Let’s talk biodynamic wine

At Altitude we're about making all wine sustainable.

It feels like a mountain to climb, but to us wine will only be sustainable if it’s two things. They’re the two sides of the mountain we need to climb.

First wine needs to be beautiful. It needs to be loved like no other, so people can continue to enjoy drinking as we do today.

Wine also needs to be net-zero. This means holistically, from vine to glass. Every step of the way needs to be held to a carbon account.

The net-zero side of the mountain

We need to incorporate the whole journey, from vine to glass, in any attempt to reach net-zero wine.

This means from farming and growing grapes, through to making wine and getting wine to your glass. We need to do this so we can collectively make changes where they need to happen.

Focussing on farming, industrial farming is still by far the most dominant means of making wine today. Biodynamic wine is limited to about 1,000 vineyards worldwide, while organic wine accounts for about 2% of the world's wine today.

But as a wine drinker, it has become nigh-on impossible to navigate the different accreditations and make an informed sustainable choice.

Who really knows the difference between organic, biodynamic and natural wine?

Starting at basecamp

On setting out, we need to demystify all the different approaches and philosophies for making wine sustainable.

The hope is, from this understanding we can work out the relative impacts each approach has and help wine lovers make their sustainable choice with confidence.

This post focuses on biodynamic wine. Others cover organic wine and natural wine.

On the other side of the mountain we will tread perhaps more familiar terrain. We’ll start with how to appreciate good wine, what to look out for and which rare varieties of grape we feel need to make a comeback to stretch your palette. But that’s for another time and post.

What is biodynamic wine?

Biodynamic wine comes from farms certified by Demeter International as using biodynamic methods, as set out by their standards.

This way of farming goes back to the 1920s and to an Austrian called Rudolf Steiner. It was established way before the contemporary organic farming movement started.

Its approach is on the one hand the first attempt to apply what would be called today ‘systems thinking’ to farming. On the other, it’s the foundational approach to contemporary organic farming.

Biodynamic farming has four main tenets. Biodynamic farms are:

Diverse

Biodynamic farming acknowledges at its core that a farm is a living ecosystem that when nurtured can and does thrive.

Biodynamic

It eschews synthetic fertilisers, chemical plant protection products and artificial additives during the wine making process. This approach is not a reductive one that looks to reduce our impact to nothing. It’s much more, and instead it actively tries to build a resilient ecosystem.

Rhythmic

It uses natural cycles to punctuate the growing season and harks back to perhaps to a lost, more folky consideration of the natural order of things.

Logical

It actively builds the soil into something that’s rich is microorganisms and humus to help do things like better conserve water during dry spells.

The pros and cons of biodynamic wine

Biodynamic farming was perhaps 100 years ahead of its time and remains today truly ambitious in its scope.

It’s only now the UN is addressing biodiversity loss. It’s working towards signing the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in China in May 2021. A conference set to have similar ramifications for biodiversity as the historic Paris Agreement had for climate change.

This means the pros of biodynamic wine for you and me are:

  • No pesticides used anywhere on the farm, so taking fossil fuels (and their associated carbon debt) out of the system, while giving the surrounding countryside and people a healthy ecosystem to thrive in.

  • No chemical plant protection products in the farm, which again removes fossil fuels from the system and promotes healthy growth on and around the farm.

  • No added sulfites or other additives included in fermentation, meaning people who are allergic to sulfites (or any other additives) can drink to their heart’s content. It's worth mentioning though that sulfites do occur in small quantities naturally in wine.

  • A significantly increased biodiversity footprint over industrialised methods on the farm.

Moving to the cons

As the approach is built on an idea that’s now 100 years old there are some aspects that to our contemporary eyes can be seen as a bit hooky and alternative.

There’s a spiritual dimension to biodynamic farming. The rhythmic aspect of the practice takes in a solar system perspective. Burying cow horns is a mandated ritual that in isolation seems to be more for the fun than serious farming.

But I guess no system is perfect. If you're going to go for it you may as well not hold back. That's where the magic happens.

These less than scientific approaches have given biodynamic wine a bad wrap in scientific circles. So it is hard to find studies quantifying its impact in a meaningful way (I’m happy to stand corrected if there is).

As mass adoption is the ultimate aim here. My worry is, in spite of its pros but because of its cons, biodynamic wine will find it difficult to reach the mainstream.

Does biodynamic wine taste better?

That's the final question everyone asks.

Put it up against other good quality, beautiful wines in a taste test and it would be difficult to single out the biodynamic wine.

But, put another way, if you take an average biodynamic wine and compare it against an average industrially produced wine you will notice the difference.

The care, love and attention biodynamic farms get from their wine producers means that biodynamic wine is wine that’s made by people who are at the top of their game.

Industrially produced wine's standards are generic and compromised. But due to pure scale, its quality ranges from the good in places to, well plonk.

Biodynamic wine presents a sense of place that is lost to standardisation in the industrial process. This sense of place is a unique quality that's hard to find today.

It is one of the building blocks of what we think of as beautiful wine. For example this Barolo Bussi Dardi Le Rose Poderi Colla, 2016, from Piemonte, Italy or the Domaine Heresztyn-Mazzini Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2018 France as biodynamic wines, both present a unique sense of place.

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