Biodynamic Wine: What It Is, What It Isn't, and Why People Are Buying It
While biodynamic wine may be seem like a new trend, biodynamic farming actually pre-dates organic farming by about two decades. Here, experts explain the rigorous form of sustainable wine-growing.
Let's be honest, shopping for wine can be a bit of a mystery. Even for some of the most experienced shoppers, purchasing a new bottle is always a risk. The best we can do? Try to understand the terms winemakers stick on their labels to gain a deeper insight into the juice we'll be sipping.
Aside from the usual differentiators (Is it oaky? Is it dry?), there's another characteristic that's becoming more and more of a sticking point among American wine consumers. Just like the food we eat, Americans are looking for sustainable wines from growers who practice natural and biodynamic farming. But what do those terms actually mean? More importantly, is buying a bottle just because it says "biodynamic" any better than another? Let's break down the basics behind the buzzword.
What Is Biodynamic Farming?
Biodynamic wine-growing is one of the most passionate and rigorous farming styles out there. It's also a little, um, out there. Master of wine Vanessa Conlin, head of wine at Wine Access, explains that at its core, biodynamic farming "is a way of looking at the entire vineyard as one living organism." That includes making sure the fields, plants, animals, soil, and even the pests are nurtured to support the healthy lifespan of the entire unit, she explains.
"Biodynamics is a way of trying to treat problems naturally and seeing the farm as one living system," adds John Hamel, managing director of biodynamics-driven Hamel Family Wines. "And the way to address imbalances in that system is not just by buying synthetic ingredients to fix it, it's trying to fix it naturally." As a result, biodynamic farmers strictly avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, or anything genetically modified by finding other ways to deal with issues that pop up in vineyard. For example, to enhance the fertility of his vineyard, Hamel would look at compost options and grow different plants to add nutrients his soil may be lacking, he explains.
"The healthier the vineyard is, the healthier the grapes you'll get," says Hamlin. "In order to yield a healthy vineyard and healthy grapes, you have to be respectful of the soil and the surrounding areas."
What's the Difference Between Biodynamic Farming and Organic Farming?
"Biodynamic farming is like organic farming, but it takes it one step further," says Conlin. Both need to be certified as such, but the requirements for each vary. Biodynamic farming also predates organic farming by about 20 years.
Certified organic wines are wines that are made from organically grown grapes, without the use of added sulfites. However, organic wines are still permitted to employ the use of some approved additives. "In organic farming, you can still spray to prevent diseases, pests, and mildew that affect the grapevines," says Conlin. Producers are permitted to use approved pesticides (like naturally occurring micro-organisms) and insecticides (naturally derived from plants) and even some approved synthetic resources.
Biodynamics is a little different. Remember when I said the farming technique is a little out there? Well, here's why: Though biodynamics relies on seeing the vineyard as a whole, that interconnectivity also includes the lunar cycle, says Conlin. Biodynamic farming was founded by scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1900s, who saw it as spiritual and scientific innovation in agriculture that brought together both earthly and cosmic influences. Therefore, tasks in a biodynamic vineyard (like planting, pruning, and harvesting) are planned out in accordance with the lunar calendar.
Biodynamic farming does not use any additives like pesticides or herbicides, and they even employ some bizarre composting techniques, like burying cow horns stuffed with compost materials which are then dug up and made into a tea to fertilize the vineyard.
Is Biodynamic Wine Just Another Wellness Trend?
Some skeptics see the philosophical aspects (like utilizing the lunar cycle) as pseudo-science. Others see the buzzword as another wellness trend. "Whether you believe in the philosophy or not," says Conlin, "biodynamic farming shows a commitment from the grower, farmer, and vintner that they're investing in their land in a way that's respectful of nature and of everything around them."
Although practicing sustainability is beneficial for the land and its surroundings, there isn't a ton of hard data to prove that strict biodynamic farming is more beneficial than other types of sustainable farming, or that the wine itself is healthier for the drinker. But just being aware of where the wine you're drinking comes from can be beneficial in many ways. Trying to avoid ingesting pesticides? Opt for a biodynamic wine. Looking to support a vineyard that practices ecological sustainability? Buying a biodynamic bottle is a great way to do that. But if you're trying to avoid a hangover, drinking biodynamic wine won't help.
Can I Taste the Difference?
Nope! Though biodynamic winemakers seek to make clear, pure wines that are indicative of where they come from, there isn't a specific tasting note that would indicate a wine is biodynamic or not.
"Biodynamic farming doesn't ensure that the finished wine will taste better or different, but you can make a presumption that if they're spending that much time investing in their vineyard, then they care about what's in the bottle," says Conlin.
The Bottom Line
"Our goal is to make something transparent," says Hamel. "Biodynamics offers an ability to allow for clear expression of grapes and ultimately wine, and we want to do so without relying on a variety of fungicides and herbicides that can obscure the clarity of the product and where it's coming from."