As the wine and grape industry moves towards greater environmental awareness and sustainability, the words “organic” and “biodynamic” are heard more and more frequently.
Although both concepts are widely used in the industry, some confusion remains about their exact meaning and their primary differences. In light of this fact, let’s start with the simpler of the two: organic wines.
Although the term “organic” as we know it today seems new, it actually reflects old farming practices that pre-date the industrial age. The concept was first used by Walter James in his book Look To The Land in which he wrote about the idea of bringing a natural and ecological approach to agriculture.
In countries like England, the first organic certification — United Kingdom’s Soil Association — was introduced in 1946 by a group of individuals who were concerned about the negative impact of conventional intensive agriculture. In addition, in the 1940s, J.I. Rodale, the founder of the Rodale Institute, laid out farming techniques that avoided the use of chemical inputs.
The term “organic” changed the way people in the wine and grape industry thought about and saw the vineyards. Historically, the soil was understood as the medium through which the vines find the water and nutrients they need for their vegetative growth, but the organic movement began to place soil quality front and centre as the decisive factor in good farming practices.
The quality of the soil is linked to its organic matter content and biodiversity. External agrochemical agents are the decisive factor in the negative impact on soil health, such as erosion or fertility loss. At the same time, agrochemicals not only harm the environment, they also change the aroma and taste of the wine, going so far as to impart their own character, thereby affecting the wine’s typicity.
We can describe organic wines as being made from grapes that are grown organically, foregoing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticide treatments in the vineyard. In this approach, vineyard management is based on the use of natural products or those certified as organic, on biological equilibrium, and far lower sulphur concentrations in the end wines than in conventional ones.
Organic farming is monitored by certifying entities that inspect the entire process. Depending on the place, the rules are more or less strict. For example, in the European Union, Regulation (EU) no. 203/2012 has regulated the production of organic wines since 1 August 2012. According to these rules, organic wine has to be made from organic ingredients that are stipulated in the regulations, which include additional rules with respect to winemaking practices, processes, treatments, and subtances such as additives and processing coadjuvants, with a set of limitations placed on the amount of sulphites permitted in the wine.
By contrast, in other countries like the United States, any wine sold, labelled, or presented as “organic” may not contain added sulphites. The regulations only allow for minimal quantities of this compound if it derives from the natural fermentation process of the yeasts.
The term “biodynamic” refers to a form of ecological agriculture based on the studies of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. Established in 1924, biodynamic agriculture is now practiced in 50 countries around the world. The main entity that certifies these methods is Demeter International.
Biodynamic wines are made from organically grown grapes, but the winemakers also adhere to anthroposophical principles. According to this philosophy, a farm must comprise a completely self-sufficient ecosystem in harmony with the cosmos, with as little intervention from the human hand as possible, so that the land can recover its vital energy and produce fruits that express the inherent characteristics of the place.
In their book Authentic Wine, Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW describe health as a priority of biodynamic farming. Whereas conventional agriculture focuses on combating problems in the vineyard, such as pests and disease, the goal of biodynamic farming is to stimulate the health of the vineyards to avoid such problems from ocurring in the first place. However, like organic farming, the biodynamic model does allow for the use of sulphur and copper as fungicides in the vineyards.
Biodynamic wines are made without the use of agrochemicals, like their organic counterparts, but this approach also employs biodynamic preparations and works according to lunar and cosmic cycles.
In order to follow the evolution of these cycles, this type of agriculture uses what is known as the biodynamic calendar to plan farm work and activities to take advantage of the effect the moon has on the Earth and crops.
The moon passes 12 constellations and as it does, it mediates the elemental energy associated with each one. The four main elements — water, earth, fire, and air — exert influence on the constellations and relate to the different parts of a plant as follows: earth-root, water-leaf, fire-fruit/seed, and air-flower.
Therefore, every day the moon passes a particular constellation, the calendar is marked with a different colour. These colours indicate the farm work to be done on those days.
Biodynamic preparations are based on plant matter and minerals, which endow them with healing and regenerative properties that help restore soil balance and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi.
Furthermore, biodynamic land management ensures that the humus layer of the soil grows continuously. This has been shown in the results of an independent study, International Biodynamic Wine – Carbon Sequestration Research, which investigated the differences between conventional, organic, and biodynamic crops over a period of more than 20 years. Given the fact that humus contains vast quantities of CO2, an accumulating humus layer helps counteract the greenhouse effect.
In short, whereas organic farming centres on soil health through agricultural activities that eliminate the use of agrochemicals, biodynamic farming also integrates ideas about the vineyard as an ecosystem where plants and animals interact, as well as the use of plant and mineral-based additives known as biodynamic preparations, and adherence to a planting and sowing calendar based on the movement of the stars.
Marta Juega, PhD