Let me start by saying: I’ve been a proponent of drinking “green” ever since I understood that the wine industry is like any other agricultural industry of scale. Pesticides and monocultures abound, and even when we don’t like to think about our luxurious treats as having an environmental impact, they certainly do. For that reason, it makes me happy to see that consumers are finally taking interest in everything from organic to “natural” or sustainable wine. But what is what, and what claims are only marketing or greenwashing, is not always clear. This piece is part of a series trying to make it a bit more so.
Series Sustainability In Wine
I have described what you can expect from certified organic wine and “wine from organic grapes” here. We will dive in to the myriad of sustainability certifications and Vegan wine in coming pieces, but now, let’s dive in to Biodynamic and “Natural” wine.
Biodynamic - certifiable vodoo?
I have wine industry colleagues who roll their eyes at biodynamic wine-growing because of the eccentric practices it requires. Treating vines with “homeopathic strength” herbal sprays and adhering to astrological charts for planning pruning or harvesting sounds a bit nuts, right? Rudolf Steiner, the father of anthropology and biodynamic practices, sure had some whacky ideas, but he also brought back old farming wisdoms. Organizations such as the dominant Demeter International certify biodynamic wine and make sure the vineyards adhere to their internationally harmonized standards.
Preparation 500 - the infamous cow horn
Standard practices of biodynamics include weak sprays called “preparations”, including the essential “preparation 500”. It involves burying a cow horn with dung during the winter months, digging it up and diluting the now odorless dung into a crazy weak tea (making sure to stir the water into a vortex for exactly one hour to “dynamize” it with cosmic forces) and spraying the concoction on the vines in order to strengthen the relationship between the soil and vine. This is one that sounds nuts. But there have been some studies that show it has an effect on microbial activity, possibly because the biodynamic sprays inoculate the soil (or compost, for preparations 502-507) with a small number of beneficial microbes, somewhat like probiotics. Nettle, ground crystals and horsetail can all be made into those same super-weak teas to be sprayed on the vines for protection or on the compost for increased activity and resistance to disease.
A natural approach in the winery
A wine can only be labeled “biodynamic wine” if it also adheres to biodynamic winemaking practices. No added yeast, only spontaneous fermentation, is allowed and no additives other than a limited amount of sulfur (up to 100 parts per million, compared to the US limit of 350 parts per million for conventional wines). Other than allowing sulfite addition, this is the same as for the most accepted definition of “natural” wine. Though many “natural” wines will be biodynamic and vice versa…
Shouldn’t work - but seems to!
It shouldn’t work, I know. But even though I’m a scientist, I really like a lot of biodynamic wines as well as the practices. Why? Because biodynamic farming focuses on building a balanced, diverse ecosystem in the vineyard and because biodynamic growers try to be preventative in keeping their plants healthy and soils alive, rather than treating only once a pest or a disease has hit. This approach, with its resulting farm resilience thanks to biodiversity, its reduced wastefulness with local ecosystems thinking and its focus on compost often seem to create grapes with better depth of flavor and more complexity. It’s a healthy approach to farming.
At worst, the odd practices may be a waste of time but they are definitely harmless, and at best, it actually makes a difference. The exceptionally concentrated microbes in the soils, invigorated through the composts and perhaps also the sprays, could definitely contribute by delivering accessible nutrients and minerals to the plants which in turn can have an effect on taste. Same goes for the exceptionally deep roots of the vines, providing access to more nutrients.
The increased attentiveness required to run a biodynamic vineyard is often claimed to be a key factor in any quality improvements. The spontaneous fermentation and lack of additives in the winery leave more room for personality and complexity in the wine. And as a bonus, biodynamic vineyards seem to handle global warming better, with deeper roots to nourish plants through droughts and softer soils and cover crops to handle heavy rainfalls.
A disproportionate number of exciting wines in the category
In my totally unscientific personal analysis, I find a lot of my favorite wines, wines with vibrancy, personality and complexity in the category of biodynamic wines. Even if they make up only around 1% percent of the vineyards in the world and even less of the wines, at least half of my favorite wines, including big names such as Domaine Leroy in Burgundy and Champagne Louis Roederer, are positive to Biodynamic winemaking practices.
Although there isn’t so much research published, and even though most university oenology departments only gloss over the subject, some well made projects have looked at how biodynamic winegrowing changes the flavor of the grapes. Head winemaker at Champagne Louis Roederer, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon (who is also a scientist) did blind taste tests on grapes and juice from conventional, organic and biodynamic sections of the same vineyards and the biodynamic vines won every time. After that, he started large scale conversions of their best plots. From the 2012 vintage, their prestige champagne Cristal is made with 100% biodynamic grapes.
(From the 2012 vintage, which was recetnly released, Louis Roederer's prestige champagne Cristal is made with 100% biodynamic grapes).
Sure, not all biodynamic wines are exceptional or even good, and it is possible for biodynamic wineries to have as high a carbon footprint as their conventional counterparts (or even higher!), but the practices are overall sustainable and good for the earth. Their use of astronomical calendars can be written off as inspired, quaint, or as an understanding of the world we scientists have yet to get to, depending on your leanings.
Whatever the reason, I’m a fan of the results.