A Clear Cut Guide to Organic, Natural, and Clean Wine
It should be easy to pick up a bottle of wine and know how it’s made and what’s inside. But let’s be honest, that’s not always the case. We hear the terms organic wine, natural wine, and clean wine, but what does that really mean? Is there really a difference? In order to make better drinking choices, it’s important to understand these terms in detail so we can approach the wine aisle fully informed.
What Is Organic Wine?
When our founders Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power started their journey to launch Avaline, one of the first things that struck them was how many of the wines at their local stores were not made with organic grapes. Industry analysts estimate that up to 95 percent of the world’s vineyards are not organically farmed. This figure may surprise many, as it did Cameron and Katherine, given how common organic produce has become and the fact that so many of us are willing to spend extra for it.
Organic viticulture places a driving focus on eliminating harmful chemicals in the vineyard, which can damage the environment, wild-life, and vineyard workers, and present a risk for future generations. In winemaking, the case for championing organic farming only grows when considering that grapes are never washed after harvesting. Much of what’s added in the vineyard can ultimately end up in your glass.
What Does It Take for a Wine To Be Certified Organic?
Wineries that do choose to farm organically need to gain official certification if they want to display their organic credentials on wine labels. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the standard for American producers and imported wines sold in the U.S., while the European Union (EU) has clearly defined regulations for European wineries. To gain USDA Organic certification, all ingredients used by vintners, including grapes and yeast, must be certified organic, and sulfites can not be added during winemaking.
The USDA makes a distinction between "organic wine" and wine "made with organic grapes."
Wines that are "made with organic grapes" have 100% organic-certified grapes and any additional ingredients have to be specifically allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, never exceeding 5% of the total product. Yeast and any other agricultural ingredients must be non-GMO and the wine must contain less than 100ppm of sulfites.
Avaline wines fall into the "made with organic grapes" category. While they are all certified organic in Europe, we do add sulfites to keep the wine delicious on its journey across the water.
Is Organic Wine the Same as Biodynamic Wine?
Organic and biodynamic viticulture are similar in many respects but also differ in certain ways. Both avoid all use of man-made chemicals, but biodynamic producers are more specific in the methods and materials they use (and when they use them) to keep their vineyards healthy.
Based on the work of Austrian philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture is rooted in the idea that all aspects of the vineyard, as well as planet Earth and other planets, are one connected entity.
Biodynamic wineries adapt their vineyard work to coincide with the lunar calendar. They use specific homeopathic remedies, known as "preparations", to combat and cure vineyard diseases, and they allow animals to live among the vines, fertilizing the soil and creating a healthy environment. Ultimately, this diverse ecosystem brings balance to the vineyard and is the cornerstone for growing high-quality grapes.
While it blurs the lines between science and philosophy, biodynamic farming is also closely regulated and requires official recognition. Rather than governmental bodies, certification is granted by Demeter International, a not-for-profit association that also has offshoots in the U.S. and Canada.
What Is Natural Wine?
In recent years, the definition of "natural" has sparked debate in the wine community. Unlike organic and biodynamic, there are no guidelines defining what makes a wine natural, nor are there international organizations assessing whether producers are making wine naturally. In fact, European regulations actually prohibit wine brands from using the term “natural wine” on labels because the term has been so difficult to define.
Within the wine industry, opinions differ on whether natural relates more to the way wines taste, winemaking philosophy, or both. To some, it encompasses the idea of minimal intervention winemaking, where producers don’t include any additives during their grapes’ journey from vines to wine. Farming organically or biodynamically is almost always a given in this scenario.
For others, the term has come to symbolize a style of wines — those that you might find in a trendy wine bar in Brooklyn and that could be described as "funky" because of their unconventional aromas and flavors. These characteristics are usually born out of not adding sulfites or not filtering wines before bottling. Still, it is possible to make wine using a "minimal intervention" philosophy and arrive at a fruity style that many drinkers would consider more traditional.
How Does Avaline Define Clean Wine?
Take a trip to your local grocery or department store, and the word clean will be proudly displayed on everything from food and beverages to beauty products. Though it still holds no legal definition within wine — just like natural wine — it's a clear concept we can all understand. Avaline wine is pioneering the new category of clean wine, taking inspiration from all of the good parts of organic, biodynamic, and natural.
All of our wines are made with certified organic grapes, and our sparkling wine producer is also certified biodynamic by Demeter. It matters to us that our winemakers don’t use harmful chemical pesticides in their vineyards but we also care about what happens inside the winery. And it’s here where clean wine breaks the mold.
Even organic producers can use animal-based products like fish bladders and egg whites to fine their wines before bottling; we instead use bentonite clay. We keep all animal products out of the picture in every aspect of production (apart from the horse-plowed vineyards of our Sparkling producer) so that all our wines are vegan — because who would expect anything else from wine?
And here lies the essence of clean wine and the inspiration for Avaline. So many of the standard practices in winemaking just didn’t align with the expectations of our founders Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power, and this spurred them to come up with a new standard for wine with a signifier that all of us are familiar with.
With clean wine, there are no hidden secrets. We list all of the ingredients that go into each bottle — so when you look through them, you won’t find any surprises. We don’t use unwanted additives, like concentrates or colorings, and when it comes to sulfites we never exceed 100 parts per million. This is well below what many winemakers include and is another example of what clean wine is all about. All of our ingredients are carefully considered, and naturally derived.
There may be no official definition yet, but for us, there is no confusion over what makes a wine clean. Clean wine is exactly what we expect all wine to be.