Special sorts of wine

Certain wines are designed to appeal to, or cater for, particular interests and demands. Here is a brief guide.

Organic and biodynamic wines

This is a vast subject growing in importance which has been covered in some depth on the site already. Organic viticulture involves finding more natural alternatives to industrial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, with the primary purpose of ensuring optimum soil health. There is no doubt that fewer and fewer agrochemicals are being used in viticulture today, just as in agriculture generally, as the long-term damage they can inflict on the soil and future crops is now better understood. Besides the health of the vineyard, some wine drinkers also report that they feel much better after drinking organic wines than those produced using agrochemicals. 

Although an increasing proportion of wine producers follow organic methods, there are no universally agreed rules for organic winemaking, or oenology. However there are several certification schemes for organic vine-growing, or viticulture. In the EU, for example, organic certification is granted following a three-year conversion period in the vineyard, after which the producer may label his produce as ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’. This is distinct from ‘organic wine’, which would also require certain organic practices to be followed in the winemaking process, which is not covered by the EU legislation. Organic winemaking involves the restricted use of sulphur dioxide, fining agents and other processes, and is regulated by the independent certification bodies of each wine producing country. It is quite a commitment of time, effort and money to be officially certified organic and many producers, however enthusiastic about the general principles, cannot be bothered to go through the necessary hoops.

Biodynamic viticulture is something much more extreme, taking organic practices a step further. Following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, biodynamic viticulture involves administering homeopathic doses of often bizarre-sounding substances prepared by, for example, burying manure-filled cow horns for six months, according to the cosmic calendar. Scientific explanations for all this are thin on the ground but in many cases the vines look much healthier and the resulting fruit tastes much more intense. Some argue that this is simply because biodynamic growers pay such close attention to each vine rather than as a specific result of the techniques. In order to be officially recognised as biodynamic, a vineyard must have already completed, or be in the process of completing, its three-year conversion to organic farming. Certification is available via Demeter International, the global certification body for biodynamic farming.

Try using our site search to find more on this topic. You might also like to take a look at How small is organic's niche? and follow the links within.

Natural wines

The natural wine movement is a relatively recent phenomenon. In general terms it describes a group of winemakers who believe that commercial wines contain excessive additives, and that the best expression of a wine’s purity is achieved when the wine is bottled with minimal winemaking intervention and few or no additives. Most producers of natural wines begin with organic or biodynamic practices, and extend these to the winery, avoiding the use of artificial yeasts and adding very little (if any) sulphur dioxide as a preservative. Whilst the ethos is admirable, and in many cases the wines produced are extremely successful, natural wines have a tendency to be unstable, as they contain so few of the chemicals that are usually used to prevent oxidation and re-fermentation. As a result, some natural wines appear oxidised (in white wines, exhibiting a brownish colour and a distinctive bruised apple flavour) or may re-ferment in bottle, causing an unexpected spritz. The general consumer may not be ready to embrace natural wines just yet, but the movement is gaining popularity within the UK trade in particular, with two wine fairs dedicated to natural wines now held annually in London. Time will tell whether natural wines gain wider appreciation.

Lower alcohol wines

Some wines are naturally low in alcohol, either because they are produced somewhere far from the equator such as the Mosel valley with limited amounts of sunshine to produce fermentable sugar in the grapes, or because some of that sugar has been left in the wine rather than being fermented into alcohol, or because, like Asti, the fermentation is deliberately stopped half-way through to produce a sweet, low alcohol wine.

As wines have become increasingly alcoholic and we have become more aware of our alcohol intake, however, all sorts of lower-alcohol wines are appearing on the market. Some of these are the result of very careful vine growing and winemaking, whilst others use industrial processes to de-alcoholise the wine. Non-alcoholic wines (with an abv of 0.5% or less) and reduced alcohol wines (with an abv of around 5% to 8%) are becoming increasingly popular, although under EU law they may not be labelled as ‘wine’. The first low alcohol wine-based drinks released onto the market were either very sweet or totally lacking in flavour and body, and decidedly unlike wine. However, as the major producers are attracted to this growing segment of the market, the overall quality is steadily improving. It still remains a challenge for winemakers to compensate for the body and texture that are lost when alcohol is removed from a wine, so the more successful reduced-alcohol styles tend to be white, light and refreshing in character, rather than reds.

Low-calorie wine?

Wine is not slimming. The two components which contribute to its calorific value are alcohol and sugar, so the most fattening wines are strong reds from hot countries, plus dessert wines. The least calorific are dry whites and light reds from cool climates. It is by no means the case that white wine is less fattening than red, nor that dry wines are necessarily low in calories. The least calorific wines are bone dry and low in alcohol. Unchaptalised (i.e. fermented using only the sugars naturally present in the grapes) Dutch, Belgian, Danish, English and Luxembourgish perhaps?

Wines for special medical conditions

Diabetics should take care to choose bone dry wines, for example Chablis, Muscadet, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, Fino and Manzanilla sherry and most European red wines – so long as they are relatively low in alcohol. Wines sold specifically as Diabetic are usually low in both sugar and alcohol.

Many people find that their bodies react badly to either white or red wines. Since red wines contain a much wider range of components than white, the second of these reactions is easier to understand and some think it may reflect red wine's higher histamine content, others that it may have something to do with red wine’s higher charge of phenolics. It is possible that those white wines which have caused an allergic reaction are rather higher than most in sulphur and some asthmatics react particularly badly to this common food preservative. Natural wines (see above) may be the solution for those who wish to avoid sulphites. Much more research is needed in this area, but the wine trade is generally composed of people who react extremely well to wine and there has therefore been little enthusiasm for this research unfortunately.

Kosher wine

In order for a wine to be kosher, and therefore acceptable to religious Jews, it must have followed rabbinical law as to who has handled it throughout its production. The wine must only be handled by orthodox Jews, which adds significantly to the cost of production. For years kosher wine was pretty dire, mainly sweet, red and oxidised because it was so often poured from half-empty bottles (few people would drink it for pleasure). Since the 1980s however a number of kosher wines that are every bit as good as non-kosher wines have emerged, not all of them Israeli. The very expensive Ch Valandraud of St-Émilion for example was an early pioneer in the production of kosher Bordeaux wines, and other châteaux followed suit, producing kosher versions alongside their main cuvées. Many of these are indistinguishable from their non-kosher counterparts.

Vegetarian or vegan wines

Many wines are clarified by fining agents containing animal products such as egg whites, fish bladders and casein from milk; some wine producers deliberately use other fining agents so that they can label their produce as being suitable for vegetarians or vegans. It should be noted, however, that fining agents are not designed to remain in the finished wine.

Commercial wine mixes and coolers

Commercial bottled blends of fruit juices and wine had their moment as wine coolers and still sell. The development of artificial essences of peach, apricot, raspberry and so on helped this trade enormously. When it comes down to it, some of the best are duplications of the most successful fresh mixes of wine and fruit juice - orange juice and sparkling wine (Buck's Fizz) and peach juice and sparkling wine (Bellini). The commercial brands can taste a bit artificial however and are invariably very sweet.