In a country where tradition is tantamount, change is afoot. Spain’s 4,000 year old wine industry is finding itself smack dab in the center the global organic movement.
Spain’s winemakers are converting hundreds of acres of vineyards to organic agriculture, incorporating all-natural techniques into their winemaking and, some would argue, getting a little hippie in the process.
And they are doing it on a massive scale compared to the rest of the winemaking world. Spain is the top organic wine producing country, making more than a quarter of all the organic wine in the world.
Even still, organic vineyards are still just a sliver (only 9 percent!) of Spain’s winemaking prowess… at least for now. Between 2008 and 2013, the amount of vineyard space dedicated to organic grapes nearly doubled in Spain and is expected to just keep on growing.
But does all this eco-friendliness actually make better wine? Perhaps. The answer may depend on just how, for lack of a better word, “hippie” the wine has become!
Hippie Level 1: Organic Wine
What is it?
Spanish organic wines are certifiably eco-friendly. That means no herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or any other -cides can be used on the grapes or vines.
Winemakers cannot add unnatural yeasts, which spur on fermentation and add flavor, nor can they add more than a tiny amount of sulfites, which act as a preservative to keep wine from spoiling during aging (and are also, some claim, the culprit for those post-bottle-and-a-half headaches!).
“Organic” is the only eco-friendly term that is actually regulated by the European Union. While the U.S. approved a government-regulated organic label for wine more than a decade ago, it wasn’t until 2012 that the EU approved a similar label.
Why drink it?
I like organic wine for two reasons, neither of which have anything to do with how they taste. First, organic agriculture is obviously better for the environment. I like knowing that my garnacha was never doused in synthetic pesticides.
Second, organic farming is all about working with nature, not against it. Without chemicals to kill weeds farmers often use nature against nature. Some plant cover crops among the vines to ward off weeds. Other bring in herds of sheep to eat the weeds away.
Many say this biodiversity and lack of chemicals means that the wines are more “in-tune” to the land they come from. Whether or not that really comes out in the glass… I suppose I’ll have to keep wine tasting to see!
Hippie Level 2: Natural Wine
What is it?
While the word “natural” may mean absolutely nothing on food labels, the opposite is true when talking about wine. Natural wine is, in many ways, even more organic than officially labeled organic wines.
For a wine to be truly natural, it has to be made like wine was being made hundreds of years ago. Think donkey-led harvest carts, giant stone and wood presses, natural corks and absolutely no additives, pesticides, genetically modified vines or unnatural fertilizers.
Some natural wine makers even shun wood barrels, saying the oak adds unnatural flavors to the wine. Natural wine is about as pure as it gets.
Why drink it?
Natural wine in Spain is almost always made with native grapes that have been growing in their respective areas for hundreds (even in some cases thousands!) of years.
This no-chemicals and no-technology way of winemaking ensures that the flavors that are present in the wine are the best possible representation of the land they come from. Natural wines often have more earthy flavors. They are also, by definition, better for the environment as natural wineries’ machinery-free mindset means far less pollution!
Hippie Level Extreme: Biodynamic Wine
What is it?
What could cow horns, the moon and the alignment of the planets have to do with winemaking? In the world of biodynamics, everything.
Biodynamic winemakers believe that their grapes are just one piece of the larger ecosystem. They believe every living organism gives off its own “vibe” which must be in harmony with those around them. In order to make, in wine’s case, grapes the best they can possibly be, biodynamic farmers look to make the soil as rich and healthy as possible.
They do so through some techniques that reach astronomical heights on the hippie scale. For example, biodynamic winemakers fill a cow’s horn with manure every Fall, burry it in the soil beneath their vines for the winter and dig it up during the Spring equinox. They then dilute the manure in water and spray their fields with it, believing that the bacteria-filled manure acts like a “immunization” to pests and diseases.
The moon is also a vital player in biodynamic winemaking. During a waning moon, biodynamics believes that living organisms slow down, allowing their true flavors to shine through. Thus, biodynamic winemakers will only harvest or bottle during waning moons to better capture the true flavors of the wine.
Why drink it?
There are few winemakers in the world that are more present in every step of the process than biodynamic winemakers. From trimming the vines to bottling the finished wine, these winemakers are closely inspecting every variable of their wine.
All that thoughtfulness and attention often leads to more thoughtful (and tastier) wines! These wines are so linked with their terroir, that they often are excellent representations of the pure potential of a particular wine region.
While there are only a handful of biodynamic wineries in Spain, there trend is growing. Worldwide there are at least 3,000 biodynamic wine producers throughout 35 countries!
Want to learn more (and drink more!) Spanish wine? Check out our Madrid Uncorked wine tastings held twice monthly in Madrid! All the info is here.
What are your favorite organic, natural or biodynamic wines?