Wine Jargon - A Handy Guide
Written by: jackie oakley
We should all be interested about what goes into our food and drink, especially chemicals, preservatives and genetically modified ingredients – this includes wine!
Natural or “minimal intervention” winemaking is nothing new. After all, wine has been made for centuries, well before agricultural revolution and technology infiltrated our food chain. Now, more than ever, wine drinkers are seeking out wines that mesh with their view of what is important in their approach to conscious consumerism.
Several terms are often used, including raw, natural, biodynamic, organic, vegan, as well as 'contains sulphites', but what do they mean? Here is our quick guide to cut through the jargon:
Small amounts of sulphites (a.k.a., sulphur dioxide, a compound of sulphur and oxygen) occur naturally in fermented food and beverages, and wine begins as fermented grape juice. The difference is how much sulphite is in the wine. Many winemakers add sulphites to preserve and stabilize their wines. Since some people are sensitive to sulphites, UK law requires wines with more than 10 parts per million of sulphites to carry the label “contains sulphites.” To put it in perspective - dried fruits are among the foods highest in sulphites, with raisins and prunes containing between 500 and 2,000 parts per million!
Wine labelled “certified organic” must abide by criteria established by the country of production – not the market it’s imported into.
It’s a common myth that there are no pesticides allowed in organic farming. Some pesticides are allowed but these are mostly naturally occurring, and their use is very different from the approach used in non-organic farming.
Organic approved pesticides are primarily derived from natural substances and go through a strict regulatory approval process to ensure they are not harmful to the environment and human health.
There are many naturally occurring pesticides that are allowed in organic farming, as they have low toxicity, such as spearmint oil, citronella and quartz sand. Others such as iron, potassium, beeswax and gelatine are all part of the human diet and have no toxicological issues.
Some vintners follow organic practices but choose not to apply for organic certification for their labels, citing the time and expense involved. Others feel having certification helps authenticate their wines which they feel is important for their market. The organic regulation process also varies by country, making it very difficult to compare like for like.
Being organic does not necessarily mean a wine is natural or vegan. It may still contain other organic additives or animal by-products.
It also doesn’t mean an organic wine is necessarily better!
What do animal by-products have to do with making wine? Animal manure may be in soil fertilizer, for example. Some winemakers use fish bladder (isinglass), egg whites, animal milk protein (casein) or cow gelatine to clarify their wines and eliminate unwanted sediments like dead yeast cells, protein particles and grape fragments. The process, called “fining,” produces a clearer liquid.
Vegan means no animal by-products are used anywhere, but the wines can still be made with non-organic grapes and added sulphites and filtered using vegan methods.
Natural wines are organically farmed, using minimal technology or intervention. Nothing is added or removed to alter the wine. This means no GMO (genetically modified) grapes, chemicals (e.g., pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers), mechanical harvesting, added yeasts, added sulphites or filtering.
Minimal intervention wines still require some natural intervention. Green fertilization, such as cover crops and natural composting, are ways to protect the vines in the absence of pesticides.
Biodynamic wines utilize the holistic, ethical and ecological teachings of scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925). Biodynamic farming works in harmony with the earth’s changing ecosystem. Planting, pruning and harvesting grapes revolve around a special biodynamic calendar that follows the lunar cycles. Biodynamic farming takes a homeopathic approach to nourishing the vines using special preparations of natural compost that include herbs and plants such as chamomile, yarrow and stinging nettle, manure and even cow horns.
Like natural wines, no chemicals, or additives, such as commercial yeasts and sulphites are allowed. Biodynamically farmed wines must be inspected and certified by the international organization called Demeter.