A Toast to Biodynamic Wine
One of the hottest trends in wine today is not bubbly rosé or exotic eastern European varietals, but biodynamics. While biodynamic wines are popping up on more menus, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the term and it can be challenging for consumers to know what they are getting.
Unpacking the term biodynamics, think of it as organic 2.0. We have a general idea of what it means to be organic, but different standards and measurements within countries make even that a little tough to understand. When we make wine, there are two big steps in the process. The first is growing the grapes. Farmers can choose to spray the fields and use chemical agents to reduce disease and insects or choose to eliminate (or minimize) these products. Some of these agents include copper sulfate and glyphosate-based weed killers.
After the grapes are grown and harvested, the producer then needs to convert those grapes into wine. In a non-organic transformation process, polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVPP) and other elements can be used for fining and filtering can occur with ion exchange resins.
There is a large debate on the heath impacts of these and other chemicals to grow and process grapes into wine, however, more and more people don’t want to take the risk and avoid them completely. For example, while copper and sulphur both exist in nature, it may not be a good idea to spray any of it on thin-skinned grapes.
The movement to reduce and eliminate these practices gave rise to organic wine. In the United States, the USDA set standards to normalize labels, by creating a standard for wine. Wine labels may state either “made with organic grapes” or “organic wine” (which means organic grapes and organic processing). The UDSA created a list of acceptable non-agricultural products that could be found in the wine and also set levels of Sulphur used to preserve the wine after bottling. Europe also set standards for organic wine, although they differ from the U.S. For example, Europe prohibits certain stabilizers in the wine like mannoproteins. Europe says it is ok to have ammonium phosphate, used to start secondary fermentation in sparkling wine, the U.S. says no. Many, especially smaller, wineries can’t afford the certification process but still following the organic guidelines. So, as a consumer, with variety in countries and labels it can be tough to find authentic organic wine.
Biodynamics adopts the philosophy of organics but goes much further. The philosophy of biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the mid-1920s. His contention was that “use of chemical fertilizers would lead to the decline of soil, plant and animal health and the subsequent devitalization of food.” Beyond simply avoiding fertilizers and chemical agents, however, biodynamics promotes biodiversity and the integration of crops and animals and works to establish a “closed-loop” system of soil fertility. Balance is important, as is the awareness of moon cycles and weather conditions and how the environment impacts farming. When you hear people talk about biodynamics, they use words like balance and harmony and discuss ways to avoid negative impacts on the planet. These are the goals of biodynamics.
Undoubtedly, a growing consumer interest in helping the environment and making better health choices is causing an increased interest in biodynamic wine, but another significant reason for the success of biodynamic wine is the taste. Characteristically, biodynamic wines have a pure expression of the “place” where they are produced. The French call this concept terroir, and the minimal interventionist winemaker has the ability to express the unique nature of the soil, climate and varietals of grapes in the wine. Biodynamic wines have a much more varied flavor profile and more distinct regions are developing their signature grapes and wines.
Producing biodynamic wines is not easy and varies greatly depending on where the winery is located in the world. For example, northern European regions like Champagne in France, or Rías Baixas in Spain have challenging weather and without a lot of intervention, find greatly reduced yields (and revenue). That is why you find many more biodynamic wines in areas with sunny, dry (or breezy) climates.
Just because biodynamics is difficult in certain climates, does not mean it is impossible. One of my favorite biodynamic producers is Vincent Couche in Champagne. Instead of chemicals, he sprays herbal teas and plant-based solutions like nettle, horsetail, wicker, thyme, and queen flower. He chooses these sprays based on the properties to help the vines fight against excess heat and disease. Part of his estate is also vinified without Sulphur. I would argue that his Champagne is one of the most flavorful and expressive Champagnes in the world. The small winery, Bodegas Corisca, in Rías Baixas creates a wine from the Albariño grape that is extremely complex and expressive. After harvest, fermentation is spontaneous and Bodegas Corisca only uses natural yeasts, and then rests the wine on its lees.
While not ubiquitous, there is a standard for biodynamic wine, called Demeter. For biodynamic certification, the Demeter standard is much more extensive and has a “greater emphasis on on-farm solutions for disease, pest, and weed control” in addition to tighter controls around non-local fertilizers, water conservation and biodiversity. Although this is the gold standard for biodynamic wine, many wineries have not sought the certification because of the significant cost.
The best way to try biodynamic wine is to work through wine shops, bars and restaurants that have a focus on biodynamics and source their wines from producers. Try experimenting with biodynamic and non-biodynamic and organic wine and see if you can taste the difference.
About Michael Biddick
From computer programmer to wine scholar: Michael Biddick has disrupted century’s old systems of judging wine by creating an algorithm to systematically uncover the best wine regions in the world. In his recent award winning release, 43 Wine Regions (Mascot Books, Oct. 2018), Biddick broadens the palates of wine drinkers by offering practical and enjoyable visual infographics that clearly show why these 43 wine regions are so magical. A former contributing technology editor at Information Week and Network Computing magazines, Biddick uses accessible analytics to help people professionally understand wine culture. Biddick founded one of the fastest growing information technology firms in the country in 2009 and earned a Master of Science in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. Biddick is currently head sommelier and owner at Blend 111 organic food and wine bar in Vienna, Virginia outside Washington D.C. Biddick speaks English, Spanish and French. He is also a Master of Bordeaux wine, a certified French Wine Scholar (FSW) and was trained by the Court of Master Sommeliers.