The Differences Between Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wines
Spoiler: They’re absolutely not the same thing.
Wine is complicated. Among the intricate classification systems and opaque labels are terms like organic, biodynamic, and natural. These words sound similar and are sometimes used interchangeably, but they aren’t synonymous. This can lead to all sorts of confusion when you’re staring at a wine list or crowded retail shelf.
“I don’t think any of us has done an adequate job of trying to explain the difference,” says Craig Camp, general manager of Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Troon is certified organic and biodynamic, and its bottles are often considered natural, but Camp tends not to describe them that way. “Natural wine is a problematic term,” he says, noting the lack of oversight and an internationally agreed-upon definition.
As with most things related to wine, nuances abound. Here, a guide to help you understand the differences between organic, biodynamic, and natural wine, so you can pick your next glass or bottle with confidence.
What is organic wine?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates all organic certification in America. To qualify, wines must be made with grapes grown without synthetic fertilizers or genetically engineered products. Producers have to use certified-organic yeasts, and their finished wines can’t contain more than 5% of nonagricultural ingredients like ascorbic acid, which winemakers might otherwise add to preserve the color of white wine. And, while small amounts of naturally occurring sulfur dioxide are permitted, winemakers can’t add sulfites to stabilize wine or preserve its flavors.
Wineries must uphold these standards for three years before they can call themselves organic, and are audited annually to maintain their certification.
If this all seems relatively straightforward, buckle up, because things are about to get interesting. American-made wines that don’t quite pass muster for USDA certification can use the phrase “made with organic grapes” on their labels. This means that 100% of the grapes used were certified organic, but the yeast might not be, and the wine may contain up to 100 parts per million (ppm) sulfites. By means of comparison, other U.S. wines can contain up to 350 ppm sulfites.
For wines from Australia and other global markets to be labeled as organic in the U.S., they have to be certified by the National Organic Program, a federal regulator that works in tandem with the USDA.
International wine regions have their own organic certifications, too. In the European Union (EU), for instance, organic wine must be made from certified-organic grapes via regulated processes, and can only include less than 100 milligrams of sulfites per liter (mg/L) in red wine and 150 mg/L in white or rosé wines. Chile created organic certification for its wines in 2021, inspired in part by Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand (OWNZ), which started in 1994. As in the U.S., OWNZ producers are audited annually and must follow organic methods for three years before they’re fully certified.
What is biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic certification is determined by an international organization, Demeter. Some organic wines are biodynamic and vice versa, but the two have distinct criteria.
Biodynamic agriculture combines a philosophical view of farms as living organisms with what Troon’s Camp calls the “practical side” of the movement, like using compost instead of chemical fertilizer. Many credit the codification of the movement to 1920s Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, but the farming concepts themselves are ancient.
“Biodynamic practitioners envision plants as existing in a ‘middle kingdom’ influenced from below by the forces of the earth and governed from above by solar and astral forces,” writes Karen O’Neill in The Wine Bible. “Thus, vineyard practices such as pruning are done according to the movement of the moon through the twelve houses of the zodiac.” In a biodynamic calendar, each day is linked to an element—earth, water, air, and fire—and stages of plant growth on a lunar calendar, such as fruit days, leaf days, root days, and flower days.
This may all seem gauzy and ephemeral, but wineries with biodynamic certification have to uphold a long list of standards. Certified-biodynamic wineries reserve at least 10% of their land as biodiversity reserves, and harvested crops must rotate every two years to preserve soil health. Vineyards must also meet specifications for water conservation and cannot use synthetic products for disease, pest, and weed control. Incorporating livestock is encouraged but strictly regulated. Certified-biodynamic wines can contain up to 100 ppm sulfites, which is more than is allowed for organic wines in the U.S. but in keeping with EU requirements.
“Many wine consumers seem to have internalized a notion that biodynamics is sort of organics times two or something, but this is a grave simplification,” says Aaron Ayscough, author of The World of Natural Wine and the newsletter Not Drinking Poison. Instead, it’s perhaps helpful to think of organic certification as a checklist and biodynamics as an ideology, albeit one that also involves an array of carefully monitored specifications.
What is natural wine?
Ask 10 people what natural wine means and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. It’s hardly their fault. Unlike terms like organic and biodynamic, there’s no certification process for natural wine in most of the wine-producing world.
Generally speaking, natural wines are considered those made with sustainably farmed grapes, wild yeasts, and without any additives, including acid, sulfites, or megapurple, which winemakers might otherwise use for color. “Natural wine is what we call the work of the loosely organized subculture of estates that insist on high standards of purity in cellar practices as well as farming practices,” says Ayscough.
The movement began in France in the mid-20th century as a response to industrialized agriculture. “Pesticides became widespread after World War II…commercial yeast entered the market in the mid ’60s,” Marian Bull writes in Vox. Winemakers who eschewed these conventions formed ad hoc communities, and their low-intervention wines started arriving in the U.S. in the 1990s by some estimates.
The movement has since gone global. Ten years ago, when Isabelle Legeron, MW, founded the natural wine fair RAW WINE in London, it was “a pretty small bubble of people who were already interested in natural wine talking to each other,” she says. Now, the fair is a global phenomenon in seven cities. To exhibit, wineries must farm organically, use indigenous yeasts, cannot block malolactic fermentation, and have less than 70 ppm sulfites, among other criteria.
“To me, the most important question is the farming,” says Legeron, who values organic and biodynamic practices in vineyards. “The soil needs to be alive for the wine to be alive.”
Unfortunately, because the term natural wine is largely unregulated, bottles with all sorts of agricultural or production processes can market themselves as such. A bottle served at a natural wine bar may or may not be made with organic grapes or farmed biodynamically. The winemakers might not yet qualify for either certification, or might feel the regulations are too expensive or otherwise restrictive.
The exception to all these natural wine vagaries is France, which announced an official certification in 2020. It has two tiers: wines with no added sulfites, and those with less than 30 mg/L sulfites. The U.S. and other wine-producing regions have yet to create similar regulations.
What does it all mean?
Biodynamics and organics aren’t fundamentally better than natural wine, they’re just more clearly defined. If you’re sensitive to certain additives like sulfites, or passionate about regenerative agriculture, understanding the differences between how these wines are created and labeled can help you make more informed decisions at bars, restaurants, and wine shops.
The best wine advice is always to drink what you like, whether it’s a flower day or you never want to hear about the lunar calendar ever again. It’s your glass and your choice entirely.