Are they natural? organic? authentic? biodynamic? sustainable? or what?
Well let's start with the easy ones first, then move on to the more complex ones!
My wines are not biodynamic because I don't follow the biodynamic practices. I simply don't have the time to do all the things you're supposed to do on the right days. In principle, I would be willing to go biodynamic, but I'm also a bit skeptical still. I have nothing against it whatsoever, as the quality of the grapes produced will never be worse, and maybe it'll be better. Basically, in my opinion at the moment, it's the same as organic agriculture. It's just that I don't understand the esoteric parts of biodynamics, like burying horns, and stirring barrels of water, etc. Anyway, I shall just have to wait and see if I go biodynamic or not! I hope I do.
Another easy one is that I definitely produce organic grapes, though I'm not allowed to say so on my labels, because I'm not actually certified yet but I'm thinking about it. I'll probably apply for certification next year (2016). I've been working the vineyard in Carabaña organically for the last 12 years, and the one in Villarejo for just over 4 years. You'll just have to take my word for it! The only 'proof' I can provide is the photos and texts from this blog over the last 5 years or so (which of course could be completely false!) or I could provide the names and contacts of the hundreds of people who have been to the vineyard and winery!
I don't use any pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or any chemical whatsoever in the vineyard.
Every two years or so I add organic manure from a sheep and goat farm located in the mountains behind Madrid.
I also add back the canes from the pruning. After pruning, I leave the canes in the lanes between the rows of vines and in summer a tractor comes and at the same time cuts back the grass and plants and chops up the canes.
I can say that my wines are organic wines, but this is more tricky because of all the different legislations in different countries. I've been working completely organically, or naturally, or with minimum intervention in the winery for the last 12 years, and by default I don't add any substances at all to the must or wine; neither do I use any aggressive or intensive high-intervention processes. If I were certified, my wines would easily comply with any legislation.
New legislation was passed recently for organic wine in Europe. Starting with the 2012 vintage, there's actually now a legal concept of 'organic wine'; up to then there was just 'wine made from organic grapes'. Now the additives and interventions in the winery have been defined too. If I'm not mistaken, the permitted sulphite levels have been defined as 50 mg/l less than conventional wine, which would make the limits 100 mg/l for red wine and 150 mg/l for white wine. That's pretty high if you ask me! I imagine that the big industrial organic wine producers did their lobbying and got their way again. Oh well! I suppose that it's 'good' in the great scheme of things, as more of this type of wine will be produced and sold which is good for the environment (less chemicals used in the vineyard) and good for consumers' health (less residues and additives in the wine) and for vineyard workers' health too. But still, a lower limit would have been nice.
I believe that in the USA, the legislation is at the other extreme, ie no sulphites whatsoever may be added to organic wine. This seems a bit strict to me, and not very practical or useful; I mean there must be very, very few wineries that can label their wines as organic.
Even more tricky is deciding whether my wines are natural or not. Well, given the current lack of a legal or official definition, no-one (or everyone!) is able to say. My own personal thoughts on this issue are as follows: I don't see it as a clear-cut, yes/no, natural/not-natural dichotomy. I think that there is a scale of naturalness based on the number and types of interventions. So what I do is, publish information sheets on each type of wine we make, clearly stating what I add (if anything) and what I do and don't do to the wine. Then my consumers can decide for themselves just how natural my wines are. See this page for the information I published for my latest batches of wines which shipped to the USA in February 2013, April 2014 and in 2015.
I'm pretty sure that most of my wines could be classified as natural, even by the strictest criteria proposed by some natural wine producers/associations out there. Most of my wines don't even have sulphur added. Other wines I've made do have added sulphur, but even though the level is way below the limit for organic wines, some people would consider these wines not to be natural, or perhaps just less natural.
I think I can safely say that I'm well within the mainstream natural wine camp. Though I also have to say that I don't know if I really want to be there, because I don't like being pigeon-holed. My main goal is to produce good wines that express my terroir in an environmentally friendly manner, not to follow a dogma or ideology. I have nothing against interventions, as long as they don't mask or destroy the expression of the terroir, including the sensible use of sulphites, and as long as these intervention don't involve using chemicals.
There's a lot of confusion and misplaced criticism of natural wines out there. Some critics, based on the semantic, dictionary definition of the word 'natural' insist that there's no such thing as natural wine (because it's not natural to plant vines in rows, tend them during the year, crush the grapes in man-made machines, etc). IMO, this is just silly and a waste of time wine-wise. It's interesting from a linguistic point of view, ie how words in the English language can have multiple meanings, how new meanings evolve, and others die off, etc. Another criticism is that the term 'natural wine' is deceptive and hoodwinks potential consumers, which, again IMO, is unfounded. I think people are not so pedantic as to think of the dictionary definition of 'natural' when talking about natural wine or thinking of buying a bottle. Nobody these days thinks that 'organic' means 'composed of carbon atoms', which is the primary dictionary definition of the word! Anyway, consumers are bombarded every minute of the day by marketing messages, so I think we are quite inured to new sound-bites, and some quick due diligence, or searching on the internet can quickly clear up any questions or doubts.
Are my wines 'sustainable'? Well, to be brutally honest, I'd say I work as sustainably as I possibly can, given my limited resources (financial and human). There are many things that I do, and which I'm very proud of, and there are many things that I could do to be more sustainable but which I can't do at the moment.
The most important thing that I do which is sustainable, is organic agriculture in my own vineyards, and buying in organic grapes from other organic grape-growers. Also sustainable is my low-intervention approach in the winery, as this means I don't buy in chemical products.
Another thing I do is to recycle the wine bottles that my local clients return to me; this is a very time-consuming and horrible task to do (see this post) but which I feel is worth doing.
On the negative, unsustainable side, there are lots of examples: I use up a lot of water, because I can't afford a water-treatment plant. Yet! I don't have solar panels, or a gravity-driven winery, built out of environmentally friendly materials; I use internal combustion engines both to drive to and from the vineyards and winery, and for a tractor a few times per year; the materials of my equipment and machinery could have been selected more carefully, etc. These, and more, are all aspects that I hope to be able to deal with in the future.
Are my wines authentic? I believe so. My ultimate goal to produce wines that express the terroir of the place where the grapes come from in each vintage. For me, this means using grape varieties that are suitable to the climate, soil, altitude, etc, using organic, or biodynamic, or other environmentally respectful agriculture, correct and respectful husbandry during the year (ie, no forcing the vine to produce other than they should), and correct harvesting at the right time (ie hand harvesting, no extended hang-time, etc); then in the winery, no excessive manipulation/adulteration of the must or wine either with 'ingredients' or 'processes' or both. Only the minimum interventions really required.
On the other hand, this doesn't mean that I'll make a horrible wine, just because of the ideology of non-intervention. In an emergency, or due to special circumstances, I've nothing against necessary intervention. There's a fine line, or a common sense scale of interventions that winemakers should abide by, I believe. For example, by default I don't add sulphites to my wines, because I don't need to! My grapes are healthy, harvested by hand at the right time, and my equipment and machinery is super-clean. BUT, if for some specific reason, I have to use some sulphites, then I will. In fact, I have used some on a few occasions in the past; in amounts way below even the organic limits.
This concept of 'authentic' is difficult because it's closely tied to the concept of 'terroir'. This is complex enough already for places like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, etc where a critical mass of wine people have been talking about it and defining it for over 100 years. I have the added 'problem' of being in the middle of Spain, in La Mancha and in the Sierra de Gredos, where the terroir is not so well defined, or maybe not defined at all. A bit like certain New World wine regions. Also, as if this weren't enough, La Mancha wines (especially the Airén grape variety) are labouring under a very negative cultural and vinous baggage (for interesting historical, cultural and political reasons).
So what actually is an 'authentic' wine from La Mancha? Who can define that for me? What wines can I compare my own to? What actually is the terroir of the Tajuña Valley or of the Sierra de Gredos, where I'm located?
I also like to think that I make 'good' wines! Wines that can be drunk and enjoyed, and maybe even talked about. Not wines to be frowned at, or solved like a quadratic equation, or which fit into a category defined by mere market researchers! Cheers :)