The conscious consumer: Breaking down Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wines (…and the sulphite issue) – PART 1
By Diego Flumian
In their search for high-quality wine, the conscious consumers may sometimes have to navigate terms such as organic and biodynamic or natural and low intervention. While we all know what they mean in general terms, to some of us their full meaning may still be fuzzy. So, what is inside our bottles? Let’s dig a little deeper and find out.
In this blog, I will touch on Organic and Biodynamic practices. Part 2 will follow where we will take a closer look at Low Intervention and Natural wines.
WHAT IS ORGANIC WINE
Organic farming practices avoid the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilisers in favour of controlled use of natural substances to protect the crop from natural threats such as parasites and diseases. Sulphites, which are natural substances, are allowed in low quantities set out by law. However, organic grapes are not enough for a wine to be certified organic. In order for this to happen, the winemaker has to adhere to legislative guidelines which also limit the amount of chemical and mechanical processing a wine can go through during vinification. Certain procedures are therefore allowed, whilst others are not.
WHAT IS BIODYNAMIC WINE
If organic practices greatly restrict the chemical and mechanical intervention, biodynamic practices aim at total elimination.
The precepts of biodynamic farming were laid out by Austrian philosopher and scholar of esoterism Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. He attempted to reconcile science and spirituality uniting them in a farming philosophy based on ethical, ecological, and astrological principles. Adopters of these ideas see a connection between the natural world as a whole and the farm, and seek to be in harmony with it by relying solely on natural methods to produce the most authentic and genuine crops possible.
Biodynamic farming is too complex to be described accurately in a short space, but here are some of the fundamentals:
- The biodynamic farm is an expression of harmony with nature and respect: if the farmer is connected to nature, nature rewards the farmer with a high-quality natural crop.
- The farm is a self-sufficient system which provides everything the farmer needs in order to grow quality crops. Everything is used, nothing is wasted. Limited use of material not from the farm (such as manure) may be allowed.
- The use of chemicals as fertilisers, or against infestation and disease, is prohibited, which exposes the crops to natural threats. In order to counterbalance this vulnerability, the biodynamic farmer treats the farm as an organism whose health and self-defenses depend on a carefully managed natural balance.
- The only treatments and fertilisers allowed are 9 preparations made with ingredients such as manure and herbs from the farm itself. Notably, the (in)famous preparation 500 involves stuffing a cow’s horn with manure and burying it into the ground in winter to turn it into a dense nutrient-rich fertiliser. This is then dissolved into water and mixed with herbs. This resulting solution is sprayed on the fields to improve soil’s health and biodiversity.
- The biodynamic farm employs a combination of traditional farming methods such as crop rotation, cover crops, hand harvest, and so on… and other methods described by Steiner, who also set out specific timelines based on the movement of celestial bodies and astrology (though the lunar phases have been regulating farming activities for millennia!).
- Livestock is seen as an essential and active part of the farm. It manages vegetation, helps with pest control, and provides manure. The use of animal products and animal exploitation in the farm may put biodynamic farming principles somewhat at odds with veganism.
While biodynamic farming is not legislated, it is however regulated by a few officials (private) bodies. Organisations like Demeter set out standards and guidelines, and issue certifications. They also carry out testing and research on the measurable benefits of biodynamic practices, including improving biodiversity and positive environmental impact.
You now may ask: should I look for certification when I buy my biodynamic bottle? Well, yes and no. Accreditation remains costly and sometimes impractical for some farmers, who may also see their certification refused for minor infractions dictated by necessity. A wine from biodynamic viticulture may not be labeled as such, but it may show other indications that biodynamic principles have been applied, such as ‘no pesticides’. In some cases, biodynamic wine may contain additives such as commercial yeast, but always within very strict parameters limiting the quantity and amount of substances used.
Many of us wine consumers are drawn to the idea of biodynamic farming as it seems to encapsulate values and concerns which are very relevant to our lives. However, the sceptics among us may be puzzled by the most esoteric aspects of biodynamic farming. 'What do you mean I can only work on root plants on the days governed by Capricorn??' The sceptics will be happy to know that official regulating bodies do not require farmers to follow the astrological calendar, they are however required to use the other Steiner’s methods -including preparation 500!
In essence, although some of its practices may appear vague under a strictly scientific light, biodynamic farming remains the expression of the awareness of our place in the natural world, of which we are part.