What Is Biodynamic Wine?

Erin De Santiago
Vineyard

With concerns about pesticides and farming techniques on so many people's minds, it's not surprising that biodynamic wines are gaining more attention and popularity. The biodynamic process is nearly one-hundred years old, but some of the techniques and methods use in the production of these wines have caused skeptics to liken the process to something left over from the hippie-era.

Difference Between Organic and Biodynamic Wines

Biodynamic wines are produced using the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which sets them apart from organic wines as a whole. The process is similar to organic farming in that there is an absence of chemicals, but biodynamics take the process one step further by treating the vineyard as its own ecosystem. Lunar cycles and other spiritual forces are taken into consideration, which is a large departure from traditional organics.

Biodynamic Methods Used in the Vineyard

One of the most important elements of biodynamic wine production was developed by Maria Thun and is referred to as her root, fruit, flower, and leaf day system. These days coincide with the four elements (earth, fire, water, air). This system dictates:

  • Fruit days: Ideal for harvesting the grapes
  • Root days: Best time to prune vines
  • Flower days: Avoid touching vines
  • Leaf days: Best time for watering the vines

Cow Horns and Compost

It may sound odd, but cow horns are an integral part of the composting process. Special composting material is stuffed into the horns and buried in the soil. The horns are later dug up, and the "stuffing" is then distributed throughout the vineyard.

Special Preparations

According to Wine Folly, there are nine compost preparations used in biodynamic farming as suggested by Steiner. These can include ingredients like manure, yarrow blossoms and chamomile. No chemicals or manufactured additions like commercial yeast can be used, which is where the natural ingredients like the compost in cow horns come into play. For people sensitive to sulfites, it's important to know that biodynamic wines still contain them.

Organic vs. Biodynamic Wine Taste Test

While some experts suggest biodynamic wines exhibit flavors more characteristic to the terroir from where they originate, the average consumer will likely not notice much difference. However, Anne-Claude Leflaive conducted an interesting experiment with a group of wine sales people.

Each of the 13 participants were given two different glasses of wine, and 12 out of 13 sales people preferred the same wine. Each glass contained a 1996 Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillonhe, but the difference between the two glasses each participant received was that they came from adjacent plots in the vineyard. One plot was farmed organically while the other plot was farmed using biodynamics. As it turned out, the sales people preferred the biodynamic wine almost unanimously.

Biodynamic Nomenclature

To be labeled as certified biodynamic, a wine must pass certification. Biodynamic wines, whether certified or not, follow strict guidelines set forth by Demeter International in the USA, or by Biodyvin in France and Germany. There are also a number of producers worldwide who are making biodynamic wines today.

You may see a wine that notes, "made from biodynamic grapes." That is not a true biodynamic wine as defined by Demeter and Biodyvin; the note simply means the grapes were grown using biodynamic techniques, but the process used in making the wine may not have been as strict as what is set forth for certified biodynamic wines.

Controversy Surrounding Biodynamic Wines

Aside from critics who tend to be skeptical about the biodynamic process, there is even some controversy amongst the certifying agencies. According to an article published at Wineanorak.com, Michel Chapoutier of Biodyvin feels Demeter's standards are too low and that they need to be more rigorous to keep the process respectable. Demeter certifies biodynamic wines as well as other biodynamic agriculture; Biodyvin concentrates solely on biodynamic wines. Within the US, rival certifying agencies have popped up and Demeter has since trademarked the term biodynamic in the US.

Find Biodynamic Wines

Demeter International has a resource list of their accepted Demeter Biodynamic Wines. Biodyvin maintains their own list of less than 100 European wineries that are approved Biodyvin Biodynamic Wines. Approved wines prominently display their certification credentials on their labels. Aside from Biodyvin and Demeter, there are smaller certifying agencies that typically cover organic regulations, and there is a special Champagne-region-only environmental initiative underway.

Some wines you may already be familiar with are biodynamic producers. Benzinger Family Winery from Sonoma, California, and Cristal Champagne are just two of the well-known wineries producing biodynamic-style wines today. Based on the experiment Domain Leflaive did with the visiting sales people, they are a great example of a winery turned entirely biodynamic.

Biodynamically-Farmed Wines to Try

You can search through lists of certified wines in the US that Demeter has approved as well as German and France producers Biodyvin has tested, or you can also try some well-known success stories that are not necessarily certified by these agencies. Examples of biodynamic wineries that produce some incredible biodynamic wines include:

  1. Cullen Wines: Cullen Estate started off in 1971 with minimal chemical use due to their concern for the environment. By 1998, they had completely changed over to organic vines. It wasn't until 2003 that they became interested in biodynamic wines. If you're in Australia, check them out and take the self-guided tour to learn more about biodynamic winemaking.
  2. Domaine de la Romanée Conti: Oenophiles will instantly recognize the Romanée-Conti name since it's considered Burgundy's most famous estate. All biodynamically farmed, these wines fetch extraordinary prices at auction.
  3. Alvaro Palacios: Palacios is a leader in the Spanish wine industry. He's from the Rioja region and could've joined his family's winery, but opted to go out on his own. He set up in the Priorat, south of Barcelona. He produces some fantastic vintages, including biodynamic wines. His legendary L'Ermita wine is considered one of the best Spanish wines by most critics.

Certified Biodynamic Wines to Try

If you want to try one of Demeter or Biodyvin's certified wines, check out:

  1. Benzinger Family Winery: Located in Glen Ellen, California, Benzinger is a well-known name in the wine world. The four estate vineyards are Demeter-certified Biodynamic, a process they shifted to back in the 1990's.
  2. Zind-Humbrecht Estate: If you're familiar with Alsatian wines, you've heard the name Zind-Humbrecht. Zind-Humbrecht's biodynamic wines are certified under Biodyvin.
  3. Domaine Laflaive: The family has ties to the Puligny region dating back to the 1700's, but the most notable wines have been from the early 1900's. Domaine Laflaive converted to fully-biodynamic vines in 1993 and still age wines in the Burgundian tradition, which means long fermentation, natural oak barrels, stirring until winter, which is then followed by two years in the cellar.
  4. Robert Sinskey: With vineyards located along Napa's prestigious Silverado Trail, Robert Sinskey has become one of the more respected biodynamic wineries in Demeter's member roster.
  5. Fleury Brut Champagne: According to Decanter Magazine, Jean-Pierre Fleury was the first winegrower in Champagne to switch to biodynamic. He started with a few hectares, but converted to fully biodynamic in 1992.

Biodynamics Can Affect Cost of Wine

One question that pops up often is whether biodynamic wines ultimately cost more. In some cases, yes. The wines are more expensive to produce, more time-consuming, and require submission for certification testing. However, cost is really a subjective matter. What one person spends on wine and finds reasonable is extremely expensive by other people's standards. However, you can find some biodynamic wines for under $30 US.

Future of Biodynamic Wine

Some skeptics think the future of biodynamic wine is short-lived because vineyards cannot sustain themselves in this way indefinitely. There is even a blog site devoted to debunking biodynamics. One study done in Ukiah, CA, showed no explanation on the improved quality of the biodynamic versus organic farming techniques. There was no difference in soil quality, yield per vine, clusters per vine, nor cluster and berry weight.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer Champagne, told a master class audience in London that the future of wine is heavily rooted in biodynamics. Lecaillon said, "The future will be organic and biodynamic. The vines are stronger and [in the wine] it gives more fruit, more freshness, more depth."

The question is whether these improved wines would've developed anyway due to organic farming without the added expense of biodynamic techniques? Only time will tell, but for now, it's fairly evident that the technique of biodynamics is still gaining popularity and the number of applicants for certification are likely to increase in the coming years.

What Is Biodynamic Wine?