Biodynamic and Organic Viticulture and Winemaking
by Julie Donnellan
Dramatic and dire changes to our planet have changed our thinking about the way we treat the fundamental components of our life support system on our planet. This had led to the increasingly popular movement towards sustainable farming and viticulture, and a better understanding of biodynamic and organic viticulture and wine making.
When considering wines produced in natural and less conventional ways there are a number of terms applied. This article seeks to explain the terminology of natural farming by explaining the key practices, both in viticulture and wine making used and how they are differentiated, so when you go to purchase wine you are clear about what you are buying.
Organics and biodynamics do not use artificial chemicals or additives. This is absolutely fundamental when differentiating these practices from conventional practices.
Cullens vineyard, Margaret River
Biodynamic viticulture is based on principles first brought to popularity in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, scientist, architect, spiritualist, and founder of the Waldorf School movement throughout the world. It is a method of organic farming that treats the 'farm' as an holistic organism, developing and maintaining the interrelationship of all animals, plants and soil within its own self-sustaining and self-nourishing system. Biodynamic viticulture seeks to bring the vineyard, and all its components, back into harmony and balance with nature. All aspects of the natural world are considered including the cycles of the moon sun and planets, so planting, pruning and feeding are undertaken using an astronomical calendar as a guide.
Biodynamic viticulture is about working from the inside out, working with what is available and developing abundance by allowing the vine to grow at its maximum potential - maximum yields with maximum flavour and colour.
Biodynamic viticulture relies on the use of manure and compost to build and promote health in the soils and plants. The key practice which distinguishes biodynamic viticulture from organic viticulture is the production of fertilisers and soil conditioners from cow manure and quartz crystals inserted into cow horns which are then buried underground for months at a time. Artificial or introduced chemicals are totally excluded as they are seen to deplete soils over time and interfere with natural systems. In their place fermented herbal and mineral sprays are used as fertilisers and weedicides. Composts are used to both fertilise the vines, as well as improve the general fertility of the vineyard.
However, one cannot go blindly into the vineyard and spray a herbal weedicide or fertiliser without thinking about how it will affect the rest of the vineyard, or other components of the vineyard. Every action within biodynamics has a reaction because of the holistic approach to the system. It takes relearning upon the part of the viticulturist, but is no less nor more difficult to manage than modern viticultural practices.
These theories are not new in viticultural practices. Proponents of biodynamic viticulture include Rhone Valley's House of Chapoutier, Burgundy's Domain de la Romaneé-Conti and Domain Leflaive. In the US, Russian River Vineyards, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, and Frey Vineyards follow biodynamic principles. From New Zealand, the Milton vineyards and Seresin both produce exceptional wines from biodynamically grown fruit.
Australia is not left behind, with world-class wines coming from Cullen's in Margaret River, Chapoutier vineyards in Mount Benson, Robinvale Wines in northern Victoria, and Jasper Hill on the ancient Cambrian soils of Heathcote.
Viticulturists around the world have found an immediate improvement in the health of their vineyards, particularly with soil nutrition, biodiversity, crop yields, and pest and disease control. Winemakers find the resultant wines cleaner, stronger and more vibrantly flavoured, and longer lasting drinkability.
There is no single organisation in Australia responsible for the certification of Biodynamic wines. There is however, one body that does oversee biodynamics, the Bio-Dynamic Research Institute.
The Institute was founded in Victoria in 1957. In 1967 it was vested with the rights to use, develop and certify biodynamic products and agri-businesses throughout Australia under the Demeter banner. Demeter is an international, non-profit organisation that operates in over forty countries worldwide, marketing and promoting biodynamic practices. The name is derived from the Greek goddess Demeter, the fertility goddess, who brought forth fruits and grains, and taught mankind the art of sowing, thus ending their nomadic existence. The Bio-Dynamic Research Institute certifies biodynamic activities in Australia with the support of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) which audits organic and biodynamic practices to international standards and requirements.
Organic wine means the grapes have been grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical fertilisers or additives. The wine has been produced naturally without any chemical additives.
Sulphur dioxide is a chemical additive that is used in wine production, to prevent spoilage or oxidation in the wine. It can start in the vineyard during picking, particularly with machine harvested fruit where splits and breakages of the berry skin is more likely to occur; to the resultant wine during bottling, to displace the air. Alcohol is a natural preservative, and organic winemakers tend towards this instead of added sulphur. Yet sulphur dioxide can occur naturally during fermentation; from the oak barrels, and the skin of the grapes. Thus, it is very difficult to have completely sulphite-free wines
The appeal of organic wines are the concepts of 'getting back to nature' and 'clean and green', ideals which are becoming more popular with consumers worldwide, especially with the devastation of our planet due to a century of chemical additives in our agricultural practices. Health benefits, not only to our populations, but also to our plants and animals, are becoming more important as genetically modified foods enter our diets, and obesity and diabetes become the plagues of our generation. Organic wines and foods also mean better taste in the end products, as fertilizers can reduce the flavour and health properties in the quest for higher yields and the perfect 'look' of a berry, carrot or apple.
Certification of organic wines is more difficult as there is no national, or international body to set and oversee the standards. Many farmers and viticulturists do not bother to be certified as the standards and requirements can change yearly within different organic viticultural organisations, and it can become a costly and frustrating exercise.
As it is, if wine is labelled '100% Organic', then no additives have been used at all in the production of the wine - essentially, it is as pure as can be made. If it is labelled 'Organic Wine' it is 95% organically certified, and the other 5% is likely to be yeast. Different labels and definitions are used for international wines.
In Australia, the process, as it stands today, takes three years for certification with a registered certifier. Initially, the soil is tested for chemical residue. If compliant, the business will be awarded with an A-grade certification. To maintain this certification, the certifier will carry out annual tests on the soil, and may arrive unannounced to conduct random chemical tests.
Two organisations in Australia who are registered certifiers are the Biological Farmers Australia (BFA) and the National Australian Sustainable Agriculture Association (NASAA).
Low-allergen wines are wines that are produced with no or minimal chemical additives, particularly sulphur dioxide.
Many people suffer from Red Wine Headache (RWH), but not from drinking excessive wines, only from drinking particular wines. There is no formal study that defines certain qualities of wine that cause RWH, although peremptory tests have found that there could be many causes.
Sulphur dioxide is often found in greater quantities in sweet white wine (in order to halt fermentation to retain the sweetness) but it is not cited as a source of headaches. Dried fruit contain high levels of sulphur dioxide, but they don't affect people in the same way.
Tannin is found in red wine in varying levels, but few people who suffer RWH also suffer from dark chocolate, soy or tea headaches, also sources of tannin.
Histamines are another scapegoat for RWH, but although they are much higher in red wine compared to white wine, between 2% and 200%, sufferers found no obvious difference or consistency in the effects between high- and low- histamine wines.
Biological farming is a phrase to describe biodynamic and organic farming. Both use innovative, non-chemical techniques for farming in harmony with the environment and providing nutrient rich, healthy soils from which healthy produce is grown. Quoted from Biological Farmers of Australia web site December 2008.
Sites with more information
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS)
Biodynamic Agriculture Australia
Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA)
DEMETER Bio-Dynamic Agriculture in Australia
National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA)
Red, White and Green: Biodynamics in Australian Vineyards