Biodynamic wine remains an enigma to many people and not therefore a priority for most people when shopping for wine. This guide to biodynamic wine explains what biodynamics mean in terms of wine, how you can tell if a wine is biodynamic or not, what the differences are between organic and biodynamic wine and whether biodynamic wines are better for you.
I touched upon the subject of biodynamic wine in my blog post on natural wine and how natural wine differs from organic and biodynamic wine. The three terms are sometimes used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. Natural wine is still trying to secure a common identity and remains a somewhat confusing and controversial term. Organic wine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK as people look for healthier food and drink but biodynamic wine seems to be a mystery with a rather wacky reputation. Let’s see why…
What is biodynamics?
In the most simplistic terms biodynamics is farming without the use of any chemicals and taking a holistic approach by treating the farm or vineyard as one ecosystem. This approach is believed to reduce the carbon footprint and to improve the health of the soil. The rhythm and cycles of the moon, sun, earth, stars and planets may also be taken into account which is where biodynamics’ wacky reputation comes into play.
Biodynamics advocates claim it to be the world’s oldest system of organic growing but it was labelled biodynamics only in 1924 by Austrian philosopher and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. Considered the father of biodynamics, Steiner was concerned about the increasing use of synthetic fertilisers and mass farming techniques and lectured farmers about more sustainable agricultural methods which were subsequently researched and developed further.
Biodynamics & wine
In the wine world a biodynamic vineyard is treated as one living organism, taking into account the interdependence of all parts of the immediate environment, and it should be self-sustainable and self-supporting. To achieve biodynamically grown grapes, practices in the vineyard may include the following:
livestock which are allowed to roam to graze on cover crops between the vines and assist with natural compost production and
cover crops growing between the vines stop weeds and when turned over into the soil help to build up nutrients, break up compacted soil and encourage insects
biodynamic compost to encourage microbial diversity and to release carbon
planting and harvesting according to biodynamic calendars though this is not mandatory for certification
biodynamic preparations including:
worm tea instead of chemical insecticide and
soil treatments such as cow manure inside cow horns or intestines buried in the soil for several months in order to promote healthy plant growth.
These treatments are perhaps also partly to blame for the controversy around biodynamics.
What is biodynamic wine?
It is important however to differentiate between biodynamic wine and wine made from biodynamically grown grapes. Wine labelled as “wine made from biodynamic grapes” may not be biodynamic wine. How so?
The biodynamic practices required in the production of wine made from biodynamic grapes are limited to the vineyard but the winemaker will have more freedom in what he or she can add to, or take out of, the wine during the wine production process. For example they may choose to add bought in yeast rather than using the winery’s naturally occurring yeasts.
A truly biologically dynamic wine must be produced from biodynamic grapes AND follow strict regulations dictating the production of the wine in the winery. This effectively means that no artificial agents are permitted during the wine-making process. Using the above example a biodynamic wine can only be fermented with yeasts existing naturally in the winery. Even in organic wine production additional synthetic or natural substances can be used including:
sulphites or sulfites - up to certain limits
synthetic malolactic bacteria to aid malolactic fermentation
Biodynamic producers may also use the following practices:
leaving the wine unfiltered
bottling wine according to biodynamic calendars
using solar or wind energy generated in the vineyards.
Differences between biodynamic & organic wine
Both biodynamic and organic wines have to be produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical treatments in the vineyard but biodynamics goes further and, as mentioned above, has strict regulations about what can and can’t be done in the winery. The official requirements for all biodynamic food and drink, according to biodynamic association Demeter, “go above and beyond EU organic regulations … They not only exclude the use of synthetic fertilisers and chemical plant protection agents in agricultural crop production, and artificial additives during processing, but also require licensees to proactively take specific measures to strengthen the life processes in soil and in food.”
By this definition therefore biodynamic wine should contain no artificial substances – in theory. But when you dig down into the Demeter standards there are exceptions to the rules. For example, under certain conditions when a fermentation is stuck, bought-in yeast is allowed; sulphites can be added and, perhaps more surprisingly given its toxicity and the biodynamic focus on healthy soils, copper is also permitted. Bordeaux mixture is a copper sulphate and lime-based treatment that has been used for over 120 years to control downy mildew. The amounts of these substances and when they can be used are however strictly limited and in fact the EU has recently reduced the maximum permitted copper levels by a third. This may lead to a number of producers losing organic and or biodynamic certification until a natural alternative to Bordeaux mixture is found.
Despite these exceptions I think it is fair to say that biodynamic wine will generally have lower levels of artificial additives than organic wine – and that organic wine will have lower levels than non-organic wine.
How to find biodynamic wines
Biodynamic wines should be easily identifiable; look for the Demeter logo – often orange in colour or adapted as below on the label for Reyneke’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The Ceres logo by the way is organic certification.
The Demeter standard was established in 1928 and is used in c. 60 countries around the world. Certification of biodynamic grapes and of biodynamic wine is controlled by different bodies in each country – the Biodynamic Agricultural Association in the UK - to monitor the winemakers according to Demeter’s strict criteria. Conversion to biodynamics takes a minimum of three years – two to convert firstly to organic and an additional year for the more stringent biodynamic certification. Annual checks are carried out to ensure biodynamic principles continue to be applied. Only a small percentage of the world's vineyards are certified biodynamic though increasing numbers are striving to gain certification.
Wines may still be produced according to biodynamic principles as producers may be working towards certification or prefer to remain uncertified for whatever reason. Some of these producers may boast on the label of production "according to biodynamic principles" since they cannot use the Demeter logo or label their wine as biodynamic.
Are biodynamic wines better wines?
The Biodynamic Association states that biodynamics will “regenerate the health and vitality of our soils; restore the integrity of our food and promote the health and wholeness of our communities”. Demeter writes on its website that biodynamic producers are “creating healthy foods with distinctive taste, truly “Foods with Character”. Bold statements indeed.
Encouraging healthy soils can certainly produce healthier grapes. In terms of quality of wine, as with organic wines, it can be argued that less intervention in wine produces purer wines which are more reflective of their terroir. Also with a growing focus on healthier food and drink, wines with fewer additives look very attractive to consumers – although ironically that comes at a higher price.
Winemakers who go to the trouble of meeting the strict and costly criteria for biodynamic wine really care about how their wine is produced and so usually achieve the elements of high quality wine which are balance, complexity and a long finish. But there are also winemakers producing organic and non-organic that can produce wines with those elements.
And at the end of the day only you can be the judge of whether biodynamic wines taste better.
Are biodynamic wines vegan?
Some blogs and newspaper articles I have read claim that organic and/ or biodynamic wines are safe for vegans or for vegetarians but this is not strictly true. As I wrote in my blog on organic wines, if you take the definition of veganism to the letter even the use of animal manure would be banned, something which organic and biodynamic producers rely upon. I asked my vegan friends but most seem content with the idea of animal manure as fertiliser.
The use of cow horns and animal intestines to hold some of the biodynamic preparations in the vineyard however may take things too far for people who want to avoid the use of any animal parts, even if the animal in question had died naturally.
Is it worth buying biodynamic wines?
As alluded to above, biodynamic wines generally come with a higher price tag than conventional wines. It is probably worth the extra cost if:
you are really concerned about climate change and want to help make changes to the environment. Industrial farming and wine-making produce more greenhouse gas emissions than biodynamic foodstuffs and wine
if you want to drink wine that you know is made without the addition of synthetic substances
But biodynamic wine is not necessarily going to taste better though it should certainly taste more natural and vibrant than a low-end commercial wine.
Fully certified biodynamic wines are not very common – the extra cost puts some producers off and even some biodynamic producers are sceptical about some of the biodynamic preparations but admit their use doesn’t cause any harm. But biodynamic wine will become more popular - even some of the reputable Bordeaux châteaux have gained or are working towards certification. Producers who have made the conversion to biodynamics state that it leads to earlier and more even ripening of grapes even in some of the recent very hot vintages which is a good thing in the face of climate change concerns.
I suspect though that the “ideal” wine lies somewhere between biodynamic and organic wine. More wineries are producing organic wine and using some but not all biodynamic practices, mainly cutting out the use of additives which has got to be a good thing.
As regular readers of my wine blog posts and followers of Wines With Attitude will know that I like wines from smaller, artisanal producers who practise minimal intervention and let the wines speak for the terroir, the vintage and the condition of the grapes - see my blog post on terroir for more information. This usually means that these producers:
show respect for the environment and sustainability even if they do not always farm according to certified organic or biodynamic standards,
often harvest the grapes by hand,
use yeasts that occur naturally in the winery rather than adding any manufactured (specifically cultured) yeast,
do not add vitamins or enzymes or intervene with the natural acidity, tannins or sugar of the wine (something that commercial wine producers regularly do)
do not alter alcohol in wine by harsh processes such as spinning or reverse osmosis
add minimal (or no) sulphur
Not all Wines With Attitude wines are certified biodynamic or organic - but I ensure that they are all tasty and all of high quality.
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