In an era of drastic climate change, everyone is looking for ways to be a little greener. Just look at the rise of organic products in grocery stores. The same shift is happening in the wine world. We have organic wine, we have organically grown grapes, but we also have biodynamic wine — a holistic view of agriculture that predates the development of organic farming by about 20 years. We all know that the quality of wine is determined from the ground up. In other words, your wine is only as good as the grapes used to make it. Biodynamic farming is guided by this principle.
The idea is to create a self-sustaining system in which the vineyard is viewed as one organism with the aim of leaving the land in as good or better condition as it was found for future generations. But more on what biodynamic farming and biodynamic wine are below.
Officially, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association defines biodynamic farming as a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production, and nutrition. The philosophy behind biodynamics is the emphasis on what the land can do, not what we can do with the land. The idea is to contribute, not exploit. Wines that are labeled as biodynamic are those that are produced in a vineyard that has created this type of sustainable ecosystem in which winemakers allow nature to do the work.
The biological aspect involved companion planting and the use of animals throughout the farm, such as ducks and sheep to help control populations of bugs and for fertilization. The dynamic effects include planning and planting by the lunar calendar and biodynamic composting.
The origins of biodynamics can be traced back to the 1920s from the teachings of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner issued guidelines for biodynamic farming to help those who complain their soil was losing its health due to artificial fertilizers. The guidelines instructed farmers to follow an astronomic calendar in which each day coincides with one of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The days were, and still are, organized into fruit days, root days, leaf days, and flower days. These days guided farmers on what should be done on the vineyards: fruit days were for harvesting, root days for pruning, leaf days for watering, and on flower days you should leave the vineyard alone.
This biodynamic method became more popular over the decades. However, it was only in the 1980s when it really hit the wine world: Nicolas Joly, a Loire Valley vineyard owner, took the teachings of Steiner and applied them to his vineyards with great success. Today he is one of the pioneers and leading personalities of biodynamic wines.
Image credits: Wine Folly
So how is biodynamic wine actually made? This is where things can get a little hippy-dippy for some people, nevertheless, it has proven to produce great results for the land and the wines. As we just mentioned, biodynamics takes into account the cosmic rhythm, following the lunar calendar to determine what to do in the vineyards on any given day. So, let’s take a deeper dive into this.
The idea behind the lunar calendar is that plants react to every aspect of their environment, and so farming should likewise consider every component: planting, pruning, and harvesting according to the moon’s cycles will help harness nature’s energy. The shrinking moon pulls energy down and inward, priming the preparation and strengthening phase of the plant cycle and thus making it a good time to plant and prune crops. The growing moon, on the other hand, pulls energy up and out of the ground, making it the right time to harvest.
The next element of biodynamic farming is compost. There are different types and methods that can be used, yet the most popular, and the most intriguing, is preparation 500. In other words, cow horns stuffed with manure compost. These are then buried in the ground through the winter, then dug up, and the stuffed material is mixed with water and sprayed throughout the vineyard. While it sounds a bit like hocus pocus, preparation 500 has shown to stimulate soil microbial activity, regulate pH, stimulate seed germination, and dissolve minerals.
Essentially, the concept is that everything in the universe is interconnected and everything gives off energy. Biodynamic wine follows these principles, farming all components on the vineyard as a whole without the use of chemicals and only using natural composts and materials, as well as abiding by the biodynamic calendar. In short, biodynamics is an energy management system.
Examples of biodynamic wine producers:
Now, you might be wondering what the difference is between organic and biodynamic wine. First, let’s define what organic wine is. Organic wine is produced from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. All additional ingredients must also be certified organic. In order to legally be able to label a wine as organic, wineries must adhere to a long list of requirements set by their home country’s governing body of agriculture.
Now, while all of this is true as well of biodynamic wine there is a heavier emphasis on the interconnectivity of living organisms, the earth, and the cosmos. As a result, biodynamic wines follow much stricter and more complex guidelines than organic certifications when it comes to on-farm solutions for disease, pest, and weed control, and in-depth specifications on water conservation and biodiversity. These guidelines are overseen by Demeter International or Biodyvin, which can be recognized by the official seal on those bottles that pass all requirements.
Another key difference is in the use of sulfites. While in the US organic wines are not allowed any sulfites, biodynamic wines can contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites. Nevertheless, the draw to biodynamics is linked to the draw to all-natural and sustainable products. While there are organic wines, for some this may not be green enough. Biodynamics on the other hand is the most dedicated to preserving the earth’s resources.
This brings us to the key question for most: does biodynamic wine taste different from non-biodynamic wine? While many would love to say yes. The answer depends on the quality of the grapes and a quality winemaker. While the theory with biodynamic wines is that because the vineyards yield grapes in fewer bunches, the flavors will be more concentrated. However, the reality is that difference is subtle at the best. You have to be a good winemaker to make good wine, after all.
In fact, for many who undergo a blind tasting, it is very hard to deduce whether a wine is made using biodynamic practices or not. As we’ve said before, taste is subjective. So if you want to buy a bottle of wine you know you’ll enjoy, ignore the labels. Choose your wine based on personal preferences and use your own tasting notes and those of professionals with similar preferences to find the right wines for you.
Of course, if you’re trying to make the greener choice, combine those with research into different wine brands or look for the biodynamic seals to guide your decisions.