Monday, December 14, 2009

Bio? Dynamic! Part 1

I’m always on the lookout for wines certified as biodynamic, organic, or even natural. But what do those terms mean? And why make the effort to look for them?

First off, Biodynamic, organic, and natural are not synonyms, although they do have elements in common.

Organic: Let’s start with organic. Organic viticulture (growing the grapes) avoids the nasty synthetic stuff like fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and anything genetically modified. Organic growers focus on:
  • improving the health of the soil, and
  • long-term prevention, rather than short-term cure, in dealing with problems.
Organic vintners improve soil health mostly through composting, which boosts water- and nutrient-retention as well as root penetration. Because they draw more nutrients from the soil, the grapes from organic vines should be more reflective of their specific terroir. With rare exceptions (see natural wines, below), organic practices do not extend to winemaking and so winemakers may use sulphites and various non-organic clarification agents. Like most agriculture standards, certification of organic viticulture is generally organized nationally, and so the definition of “organic” can vary from one country to the next.

Biodynamic: Rudolf Steiner developed the concept of Biodynamics in the 1920s. Biodynamics treats the vineyard as a self-sustaining closed system: everything that the vineyard needs comes from within the vineyard. Because it’s self-sustaining, the vineyard usually integrates with other forms of agriculture. Like organics, which is where most Biodynamic growers start, Biodynamics prohibits synthetic stuff. From there, Biodynamics uses specially-prepared homeopathic sprays (made of manure-stuffed horns and horn silica…holy cow!) and compost, preferably generated within the vineyard. These mixtures are applied – OK, this gets a bit weird – based on seasonal, solar, lunar, and astrological cycles. Numerous other practices in Biodynamics seem irrational to many people, including me, and some winegrowers adopt only some of Steiner’s practices. Like organic, there’s a distinction between Biodynamic grapes and Biodynamic wine. A biodynamic wine starts with grapes that are farmed biodynamically, and then winemaker does not use artificial yeasts, or adjust the sugar or acidity. Wines "made from biodynamic grapes" means that a vintner used biodynamically grown grapes, but followed “conventional” techniques in winemaking. The internationally-recognized Demeter Association provides most Biodynamic certifications, although there are rival organizations.

Natural: There’s more buzz lately about “natural” wines. There don’t seem to be any verifiable standards for natural wines, but descriptions include:
  • Handpicked, organically or biodynamically grown grapes
  • Low-yielding vineyards
  • No added sugars, no artificial yeasts
  • No fining or filtration
  • No adjustments for acidity
  • No other additives for mouth-feel, colour, etc
  • No micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis
  • Little or no added sulphites
In my next post, we'll look at why these wines are worth seeking out.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dave, will you be coming to Montpellier in January 2011 for Millésime Bio by any chance? If you do, please get in touch; I represent a number of Languedoc-Roussillon organic vintners and would be pleased to hear from you. Best wishes, Louise Hurren louisehurren (at) wanadoo (dot) fr