What are Organic & Biodynamic Wines?
What are Organic & Biodynamic Wines?
No doubt you’ve come across your fair share of organic products over the years, they’re now well and truly commonplace and a staple option for many consumers. It’s great to see organic products become so readily available around the world, providing consumers with a broader range of options to choose from. The wine industry is no stranger to this growth in product variety and there’s a surprisingly large amount of organic wines already on offer - a lot more than you may think. There are even a plethora of producers who have been practicing organic farming for decades, yet simply aren’t certified and thus can’t put it on their labels.
But for all our enthusiasm, do we know exactly why we sometimes opt to support organic wines? It’s time to look at it a bit further, alongside its not too distant cousin - biodynamic wines.
First off, let’s go over some of the common terms you’ll often encounter when exploring organic & biodynamic wines:
Wines produced from organically grown grapes only, meaning that there was no use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, or anything of the sort. There’s no questioning the fact that our climate is changing, and so our approach to the way we do things needs to change to better offset and prevent further climate change. Switching to organic practices is one of the biggest moves growers can make to help support healthy change for our environment. Organic practices are well regulated around the globe, with full and regularly checked certification processes. There’s also a much lower level of sulphites added than standard wine.
Aiming for the lowest possible level of human intervention is key to biodynamic practices, and it forgoes artificial products just like organic farming. The winemakers also take a more holistic approach by cultivating a vineyard that is built around the idea of a naturally self-sustaining ecosystem. There’s an abundance of biodiversity within these vineyards, with a lot of land left wild and untamed to enable the land’s natural flora and fauna to grow, which can assist in protecting the crop from disease. Quite often there’ll even be some free-roaming farm animals on-site - nature’s professional fertilizers! Proponents of biodynamics will also follow the lunar cycle, with designated days to focus on different aspects of the crop - Flower Day, Fruit Day, Root Day, and Leaf Day, meaning key tasks like sowing, pruning, and harvesting are all done in line with the lunar cycle. Again, growers undergo a well-regulated certification process to ensure adherence to the correct practices.
No sulphites are added to these wines at any stage of the process. There’s some good and bad here, but preservative-free can be especially useful for people who are more sensitive to high levels of sulphites. (keep in mind that sulphites do appear naturally, in low amounts, in wine)
These wines will, 99% of the time, be made from organic or biodynamic grapes. Which makes sense, since using artificial fertilizers or pesticides would be pretty clear cut intervention. This also goes beyond the vineyard, to the wineries where winemakers ensure to adjust the resulting wines as little as possible. There’s no legally defined or regulated system to support minimal intervention though, so it does vary from place to place.
Eco-friendly and grown with a focus on supporting the natural environment of vineyards and their surrounding locales. Sustainable practices are present across almost all industries these days, and for the wine industry, it means actions like minimising pollution, using renewable resources, and not allowing artificial pesticides/herbicides to affect the vineyard’s soils and that of the surrounding areas.
Now that that’s out of the way, why should you care about all of this?
We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat”, and while it’s not as literal as it sounds, it is incredibly important. A very simple way to look at this idea in the context of wines is looking at artificial products being used in vineyards. What goes into the grapes goes into the wine, and what goes into the wine will inevitably be in each sip you take. Of course, this isn’t to say that non-organic wines are toxic or necessarily harmful, but choosing organic will certainly reduce the intake of any of those artificial products.
When a grower makes the switch to organic or biodynamic farming, they’ll be rewarded with not only more natural vines, but a healthier vineyard throughout, from the roots to the grapes. This can only be a good thing, and it helps that healthy grapes will have higher levels of the good stuff we all really drink wine for - antioxidants, anthocyanins, resveratrol, etc.
Let’s just get it out there, it’s not like you can exactly taste organicness. I’d go so far as to say that nobody can reliably blind taste wines and tell you what is and what isn’t organic or biodynamic. That’s not to say there aren’t any benefits to the quality of the wine, though.
The jury’s still out on this debate, but there’s an argument to be made for organic/biodynamic farming helping growers to better highlight the terroir, and letting the vineyard and fruit do more of the talking than their winemaking-wizardry. Common sense would tell us as much, allowing a vineyard to develop and live naturally would result in a more unique profile in the soil and vines than if growers used artificially standardized products to eradicate those unique characteristics that may develop otherwise (whether for fear of crop disease, low yields, or anything else).
Not too long ago I read about the argument of some regions not being able to switch to organic or biodynamic practices. “It’s impossible”, “the fruit won’t grow”, “the wine quality will suffer”. More than a few times, I’ve seen Champagne used as the example region for this argument, mentioning that because of its location and climate, the growers there couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of switching to organic or biodynamic farming. Well, imagine my surprise (hint: not surprised at all) when I opened up a bottle of Champagne Drappier Clarevallis Organic NV on Christmas Day to discover a truly remarkable Premier Cru Champagne! Utterly delicious, and it even includes the nearly extinct ‘Blanc Vrai’ grape which the Drappier family has endeavoured to cultivate back to good health. A real testament to Drappier’s focus on sustainability.
Don’t worry, I’m not saddling up the high horse here, I won’t state outright that all organic wines are plainly superior to non-organic. But there’s certainly no drawback whatsoever in terms of quality, yet it brings so many positives with it.
This is perhaps the easiest benefit to understand. Nine times out of ten, the environment would rather we keep our nosey selves to ourselves. I don’t need to list all of the many examples of human intervention having a negative impact on the environment, which in turn affects everything else negatively. But it’s worth recognising that organic and especially biodynamic practices have more benefits for the environment than you may first assume.
Of course, with both approaches removing the use of artificial products that will end up in the vines, grapes, and soil of the vineyard, they help ensure that the health of the land maintains a natural balance. This really comes into play when you consider just how many vineyards there are in major wine regions around the world, perhaps in a single vineyard the effects will go unnoticed, but looking at the bigger picture isn’t such a rainbow-filled future that we’d hope for.
Biodynamic farming goes a step further than organic here, with a big focus on not only removing artificial products but also on cultivating healthy biodiversity throughout the entire vineyard. Looking at a biodynamically farmed vineyard will tell you instantly what it’s about, there’s wild grass abound with little uniformity to be found. Wildflowers, trees, animals, and insects - almost all of nature is invited into a biodynamic vineyard.
And for an extra little nugget of info, which sadly appears to go mostly undiscussed, about organic wines: EU organic regulations even go so far as to put in place measures to ensure companies treat their workers ethically.
So whether for the environment, your health, the taste, or for those hard-working vineyard staff, there’s never been a better time to explore organic and biodynamic wines. Here are a few of the key players to get started on:
Cullen, Margaret River
One of Australia’s most revered and well-known names, Cullen has always been held in high regard ever since their founding back in 1966. Vanya Cullen has now converted the vineyard to fully biodynamic practices and minimal intervention, as well as becoming carbon neutral and naturally powered. You’ll likely be familiar with their iconic releases like the Kevin John Chardonnay or the Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot, but this easy-drinking white is an excellent Summer white to enjoy:
Yangarra Estate, Mclaren Vale
That’s right, the producer of 2020’s ‘Wine of the Year’ is one of, if not the, biggest advocates for organic and biodynamic wines in Australia. Peter Fraser has led the charge in producing high-quality wines that showcase how sustainable practices support a healthy and thriving vineyard and winery. Peter Fraser was even named ‘Winemaker of the Year’ in 2016. One of the wines that Peter is most known for is Grenache, and there’s no better starting point than the Yangarra Old Vine release below.
Champagne Drappier, Champagne France
Organic and carbon-neutral aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of historic regions like Champagne, but the Drappier family has proven that it certainly works well there. As the first-ever Champagne house to reduce their carbon footprint to zero, they continue to innovate and progress the sustainability movement in Champagne. Enjoy a glass or two of their new release, a fully organic Premier Cru Champagne - bonus points for reviving the almost lost grape of Blanc Vrai!