Old World, New World, organic, natural — and now biodynamic? As if there weren’t enough designations to remember, there’s yet another winemaking methodology to prove that no matter how simple, your vintage really is more than the sum of its grapes.
But what really is the difference between biodynamic wine, one of winemaking’s most talked about alternative practices, and the vinos you’ve grown to know and love?
Below, we answer your most pressing questions about biodynamic wine, covering everything from the wacky to the wonderful.
1. What is biodynamic winemaking?
According to the Biodynamic Association, “biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production, and nutrition” based on Dr. Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of “anthroposophy.”
More simply, biodynamics is similar to many other sustainable ecological systems in that it supports a holistic approach to maintaining the viability of the vineyard. This includes not just the plants, but also the soil, seeds, and local flora and fauna, all of which are thought to have an effect on the vines.
But unlike other sustainable farming practices, biodynamics takes this approach one step further by introducing a spiritual — some might say superstitious — aspect that accounts for such factors as lunar cycles and astrology.
Vintners who practice biodynamics may, for example, bury a cow horn filled with dung in the middle of their vineyard during the cooler months. It’s then recovered in spring and diluted into a spray they call “preparation 500.” This spray, one of several such preparations, is then distributed over the land during the descending phase of the moon.
Other practices include burning the bodies of pests and spreading their ashes over the vines to prevent infestations, or fermenting oak bark in the skull of an animal to create a compost additive. The biodynamic principles even affect the specific days crops should be harvested.
Biodynamics doesn’t stop once the grapes are picked, however. These principles apply to the winemaking process, as well.
Many commercial wines are taste-corrected to accommodate for less than ideal growing conditions, contain preservatives, and undergo a filtering process. Biodynamic wines, however, typically forgo any taste correction or adjustment and may even come unfiltered, resulting in cloudier vintages with a distinctive mouthfeel — that is, the physical sensation the wine creates on your tongue and palate.
2. Does biodynamics work?
If by “work” you mean, “Does growing grapes based on moon phases make the vineyard more successful?” Then no. There isn’t any scientific evidence proving that the spiritual-astrological aspects of biodynamics improve the wine.
But there is evidence to suggest that the organic and natural farming methods used in biodynamics may actually improve the quality of soil over time.
The use of cover crops and minimum tillage, for example, may prevent soil erosion and helps reintroduce much-needed organic material into the soil as crops decompose. There is some evidence to suggest that organic crops also hold carbon more efficiently, potentially contributing to healthier fields and a decrease in emissions that may affect climate.
3. Do biodynamic wines taste better?
Because biodynamic wines do not include commercial yeast, added sugar, distinctive oak characteristics, or additional acids, they can taste different from many other non-organic wines. In addition, natural and biodynamic wines often come unfiltered, meaning they may look cloudier and have a different mouth feel from other vintages you’ve tried.
Certified biodynamic wines also may contain more sulfites than are found in “commercial” wines — up to 100 parts per million — which may change the taste or present some issues for a small group of very sensitive drinkers.
Although some wine enthusiasts will tell you that drinking natural or biodynamic wine is the best way to understand the true characteristics of the grapes, these growing methods can be a double-edged sword. When biodynamic vineyards encounter less than ideal growing seasons, for example, those deficiencies will show up in the wine. When they have perfect growing seasons, however, the unique character of the grapes can really shine.
If you’re more set in your ways and prefer the predictable pleasure of your favorite vintage, the earthy and variable nature of biodynamic wine may not be for you. If, however, you’re a little more adventurous and don’t mind getting your hands (or, I guess, palate) dirty, you may want to test the biodynamic waters.
4. How do I know if a wine is really biodynamic?
There is not a federally controlled certification for biodynamic wine, as there is for organic foods. However, there is a system of certification managed by Demeter International, an ecological association consisting of individual certifying agencies in 45 countries worldwide. Just look for their seal to identify a wine that is certifiable (in a good way).
Demeter’s Biodynamic® farm and processing standards for certification cover everything from the way the grapes are grown to the way the final product is packaged. The association also has trademarked the term, ensuring that only farmers and winemakers that follow this methodology can advertise their products or farming practices as being biodynamic.
Regardless of certification, however, it’s important to read the labels of your wine very carefully because different phrasing can mean very different things.
If a wine claims to be “biodynamically produced,” for example, the vintner probably subscribed to wholly biodynamic principles throughout the wine’s entire lifecycle, from seed to glass.
If the label reads something like, “made from biodynamically grown grapes,” however, the wine most likely was pressed from grapes grown under this method, but the winemaking process itself may not have followed the same strict standards.
5. Where can I purchase biodynamic wines?
The good news is that as consumers are becoming more aware of biodynamic wine, the number of producers is skyrocketing. Although this niche wine may not be available in your local grocery store, many liquor- and wine-specific shops are including search designations for biodynamic wine on their websites and carrying more biodynamic options in their storefronts.
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Remember that you must be at least 21 years old to drink in the USA and to always drink responsibly. This information is intended for informational purposes only, and not to promote the consumption of alcohol.