by Sarah Meadows
The words “organic” and “biodynamic” are thrown around a lot and no longer refer to an object that is simply carbon-based. The main detail to keep in mind is that organic and biodynamic winemaking refer to different methods. While both try to preserve a more natural way of producing wines, biodynamic winemaking is a creature all its own. There is ample information and advocacy for both methods, as well as traditional winemaking, so here the fundamentals will be pressed and separated from their complexities so you can decide whether to ride the wave of change.
Organic wine is somewhat of a nebulous term varying by country, government, and winemaker. Wine can be made from organic grapes, but not be truly organic due to the winemaking process. Conversely, grapes can be grown with modern agricultural methods, yet processed without preservatives. Organic wine by some governmental definition is wine made from grapes grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other harsh chemicals.
These agent-free grapes are harvested and fermented without the addition of preservatives such as sulfur dioxide. The benefit of organic wine is that we don’t consume traces of artificial chemicals that have leached into the fruit during the growing season. The downside is that typically, organic wine lacks the stabilizers that make it conducive to aging. So these organic wines are usually enjoyed within the first couple of years of production.
Organic wines have increased dramatically in popularity over the past several years. Many noteworthy winemakers in renowned grape-growing regions of France, Italy, Spain, and other countries have embraced the organic method of farming and producing wine. Another goal of organic grape-growing is soil preservation. Chemicals deplete the soil and can leave fewer nutrients for hungry vines. Organic agriculture advocates believe this method will help improve soil quality rather than diminish it, and thus preserve the natural character that the region’s soil imparts to the wine.
Biodynamic wine couples the belief in natural, or organic farming, and wine production with spiritual elements. Followers of the biodynamic movement feel that connecting with the earth, the grapes, and cosmic forces will help bring balance and health to their vineyards. The idea of biodynamics was first introduced by Rudolf Steiner around 1924. He believed that in order to prevent self-annihilation, the human race would need to link a physical understanding of the world with an understanding of the spiritual. In essence, biodynamic grape growing strives to feed the vine physically and nurture its spiritual energy.
Practitioners of biodynamic farming use ceremonial burying of herbs and plants such as valerian flower, nettles, and chamomile. Moreover, vessels are prepared using animal bones and organs filled with manure or compost and then are buried in the soil only to be dug up later. These manure-filled vessels include cow horns or skulls, intestine, peritoneum, and bladder. The contents of these vessels can also be liquefied after exhumation and sprayed over the crops. Rudolf Steiner believed these vessels were capable of channeling cosmic forces; biodynamic practitioners share this belief today. Biodynamic farming also utilizes the astronomical calendar for guidance in agricultural decisions such as planting and harvesting.
Again, the benefit of biodynamic farming is that the grapes are grown devoid of harmful chemical agents which can transfer to the wine we drink. In addition, soil quality is protected and maintained, some would even say improved by biodynamic farming. Supporters of biodynamic winemaking also claim that this method of wine production results in a higher quality and better tasting wine. The information presented on these two methods is but the swell of a much larger wave. And now that you know where to point your board, maybe you can arrange your own taste test and determine if your palate’s preferences line up with your ecological ideals!