Organic and Biodynamic Wine - Simplified

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ORGANIC & BIODYNAMIC WINE – SIMPLIFIED
By Hilarie Larson

 

If you enjoy wine, chances are you’ve encountered many confusing terms on winery websites or restaurant wine lists.  In an ongoing campaign to de-mystify the world of wine, it’s time to talk dirty – vineyard dirt, that is.

“We grow our wines with Biodynamic principles!” states one winery while another boasts “Our vineyards are sustainably farmed”.  All well and good, you may say, but what exactly does it all mean? Do these practices make a difference in my glass? And why should I even care?

 

As in many areas of modern life, wine growers and producers are looking at their place in the world and their effects upon our planet. Wine is a food product and leaves an environmental footprint – either large or small – and for many consumers, what’s in their wine influences their purchasing decision. Some may opt for convenience and are happy to enjoy mass produced ‘grocery shelf wines’ that are sold at lower prices and deliver a consistent product, vintage to vintage. Others prefer a more ‘conscious’ world view in their glass and like to know how the grapes were grown and how much, if any, interference took place at the winery.

 

Here’s a look at the three main philosophies of winegrowing.

 

Sustainable viticulture is widely practiced throughout the world’s wine regions. The basic principle is to leave the earth the same or, hopefully, better than one found it. Although there are no official, certifying institutions, growers and wineries follow guidelines set forth by The Winegrowers Sustainable Trust or the Lodi Rules that support biodiversity in the vineyard, social responsibility, a positive environmental impact, and resource conservation.

 

When you visit a sustainable winery, you might notice nesting boxes to encourage birds of prey to make the vineyards their home and feast on pesky mice, rodents and rabbits.  In the spring you’ll see an abundance of ‘cover crops’ between the rows of vines. Composed of legumes, clover, millet, buckwheat and other grains, these grasses create a diverse biosphere welcoming beneficial insects such as bees, spiders and ladybugs. Eventually, they’ll be either plowed back into the soil or devoured by visiting sheep, creating a natural, healthy fertilizer for the vines.

 

During the winemaking process, leftover skins, seeds and stems (aka pomace) is often recycled back into the vineyard and winemakers make every effort to conserve water and resources.

 

Organic Viticulture takes sustainability up a notch. To be ‘Certified Organic’ in the United States, vineyards need to go through a strict, three-year strategy and be approved by the USDA’s National Organic Program, known as NOP.  In addition to using cover crops and natural predators, organic growers are faced with a long list of banned, inorganic substances. Instead of ‘illegal’ chemical fertilizers, for example, they may employ compost or manure. The goal is no toxic chemicals in the vineyard and nothing synthetic.

 

Strict practices rule the wine cellar, too; no GMOs allowed, no added sulfites, any additions to the wine must be certified organic and cleaning agents must be deemed safe to humans.

 

How do you know if a wine is truly organic? It can be a bit confusing! If a label states “Organic Wine” then it must be made from a minimum of 95% organic grapes and vinified without any additional sulfur or other prohibited substances.  “Made with Organic Grapes” means that although 70 – 100% of the fruit was grown organically, the winemaker may have added some additional sulfur. This same terminology is used for organic wines made outside the United States, even if they are truly organic, as certifications from other nations are not recognized.

  • A Dynamizer - used to create Biodynamic preparations
    A Dynamizer - used to create Biodynamic preparations

Biodynamic Viticulture is often looked upon as ‘kooky’, ‘wacky’, and  ‘out -there’ by much of the mainstream wine industry, but more and more, people are beginning to appreciate some of the attributes of this ‘off beat’ practice.

 

Conceived in the early 1920’s by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner (of Waldorf School fame) Biodynamics is a holistic way of embracing the earth and all that grows in it.  It’s about looking at the vineyard and winery as one, cohesive, self-sustaining unit that lives in harmony with nature, gravity, the rhythm of the planets and the seasons. Vineyards co-exist with heritage orchards, chickens, sheep and indigenous forests. It’s all about balance between the vine, man and the earthly environment – all one, living, inter-connected entity.

 

Every activity, from planting to opening a bottle of wine, is guided by a special calendar.  Days, or portions of days, are defined by one of the four ‘energy forces’ – Fruit (warmth) Flower (light) Leaf (liquid) or Root (mineral), which revolve around lunar cycles. Much like the familiar “Farmer’s Almanac’, certain days are deemed better for certain tasks  – harvesting on a ‘leaf’ day, for example, would not be a good idea but planting on a root day might be optimal!

 

Like Organic practices, synthetic chemicals are not permitted. Instead, special preparations, created from natural ingredients are produced in specifically prescribed ways and used in the vineyard to create optimal soil diversity and plant health. 

 

This is where some find the whole Biodynamic thing starts to get a little bit ‘kooky’ as many of these ‘preparations’ begin with cow horns. While this may seem a bit odd, cultures though the millennia have viewed animal horns as having life enhancing properties. The common Thanksgiving symbol of the cornucopia, a sign of abundance and plenty, is based on the shape of an animal horn.

 

The horns are filled with manure, which are buried at the Autumn Equinox and unearthed at the Spring Equinox. The contents are mixed with water to create a tea, which will be sprayed on the vines to stimulate and enhance microbes in the soil and promote strong root growth.

 

A variety of tinctures, made from flowers like Chamomile, Yarrow, and Stinging Nettles, are all created using a unique machine. The ‘Dynamizer’ is quite simple in appearance – a barrel with a paddle mechanism at the bottom and a timer that controls the mixing, in both clockwise and counterclockwise motions, for specified durations. Believers consider this action creates ‘chaos’, mixing the ‘memory’ of the water with the energy of the planets, thereby allowing the final solution to transmit all the combined vibrations to the plants.

 

There are several regulatory bodies that certify Biodynamic vineyards and wineries. Demeter International (named after the Greek goddess of agriculture) was formed in Europe in 1928 and certified the first US vineyard in 1982. It oversees a variety of agricultural disciplines.  Biodyvin is strictly European and specifies that all vineyards must be certified Organic for at least four years prior to approval and that winemaking must also adhere to Biodynamic principles including no additives, sulfur or commercial yeasts. Their motto “Nothing added, nothing taken out, nothing changed’ truly sums up the Biodynamic philosophy.

 

In the end, however, the proof is in the glass.  Do any of these strategies make a difference to the final product? 

 

Many will say that the wines have greater character and show more of a sense of place or ‘terroir’. Devotees swear the aromatics are intensified and fresher. Perhaps it matters if you open the bottle on the proper day of the Biodynamic calendar or if the stars are in perfect alignment. 

 


Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

North Winds Wine Consulting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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