About Organic and Biodynamic Wine
Jim Clarke, Wine & Beer Writer & Wine Director at Megu NYC and contributer to Forbes.com
It's not surprising that many winegrowers are pulling back on their use of pesticides, and other chemicals in the vineyard; organic produce is all the rage, and wine is just another agricultural product. However, wine goes through more processing than most fruits and vegetables, making "organic" harder to define under federal law.
To be labeled as "organic wine," the USDA requires that no chemical additives be used not only in the vineyard, but in the winery as well. This includes sulfites. Sulfites are naturally occurring in wine as a by-product of fermentation, but winemakers have been adding sulfites during the winemaking process for centuries to help preserve freshness and protect the must from bacteria and oxidation. Without them, wines can be unstable and prone to degradation in the winery and in the bottle. Few winemakers risk compromising their final product for the sake of organic certification.
However, there is a middle ground which allows wine to be labeled "organically grown" or "made with organically grown grapes." These wines do not bear the USDA Organic Seal, but they are still certified by an approved agency and confirm that at least 70% of the grapes used were not treated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and so forth.
While the USDA, has been active in enacting organic regulations for wine, they have little to say about another winegrowing trend: bio-dynamics. In 1924, Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, feeling that agriculture was suffering from a misguided reliance on science and chemicals, especially fertilizers, gave a series of lectures that effectively founded biodynamics. While it took some time to catch on, these days almost 500 producers are bottling biodynamic wines worldwide; Alsace, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley are leading the way in France, and Austria also has a notable number of practitioners.
The most fundamental idea underlying the practice is to think of the vineyard as a living organism, and its various parts must be kept in harmony. This is especially difficult for vineyards, as they are monocultural (i.e. they grow only one kind of crop; Steiner felt the ideal farm would have a mix of crops and animals) and perennial, so crop rotation is not possible.
Problems a conventional winegrower might address individually, a biodynamic grower will interpret as a sign of imbalance in the environment. For example, an influx of beetles, instead of being blasted with insecticide, instead might indicate a lack of cover crops which would otherwise provide homes for the insects and keep them off the vines. Cover crops between the vines are an important element in maintaining balance, as one way of diversifying plant life; similarly, some producers graze sheep among the vines to add an animal element - and control the cover crop.
Much of the focus for biodynamic growers is on soil health, which offers another role for animals; producers like Burgundy's Denis Jeandeau use horses in lieu of tractors, the latter being so heavy that they compress the soils too much. Steiner felt that conventional farming with chemical fertilizers treats the soil as merely a repository of nutrients. He developed a set of nine preparations as an alternative, each designed to address different imbalances.
Cow manure stuffed into a cow horn and then buried over the winter, then mixed with water and sprayed in the vineyard, is used as a basic fertilizer; other mixtures, often including both a plant and animal element (such as chamomile blossoms stuffed into the small intestines from a cow) are added to composts that are then used in the vineyard, often intended to address specific problems.
Some of the ideas seem more "out there;" a lot of thought is devoted to balancing "forces" that modern science doesn't acknowledge as existing - etheric and astral forces, most commonly. Individually remedies can seem bizarre: if faced with an infestation of rabbit's or other vineyard pests, the Loire Valley's Nicolas Joly, a leading proponent of bio-dynamics, recommends killing a couple of them, burning their pelts, and mixing the ash into a preparation, which is then scattered through the vineyard. And spray your ash preparation when Venus is in Scorpio - much is made of the astrological calendar, so each preparation, along with activities like pruning or harvesting, have their ideal astrological times. If you don't place much faith in this sort of thing in your everyday life, it can be hard to accept they make a difference in winegrowing.
Biodynamics also reaches into the winery, or even into the tasting room. Olivier Humbrecht, of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, says that he only bottles in summer or winter when the vines in the vineyard are either lazing in the sun, or dormant. He feels that if he bottled in the other seasons, the wines would be too unsettled and changeable. On a day-to-day basis, there is the biodynamic calendar, a 4.5 day cycle linked to lunar patterns, which rotates through fruit, flower, leaf, and root days; wines are believed to be more expressive on fruit and flower days. The thought is that just as the moon creates the tides, it can also exert an effect the water inside the wines, the vines, and even our bodies.
While the government takes no position on biodynamics; worldwide, a network of organizations certify vineyards as biodynamic, most notable Demeter; in fact, the non-profit Demeter USA is the only one operating within the U.S. at the moment. Converting a vineyard to biodynamics takes several years, as switching "cold turkey" from conventional farming may leave the vineyard too weak to recover, so "going bio" is not a light-hearted decision. As with organics, a number of producers follow biodynamic practices but don't bother to get certified or mention it on the label, sometimes to leave themselves some flexibility in difficult vintages or because they don't agree with all of the certifying organizations conditions. Federica Mocchiutti of Friuli's Vignai da Duline offers another point of view: "Why should I list on my bottle that we don't add extra things to our wine? Why should I list what isn't there? I think people who add chemicals and other things should have to list that on the bottle."
The biggest argument for biodynamics is not the often inconclusive vineyard studies, but the quality of the wines, which tends to be uniformly high. Some feel this may not be a direct result of the biodynamic practices, but rather reflects the extra amount of time and attention given to the vineyards, and the consequent awareness a biodynamic wine producer has of their conditions and health. In any case, organically grown and biodynamic wines occupy an increasingly prominent place in the wine press, on restaurant wine lists, and on retail shelves.