What are Organic and Biodynamic wines?
Updated: Jun 6
Organic wines are produced by organic agriculture, without the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard or winery. Biodynamics add cosmic energies into the mix.
For long, derided or dismissed as producing poor quality wines, some of the most storied and expensive wines in the world are now produced according to organic or biodynamic principles. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti; Chateau Lafite-Rothschild; Cristal. All avail themselves of organic and biodynamic practices. The biggest exponents of terroir have come to recognise that prioritising the health of the soil is the first step in producing better wines, as well as to creating a vineyard that can continue to be passed on through the generations. This quality revolution is being felt all over the wine world; vineyards are created and tended to in a way that recognise them as living organisms that need to be looked after, rather than exploited to produce as high a commercial yield as possible.
Although the specific rules may differ from country to country, the overarching aim in organic viticulture is 1) follow best environmental practices 2) increase biodiversity and 3) improve soil fertility. This is achieved by avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals. Conventional agriculture, through the use of fertilisers, pesticides etc. can be hostile to soil health, soil structure and the local ecosystem through toxic run-off into groundwater and the local food chain. Although it is possible to use these responsibly to minimise environmental risks, eliminating them entirely is challenging.
Biodiversity, soil fertility and protecting the local ecosystem are goals in themselves to be pursued. That they can improve the quality of the product is also a side-benefit. Like any product, there are good and bad organic wines. But in general the trend is for happier vines that produce higher quality grapes. And higher quality grapes = better quality wines. So how do they do this?
Grapes are grown without the use of any synthetic chemicals in the form of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Instead, naturally occurring chemicals in the form of copper and sulphur are permitted to ward of fungal diseases, alongside other natural methods including compost (fertiliser), cover crops (weed competition) and sexual confusion (insects). Warm, dry climates make this easier – think southern France, Spain, central and Southern Italy, compared to cold and wet environments like the Mosel in Germany.
Organics extends to the cellar as well, where you’d be surprised at how many synthetic chemicals can make it into a wine. In organic wine making, only organic products can be used. Sulphites are permitted, but at lower level than in conventional wines.
Check the back label of a bottle to see if they’re certified. The majority of producers that are certified will include it on the label as evidence that they are committed to the process and not just including organics as part of their marketing materials for a sales boost. However, certification comes with a monetary cost each year and for smaller producers, it might not make financial sense to certify. For others who have farmed this way for many years, they don’t need an external body to confirm they are farming organically.
Celestial rhythms. Cosmic energies. Chamomile, stuffed into a cow intestine for six months, then buried for another six months. Confused? Biodynamics is the kooky and sometimes baffling relative of organics. It too forbids the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and winery, but then takes things a little further.
Created by Rudolf Steiner as a reaction to the rapidly industrialising world post-WWI, biodynamics is the oldest alternative agricultural movement and is a holistic system that aims to treat the farm (or vineyard) as a self-sufficient whole. 9 preparations (treatments sprayed onto vines or put into manure) are essential, according to Steiner, for imbuing the soil and everything that grows in it with cosmic energy. This cosmic energy is then transmitted to humans and nourishes us both physically and spiritually. If that sounds bizarre, you’re not alone. But the proof is in the pudding. Worldwide, wines produced according to these principles have been noted for their complexity, balance (lower alcohol levels and increased flavour concentration, which is a benefit in a warming climate) and for their quality. Whatever it is that’s going on in the soil and the winery, there have been some brilliant results.
Often practices will follow the lunar calendar, e.g. planting, pruning, harvesting and racking (process of transferring wine from one container to another), are determined by the lunar calendar and biodynamic practitioners swear by it.
In the winery, the focus is on low-intervention winemaking, more so than in organics. Yeast, the essential ingredient in all fermentation, should be indigenous (from the vineyard, winery or on the grape skins itself) rather than commercial (purchased from a lab). The aim is for healthy grapes and a healthy microbial ecosystem to allow for a quick and healthy fermentation, without the need for the many modern accoutrements that can be found in the cellar..It is common to see wines that are unfiltered and unfined, i.e. for the wine to be slightly cloudy and with a small sediment. The belief is that clarifying the wine to produce a clear liquid with no visible particles would remove both an element of flavour and obscure the expression of the wine. Permitted sulphites are lower still than organics and it is common to see no added sulphites in biodynamic wines
If you’re looking for products made with a focus on more sustainable methods, organic and biodynamic wines are a great place to start. Often small-scale production, interesting wines made by farmers with a focus on making great wines in an environmentally-conscientious manner.