Organic and Natural Wines in Portugal

Organic. Biodynamic. Natural. Vegan. Portugal bets on a sustainable wine-making future. An overview of these wine production methods and three Portuguese wineries that should be on your radar.

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portuguese organic wines
When it comes to Portuguese wine, what’s in a label?  A lot, it turns out.
As you may already now, certifications on wine labels everywhere serve as a shorthand for consumers so that they can be confident what’s in the bottle was actually produced in a way that matches what winemakers claims they did – or didn’t do – during the production process.  But who’s certifying the wine, and what exactly they are certifying, can vary quite a bit from country to country, or from independent certifying organization to independent certifying organization, especially when it comes to the world of organic, natural, and vegan wines, and those made with biodynamic farming methods.
Uf, that’s a mouthful.
In this post, we’ll compare these categories and talk about how Portugal fits into the global sustainability picture.  While it’s important to note that organic, natural, vegan, and biodynamic wines are technically different, it’s also true that there’s a large degree of overlap here.  That’s because producers who value certain elements of one of these wine production methods tend to value elements of the other methods, since they all hang together in terms of producers’ relationship to the land, environmental quality, and the health of both people and animals.  
I love a good Venn diagram, so we’ll try to iron out this word salad visually as we make our way through these different winemaking methods. 
wine production methods
As a preview of coming attractions, organic wine is the largest category of the four we’ll be talking about.  You can have a wine that is 1) organic, natural, and vegan – or just two out of three; 2) biodynamic, organic, and natural – or just two out of three; but 3) NOT all four at the same time.  And that’s in Portugal or anywhere.
The question you might be asking yourself, though, if you’re not a convert already, is whether any of this matters once you get the wine in the glass.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an organic and a conventional wine in a blind tasting, although some studies have suggested organic wines are rated more highly by professional wine tasters.  Of course, wine tasting is all psychological anyway: if you expect an organic (or natural or vegan or biodynamic) wine to taste better, it will
Still, all things being equal I appreciate the environmental stewardship and craftsmanship Portuguese organic winemakers invest in their wines.  Furthermore, all winemakers in Portugal, organic or conventional, will need to get ahead of the climate change curve: unpredictable weather patterns with greater intensity, heat waves in the Mediterranean, and lower levels of rainfall mean that the future of Portuguese wine depends upon developing sustainable agriculture now.  I’m happy to put my wine dollars to work in service of that goal.
I’ll wrap up this post with three Portuguese wineries you should check out on your next wine purchase.
Want to skip the backgrounder and go straight to the wine?  Section links below.

Organic Wine

We’ll start first with the organic label, which is the most common and probably most familiar to people. 
Organic certification comes from national governments or governmental bodies like the European Union – of which Portugal is a member – and what qualifies as organic in one country may not qualify in another.  In general, however, wines labeled as organic are produced with organic grapes grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, as well as organic yeasts and any other input in the winemaking process, and no (or low) additional sulfites may be added beyond those naturally occurring in fermentation.  As a point of comparison, organic wines in the United States have lower levels of sulfites than organic wines in Europe.
EU organic certification label
Look for the EU organic certification label when shopping for anything organic in Portugal
Portugal is becoming an important global player in organic agriculture generally.  According to The World of Organic Agriculture’s 2021 report, 1.5% of the world’s farmland is organic, but in Portugal it’s 8.4% (the United States comes in at a distant 0.6%) and Portugal was the sixth-highest country in the world to contribute most to global growth in organic agricultural land.  In the case of grapes specifically, 2.2% of Portuguese grape crops are organic. 
Most organic wine, or vinho biológico, is concentrated in the Douro region and in central Portugal.  The regional leader is Trás-os-Montes with 36% of total organic wine production in the country, followed by the Alentejo with 28%, though in terms of acres planted Alentejo is the leader.  That’s because those larger quantities of vines in the south tend to be less productive than those in the north due to the poorer soil quality.
The bottleneck in future growth of Portuguese organic wine seems to lie not in organic agriculture itself, but in the vinification and aging processes, where it is more difficult and expensive to be 100% organic.  Perhaps for this reason, the overwhelming majority of Portuguese organic wine also carries a DOC appellation.  Portuguese DOC wine – or denominação de origem controlada (protected designation of origin), which signifies that wines produced in a particular DOC region in Portugal meet production standards not required of regular table wine – are already more time and labor intensive to produce, and fetch a higher retail price.  Winemakers investing in DOC wines may not find it as difficult a leap from DOC to organic compared to producers of table wines.
Organic wine is still a relatively small slice of the Portuguese domestic market, but the trend line is going up.  The largest hypermarket chain in Portugal, Continente, recently launched its own line of organic wines.

Natural Wine

The word “organic” just sounds like it must logically mean “natural” but in terms of winemaking, natural wines are something slightly different. 
Natural wine, sometimes called low-intervention or traditional wine, aims at keeping the winemaking process to as few additional ingredients beyond fermented grapes as possible, and as few artificial production methods as possible.  That usually means no additional yeasts or sulfites, hand picking the grapes from the vine instead of with machines, and not filtering or clarifying the wine with other products as is customary in conventional winemaking.  As a consequence, natural wines are sometimes described as “cloudy” looking.  However, unlike organic wine, there is no broadly accepted definition of what natural wine is or an international certification for it.  France has recently tried by launching a natural wine certification for French winemakers, though the EU itself does not explicitly recognize “natural” as a production method.
In principle, natural wines are also organic, according to Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, and Vox,  but because there is no certification for natural wine, and because organic certification is time consuming and expensive, if the wine is organic and natural, and it’s going to be labelled anything at all, it’s probably going to be labelled organic.  Natural wine may have some other euphemism on the label, like “handmade” or “artisanal” or “no sulfites added” to differentiate itself from conventional wine.  In sum, organic wine may or may not be natural, but natural wine is usually organic.
natural vs organic wine
Overlap between natural and organic wine
Natural wine, or vinho natural, is relatively new in Portugal, and, like in the United States, it tends to be a boutique product with limited production, primarily marketed to a hip, non-conformist audience.  (No pejoratives intended there.)  Other than a funky label instead of a family crest, natural wine is also harder to spot on the shelf.  Most retailers in Portugal who sell organic wines will usually have a combined “organic and natural wines” section, where you either have to sift through a list online or physically go to the wine shop and ask. Since natural wines will most likely continue to be the province of small, artisanal producers – whereas organic wine can be produced more easily at industrial scale – we’re likely to see the Portuguese natural wine market expand in the future, though perhaps not quite as much as organic wine. But here again, the trend line is up: bars and restaurants in Lisbon and Porto are now coming out with natural wines on their wine lists.

Vegan Wine

Just as in any part of a vegan diet or lifestyle, vegan wine eschews the use of animal products in any part of the winemaking process.  When I was first introduced to the concept of vegan wine, I admit to being taken aback to discover that it was even possible to use animal products in a drink made primarily from grapes.  But animal products such as egg whites or gelatin are often used to clarify wine – that is, to remove naturally occurring sediment after fermentation. Vegan wines, on the other hand, use alternative, non-animal products in clarification, such as vegetable-based proteins or minerals. 
Unlike organic certification, certified vegan wine doesn’t vary from country to country.  You can’t have some animal products in the wine and still call yourself vegan.  Look for the internationally recognized, green V-Label on the bottle to identify Portuguese vegan wines. 
Vegan certification from V-Label
Vegan certification from V-Label
If you’re also concerned about your wine keeping to low-intervention or traditional production methods, natural wine is usually vegan as well.  That’s because natural wine does not use fining agents to clarify wine, so they are not even considering animal products for the process. 
vegan vs natural wine
Overlap between vegan and natural wine
Vegetarianism and veganism in Portugal have grown considerably in the last decade or so, particularly in new restaurant openings and clothing lines. (I talk about sustainable and ethical clothing brands in Portugal here.)  However, it still tends to be most common as a lifestyle and diet choice among the young and urban
You can use the Barnivore database to find “vegan friendly” wine in Portugal – and other countries as well –  though most of it isn’t available in the US market. But look on the bright side.  Now you can add vegan wine to your list of reasons to spend more time in Portugal.

Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic wine begins from a philosophical position applied to agricultural practices.  The idea is that the farm or vineyard should aspire to be a self-sustaining system – much like a forest, for example – and nothing needs to be added from outside the system (i.e., chemical fertilizers or pesticides) and nothing should be taken away from it (i.e., practices that strip the soil of its nutrients). 
The biodynamic movement originated in the early 20th century and included following the lunar calendar and even astrology, but today these less scientifically robust practices are a more marginal part of biodynamic agriculture in general.  However, biodynamic agriculture, including wine, does still follow its own calendar divided into dedicated watering, pruning, and harvesting days. There are also other unconventional practices, such as burying cow horns filled with compost in order to create fertilizer.  Needless to say, biodynamic wine is not vegan, but it is organic
biodynamic vs organic vs vegan wine
Overlap between biodynamic, organic, and vegan wines
Similar to vegan certification, certified biodynamic wines don’t change practices from country to country like organic certification does.  The primary biodynamic certifying organizations are Demeter and, in Europe, Biodyvin. There are only a handful of Portuguese certified producers at Demeter and Biodyvin, however, we shouldn’t take this as an indicator that many of the main biodynamic agricultural principles are not taken seriously in Portugal. 
The Programa de Sustentabilidade dos Vinhos do Alentejo or PSVA certifies Alentejo wine producers according to good water management practices, respect for biodiversity, renewable energy use, and local community engagement.  The New York Times included the Alentejo region in its 52 Places for a Changed World for this reason.  Following the Alentejo example, Portugal now has a national sustainability certification.  The Referencial Nacional de Certificação de Sustentabilidade do Sector Vitivinícola or RN aims for a similar set of objectives for wine producers throughout the country.  
alentejo sustainable wine
Certified sustainable wines produced in the Alentejo
portugal sustainable wine
Certified sustainable wines produced throughout Portugal
It’s important to point out here that sustainable wine production in Portugal isn’t just a marginal activity for small “hippie” growers.  (Sorry, hippies.  I know you get a bad rap.) In fact, one of the most important winemakers in the Alentejo, Herdade do Esporão, is also the largest organic wine producer in the country.  (I compared two Esporão red wines here in the series Same Maker, Different Wine that you might want to check out.)  The Symington Family Estates, one of the most important Port wine producers in Portugal and one of the magazine Drinks International‘s “Most Admired Wine Brands”, was the first company to receive the Portuguese national sustainability certification for wine

Portuguese Wineries to Check Out

Below are three wineries, with a few of their wines, that fit the bill for organic, biodynamic, or natural wines.

Aphros

Led by Vasco Croft, Aphros wines are biodynamic and organic. 
aphros vinhao
Aphros Phaunus Pet Nat Rose
Aphros Vinho Verde Loureiro

Esporão

Herdade do Esporão, or just Esporão for short, is one of the largest winemakers in the Alentejo region, and the largest organic winemaker in Portugal. The wines below are organic, and I compare two of their conventionally made red wines here if you want to learn more.

Wine & Soul

Wine & Soul is a boutique, low-intervention winery featuring wines produced by the traditional method of crushing the grapes: by foot, or pisa a pé.
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