Organic and Biodynamic Wine
by Alyssa Rapp, founder and CEO of Bottlenotes.com
Where greenness is a somewhat straightforward issue in the produce section of the grocery store (either the organic produce looks and tastes better, despite costing more, or it doesn't), with wine the concept is much more complex.
In Depth: Ten "Green" Wines To Try
In fact, around the world there are three major environmentally geared grape-growing practices: sustainable farming, organic farming, and biodynamic farming. The schools of thought differ considerably and, many would argue, so does the quality of the wines from each school of thought.
But that's up to you to decide once you've tasted solid examples of all three.
Green Grape Growing
Organic winemaking, as with food, describes a specific method of farming, one that governs the use of chemicals in the process of cultivation. In other words, to produce and organic wine, man-made compounds cannot be used for the farming of the grapes or in the winemaking process.
That means no preservatives, even sulfur dioxide, the most common stabilizer added to wine, are used. (Only very small amounts are used in nonorganic wines, and even organic wines contain minute amounts of sulfur dioxide since it's a natural byproduct of the fermentation process.)
Does this make a wine taste better? Some say yes, some say no. The one near-constant among organic wines, however, is that the lack of sulfites often makes them easier to drink, right after uncorking. Since there are no preservatives, the wine is, more or less, ready to drink right away; some consumers even claim that organic wines taste pre-decanted.
A great example of this is Old River Vintners’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendocino County. Cabernets are typically tough and tannic when they're opened young, but because no sulfur is added to this wine, it tastes extremely approachable right away. It also contains a high percentage of the cabernet franc grape, which imparts some vegetal overtones.
Although it sounds easier to produce an organic wine--no chemicals, after all--it is actually far more difficult and expensive to protect and fertilize the crop. Many more hand-farming techniques must be employed, which gets expensive--and that cost is passed on to you, the consumer.
For that reason, another trend in grape growing is "sustainable" farming, which means that the grape grower uses the fewest amounts of chemicals possible, using them only when and if necessary. As a result, sustainably farmed vineyards tend to yield healthy, high-quality grapes.
A wonderful example of a sustainably farmed wine is Ukiah Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon. Blended with Zinfandel, Syrah, and 1% Viognier (a white-wine grape) for the boost in aromatics, Ukiah Cellars produces a really tasty, easy-drinking wine with surprisingly docile tannins and luscious black fruit characters. It's also a great deal at $15.
On the other end of the spectrum are biodynamic wines. Biodynamic grapes are farmed organically, but also in accordance with the Earth’s movements along a series of farming guidelines developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner, in 1924. He was a philosopher, not a farmer, which is why some view biodynamic grape-growing with skepticism.
Following the lunar calendar, biodynamic adherents will make their decisions about the grapes based on the phases of the moon. Some of the more interesting facets include rituals that may, to some, appear more religious than practical, such as burying a cow horn full of manure then digging it up and spraying it on the field; or fermenting oak bark in a domesticated animal’s skull. While some see all this as witchcraft, few there argue that, by and large, fewer chemicals applied to the soil results in better-quality wine.
That's up to you to decide, ultimately, but an example of a biodynamic wine worth trying is the cabernet sauvignon from Mendocino Farms. This wine has some of the Petit Sirah grape blended in--which imparts a slightly inky purple color and tannin structure that shores up the wine's ageability--as well as some syrah, which adds just a dash of pepper and baking-spice character.
Mendocino is not the only location producing sustainably farmed, organic or biodynamic wines. In fact, these practices are widespread, and adopted by many brands you might already drink regularly.
Some examples from France include biodynamic Fleury Champagne, which is a delicious bubbly with extremely fine beads, or the highly coiffable, organic Beaujolais Blanc from the “Mondavi” of Burgundy, Maison Louis Jadot; from Australia, an outstanding organic Viognier is made by Protero, and many more.
Are the great lengths to which winemakers go in adhering to these farming practices worth it? Ask your palate.