What are low-intervention wines?
Low-intervention wines look and feel just like any other bottle on your average liquor store shelf, but they certainly aren't made the same way. Modern winemaking has enabled the mass-production of this once relatively simple craft, and wines are now more often than not manipulated to provide a certain experience and taste. Sugar can be added to bulk alcohol and sweetness, acidifers may be thrown in to add life to an uninspiring wine, but most regularly of all, commercial yeast strains can be isolated so that wines fit a certain flavour profile. Low-intervention wines on the other hand are made with the belief that "less is more", leading these winemakers to either operate organically, biodynamically, or sustainably.
What is the difference between Organic, Biodynamic, Sustainable, and Natural farming?
Every government in the world has their own regulations on what is deemed “organic”, and while there are specific differences from country to country, all certified organic wines are made with grapes that haven't been grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
The basis of biodynamic agriculture was first drafted by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920's, after a group of concerned farmers frightened by the dangers of industrial agriculture sought him out for advice. Biodynamic farming is one step beyond organic farming, and involves a number of special preparations that essentially add nutrients back into the soil. Biodynamic farmers don't use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, but more importantly they think of the whole vineyard as an ecosystem. A diversity of plants such as flowers, clovers, and grains are planted in the vineyards so that they nurture the environment and bring nitrogen back into the soil when they decompose. Flowers and trees also attract certain predatory insects, which help keep pests away.
While biodynamic farmers also take into account astrological influences, one of the most significant facts is they will not manipulate the wine with any manufactured yeasts, sugar, or acidity. All three of these are commonly used by commercial winemakers to “tweak” with a wine. Wineries can only officially label themselves biodynamic after certification from either Demeter or Biodyvin, both non-profit organizations , but the cost of registration is quite high and troublesome so many biodynamic farmers never bother.
Sustainable farmers are often organic and biodynamic, but may not necessarily follow each system so strictly. These winemakers desire to be ecologically responsible, but also economically viable. Many are believers in la lutte raisonnée, which means 'the reasoned struggle'. Growers who practice this kind of viticulture do use some chemicals, but claim to use them less aggressively than convention growers. For example, they might be organic in 9/10 vintages, but if they need to spray to save their crop, they won't hesitate.
The concept of natural wines is basically 'zero intervention'. Natural winemakers utilize organic and biodynamic methods, but are perhaps more open to experimentation. Generally, they bottle their wines with no sulphites, although many add just a tiny bit when preparing their wines for export abroad.
We realize this gets confusing, but natural wines are very similar to biodynamic wines. It all depends to what lengths a winemaker goes to make sure their wine is unadulterated. Generally, natural winemakers do the following things:
• Use wild/indigenous yeasts to ferment
• Low to no filtering
• Low to no sulfites
• Plow to replace the use of chemical herbicides.
• Hand-pick their grapes
• Minimal winemaking manipulation: no pumping, reverse-osmosis, or micro-oxygenation
• No chaptalization
Why should we drink low-intervention wines?
Low-intervention wines taste different. This doesn't mean that they have a particular flavour or aroma like apples or bananas—rather that wines made with organically or biodynamically grown grapes have an extremely clean expression of fruit. Like Aubert de Villaine says, a certain purity comes through from grapes that are allowed to mature at their own pace without any fertilizers or chemicals.
But even the most healthy grapes in the world don't matter if the winemaker in the cellar decides to manipulate the wine. Good low-interventionalist winemakers are usually quite bold, adventurous, and always hardworking. They know when to pick the grapes so that they aren't over-ripe or under-ripe, and are usually quite motivated and opinionated.
It isn't so simple for one to declare themselves organic or biodynamic without extra work in the vineyards. When a winemaker chooses to work this way, his job actually gets a lot harder. Most of our producers are dirt-deep in their vineyards for most of the year, leaving little time to actually promote their wines. We can't claim that every one of the wines we sell will be the best Syrah (or Shiraz) for example, but we can guarantee that each one of our offers will be a true representation of the terroir and the grape.
We believe there is a distinct clarity and brightness to the best low-intervention wines due to the natural way the fruit is grown. In fact, as a great number of biodynamic wines aren't even labeled as such, many wines you already love may be biodynamic. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, perhaps the greatest wine estate in the world, is a fine example of this in Burgundy.
More About Biodynamics
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practitioners believe that all illnesses in the body are the result of a wider imbalance in the body's system. When a specific ailment arises, steps are taken to both raise the general health of the body so that it can heal itself, and also to prevent future occurrences of such conditions.
The practice of biodynamic agriculture and biodynamic wine production is very similar, with advocates of both systems stressing the importance of viewing everything in the world as connected: If the body is restored to its natural order, one will be healthy; likewise, if the vineyard and soil are restored to their natural order, the grapes and resulting wines will be pure and true.
After the great wars that ravaged Europe, agriculture in the continent quickly moved industrial as the Post-War generations of the 60's, 70's, and 80's sought to ramp up efficiency in the vineyards. They used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides to protect their crop, but never realized how much they were damaging the soil or affecting their crops. They managed to dramatically increase yields, but at the same time, each fruit was becoming more and more diluted in flavour (think about a tomato from Park'n'Shop for example).
For biodynamic producers, these synthetic chemicals are seen as artificial and foreign to the soil, just like how in TCM , Western antibiotics and vaccines are considered elements that aren't necessary for the body's health. Without a doubt antibiotics have saved many people's lives. But just like how having too many antibiotics causes the body (and bacteria) to become resistant to the drug, too much fertilizer ended up stripping many vineyards of their nutrients, leaving the vines eventually very vulnerable to disease.
When worried winemakers around the world realized that this wasn't sustainable and that their vines would die very soon due to a lack of nutrients in the soil, many reached for biodynamics, which calls for using organic produce rich in minerals such as cow horns, grounded quartz, and manure to introduce nutrients back into the environment either via composting or spraying.