards sustainability. It's easy to dismiss these efforts as corporate marketing, but these wines are often available in markets where the smaller producers just aren't yet sold. For example, Brancott Estate spearheaded sustainability efforts in New Zealand in the 1990s, and Pol Roger Champagne is now made from biodynamically grown grapes. The efforts of the "big guys" should be applauded and encouraged—a rising tide floats all boats, as the saying goes.

So go forth, fair wine lover with this basic framework and start your journey in low intervention and organic wine. Above all, embrace the adventure, trust your own taste, and drink what you love.

Josie Zeiger was bitten by the wine bug while working her first job at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. She currently sells wine in New York City, and runs the Sip Culture Instagram account.