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The Difference Between Biodynamic and Organic Wines

| Thursday November 20th, 2008 | 2 Comments

demeter.jpgIn the last two years a silent revolution has taken place in the US wine industry. Thousands and thousands of California’s wineries have switched to sustainable practices. But most of the efforts are self monitored and it’s difficult to work out from labels which wines are really organic.
The easiest advice to people on the lookout for eco friendly wine that’s drinkable is to buy biodynamic wine. The wine is certified by a third party and most of the bottles have a tiny logo on their labels indicating it’s biodynamically produced. However, the number of biodynamic vineyards is dwarfed by the organic businesses. And this is where it gets confusing. Ask anyone what the difference is between an organic and a biodynamic wine and the chances that you get a correct answer are low.


To set the record straight – the biodynamic crowd have their roots in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who pointed out in the 1920s what the faults of industrialized agriculture were and how a biodynamic treatment of the earth could restore the balance. Biodynamic wine specialists believe that there’s a lot more to growing organic grapes than simply refraining from the use of pesticides. They use nine types of preparations to dynamize soil quality and stimulate plant life. The preparations are a mixture of extracts from minerals, plants, or animal manure. Furthermore, the farmers only sow and reap harvests according to principles they believe control the cosmos. For instance, wine is only racked under a new moon because sediment is at its most compact at this time. The tidal pull of a full moon causes it to puff up, insiders say.
The global organization that certifies dynamically produced wine is called Demeter USA and this non profit certifies around 68 vineyards, mostly Californian ones.
Most organic wines are produced with less strict guidelines than the biodynamic wines. They sometimes are certified, but often there are various levels of certification and in many cases the information never gets printed on labels. For instance, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which certifies over 90% of all California¬¥s winegrowers, does not require its members to indicate on its bottles that they’re certified. Its members are self monitoring.
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certifies wines but they’re not 100% free from pesticides because the organization runs a voluntary self assessment program, with very strict rules. That is why members are not allowed to print on their labels whether they’re certified. All this doesn¬¥t help the wine buyers very much.
Demeter’s membership, though way more modest than the organic organizations, is also growing rapidly. Recent years’ increases in membership numbers have been around 25%. And the consultants assisting vineyards to get Demeter accreditation (something that’s very tricky) has grown from less than a hand full to over a dozen. That means that a lot of vineyards are in the process of transition or will be soon. Demeter is tightening up the rules though. By the end of the year certified biodynamic wines are free from sugar, acid and yeast.
Biodynamic winemakers say that biodynamic wine is ‚Äòorganic above organic’ and the very best. But whether that’s true has not been proven. The people within Demeter don¬¥t really have an answer to that but say they are convinced of the quality of their wines because of what they¬¥ve seen come by. What is beyond doubt is that Biodynamic wines are more costly because the crop yield of biodynamically grown grapes is lower and demands more attention than regular grapes. In many cases people who already produced excellent stuff have switched over to the biodynamic method.
There is a way of telling whether a wine is as robust as a label says it is. It’s called “sensitive crystallization” and it’s a brilliant case of pseudo science in action. Wine is mixed with a solution of copper chloride, dried at 95¬∞C (~205¬∞F) in an oven in a petri dish.The intricately formed crystal pattern at the bottom of the dish is then interpreted. An French viticulturist who’s employed at one of California’s largest biodynamic vineyards, BonnyDoon, and an expert at this recently told the SF weekly that the crystals are the tangible mark of the “life forces” within the wines. Apparently, lightning bolt shaped lines indicate that the vines are young, scattered and unfocused – indicating a short attention span. Denser and more organized patterns indicate maturity, coherence, robustness. Click here if you’re interested in a recent experiment reading the crystals of a vintage 2000 Burgundy.


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  • Ashwin

    There have been a couple really great conversations this week about biodynamic wines, one in the SF Weekly mentioned above, and another in one of the more widely read wine blogs out there.
    http://www.vinography.com/archives/2008/11/the_skeptics_guide_to_biodynam.html
    http://www.sfweekly.com/2008-11-19/news/voodoo-on-the-vine/1
    Both, though wrestling with their ambivalence, seem to bash the biodynamic process for being too out there…

  • Chetter

    Ok… biodynamic is all well and good, but some of their ideas are pretty bonkers. The cow’s horn buried in the corner of the farm on the equinox is pretty silly if you ask me. I think there’s a fine line between embracing the balance of nature and being a total crackpot and many aspects of biodynamics cross the line.