What's the Difference Between Organic and Biodynamic Wine?
The concept of biodynamic farming is something many have heard about, but few fully understand. If you think that biodynamic is something akin to organic farming, you’re half right.
It’s a golden October afternoon in Burgundy—a few weeks after harvest. Most of the growers here picked their grapes earlier than usual this year.
“The sun, it was very warm this summer,” says Maxime Pindor of Domaine Magnien, a biodynamic wine producer in the Côte du Nuit. He points to a piece of wooden farm equipment that looks like a cross between an oversized wine barrel and a carnival dunk tank. This, he says, is a “dynamizer,” and it’s used to prepare the specialized crop treatments that are integral to biodynamic farming.
“This last treatment we made, it was with chamomile to reduce the stress of the vines,” Pindor explains. “If you don’t do this, the roots take up the rain or water into the fruits, and you have grapes with less juice and a thick skin and more tannin.”
The concept of biodynamic farming is something many have heard about, but few fully understand. If you think that biodynamic is something akin to organic farming, you’re half right. While both types of agriculture eschew chemical fertilizers and pesticides, biodynamic farming also incorporates aspects of astrology. Among its central precepts is the idea that hidden elements connect a vineyard with the farmers who care for and cultivate it—and with the wider world and universe.
“Biodynamics assumes that the surrounding environment is made up not only of matter, but also of structuring forces and principles not directly perceptible to our five senses,” writes Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne, author of What’s So Special About Biodynamic Wine?.
These forces and principles are believed to interact in ways that science can’t measure, but that nonetheless influence the health and vitality of the vines and the grapes that grow on them. Rather than working at a “quantifiable” level, they work at an “energetic” level, Lepetit de la Bigne writes. “Biodynamics is the form of viticulture that facilitates the most faithful expression of terroir.”
The modern practice of biodynamic farming started back in the 1920s with an Austrian-born philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. Along with the application of dynamized fertilizer treatments—typically made by mixing plant compounds with rainwater in a process that involves a lot of prescriptive clockwise and counterclockwise stirring—biodynamic farming relies on the orientation of the moon and stars to help determine when to plant, plough, treat and harvest—and even when to pop the cork on a bottle of wine.
“If you open a bottle on a root day, it will be closed and bitter,” says Michael Baum, owner of Château de Pommard in Burgundy. He laughs. “I know that sounds like bull, but when you taste the same wines every day, you really can tell the difference.”
Baum is American. He purchased Château de Pommard back in 2014, and, at the urging of his vigneron, made the decision to convert his operation to biodynamic farming. “It takes about six years to go from conventional to biodynamic, and we’re halfway through,” he says. “We have our organic certification, but it’ll be a few more years before we’re certified biodynamic.”
Baum says there are aspects of biodynamic farming that he still finds a little dubious. But he says the benefits of the process are undeniable.
Walking between two of his plots, he points to one of them. The leaves on the grapevines are a brilliant ochre. “Those are the oldest vines on the property—some of them are 114 years old,” he says. “When I got here, we were considering tearing those out because their production was so low.” While the entire plot is roughly six acres, the vines were yielding just half an acre of useable fruit. “This year, we got almost a full production from them,” he says. “The vigneron attributes that to the conversion to biodynamic.”
Another central tenet of both biodynamic and organic winemaking is the heavily restricted use of sulfites, which are added to most conventional wines to preserve and stabilize them. “Sulfites give a lot of people headaches and they dehydrate you,” Baum says. “They also put up a shield in front of the wine’s flavor.”
While the U.S. and Europe have strict laws governing the use of “organic” on a wine’s label, the term “biodynamic” is not officially regulated. But there are reputable third-party organizations—namely Demeter, Biodyvin, and Renaissance des Appellations—that certify a winemaker is adhering to biodynamic principles. (Check the label for their logos, but know that many biodynamic vineyards don’t see fit to seek out a third party to certify their practices.)
While organic growing and winemaking is becoming increasingly popular in America, biodynamic agriculture is far more common in Europe than in the U.S. There’s also a lot more to both practices; whole books have been written about them. But in a nutshell, both seek to eliminate the use of chemicals in grape-growing and winemaking. Biodynamic wine, though, requires a “change of mentality on the part of the grower”—a change that requires the embrace of farming concepts that could be described as holistic, much like some forms of Eastern medicine and philosophy, Lepetit de la Bigne writes.
“You have to have belief, because it’s very expensive and very hard,” Pindor says of biodynamic agriculture. “The sun, the Earth and the moon—these are very important.”
If your interest is piqued and you want to give these wines a taste, here are some great options.
This Oregon-based winery was an early adopter of organic and biodynamic agricultural practices. They were first certified biodynamic by Demeter in 1999.
Domaine Michel Magnien Morey-Saint-Denis Tres Girard 2016, $60
All of Magnien’s wines were Demeter certified biodynamic as of 2015. This bottling is still young, but it’s already showing balanced and powerful fruit.
DeLoach 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, $70
Sonoma-based DeLoach was first certified biodynamic in 2009. Their Estate Pinot is luscious and herbal, and one of the few Demeter-certified wines in California.
Division Wines 2016 Pinot Noir “Cinq," $45
This Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot is Old World in style—in all the best ways. Restrained but powerful, it’s dynamite.
Ehlers Estate 2015 Cabernet Franc, $65
A beautiful wine that’s ready to drink now, this Napa Cab Franc is smooth and nuanced.
Bonterra Chardonnay 2017, $14
This widely available, easy drinking Chardonnay is a good everyday value.