Organics and biodynamics share common foundations: all biodynamic vineyards practice organic viticulture, so grapes are grown without the use of manmade chemicals or GM products, but there are extra dimensions to biodynamics and the impact of these are tricky to quantify.
In 2017 around 4.5% of the world’s wine grape vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic. Look out for the trefoil logo of Demeter, the largest body certifying biodynamic wineries, or the French-based Biodyvin on the label.
How are biodynamics different?
A biodynamic farm is considered holistically, an ecosystem where the plants, animals, soil and workers are all important. Vines are treated regularly with nine herb and mineral-based preparations. Key tasks such as planting, pruning, picking and bottling are based on a lunar calendar. Practitioners believe that when everything is in balance the vines will produce better quality grapes, which as we all know leads to better wine.
Back to the three building blocks of biodynamic farming. The first – building organic matter within the soil – is shared with organic farming and generally thought to be a ‘good thing to do’ by quality minded wine producers. They’re aiming for soils rich with nutrients and insect life, just like the forest floor that vines evolved from, which improves plant health and resistance to pests and disease. Where biodynamics goes an extra step is that wineries create their own soil improvers via composts or manure from the farm, thus working towards the ideal of each farm or vineyard becoming self-sustaining.
Tree huggers only apply?
The aspect of biodynamics that raises more eyebrows is the application of numbered special preparations that have been ‘dynamised’ (energetically stirred into water) to the soil, compost or to the plants themselves to build strength or counter pests and diseases. When the doubters really start to roll their eyes is on the mention that some of the preparations should be buried in cow horns, bladders or intestines for a period of time before use, and all of them should be applied according to the celestial calendar. This, biodynamic growers argue, creates ‘formative forces’ capable of transmitting energy and health to the soil, vines and therefore grapes. In an article ‘What is biodynamics’ wine writer Jamie Goode says: “It is helpful to think of biodynamics not primarily as an agricultural system, but rather as a philosophy or worldview that then impacts on the practice of agriculture in various ways.
"To farm biodynamically, first you have to think biodynamically”.
It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, not using chemicals to control weeds or to treat diseases requires winemakers to be very hands on, spending more time in the vineyards, ploughing and cutting or administering preventative doses of various preparations and anticipating problems by an intimate knowledge of each vine. It can also result in lower yields if it’s a tough year pest and disease-wise. Birgit Braunstein a biodynamic producer from Burgenland in Austrian says:
“I see myself as a landscape conservationist. Aware that I have only borrowed the land from the next generation...
"As a farmer, I can make a major contribution to preserving nature and protecting the climate. As a consumer, I can decide what kind of agriculture I support. It is therefore my concern to produce healthy, vivid wines that give enjoyable hours.”
Does biodynamic wine taste better?
There are a lot of variables in viticulture and winemaking, but we’d rather drink wines made with care and passion by producers who are scrupulously attuned to their vineyards.