Biodynamics – what is biodynamic wine?

Have you ever wondered what it means for a wine to be certified biodynamic? Or what the difference between organic and biodynamic might be? These distinct classifications are often cause for confusion, especially when associated with other claims, such as ‘better taste’ or ‘good for your health’.

Here is a simple guide that will hopefully allow you to understand what it all means.

Biodynamics is thought to be the oldest ‘green’ farming movement, predating organics by over two decades. Biodynamic viticulture and winemaking are based on the theories described in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925, pictured right) for agriculture in general, and proposes a holistic, homeopathic methodology of farming. 

This holistic understanding is based on the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected and influenced by shared energies, giving off a universal resonance. This interconnectivity includes all animated and unanimated bodies on earth, as well as all celestial bodies (planets, comets, stars..). His work emerged in response to a request from farmers observing degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting, they believed, from the use of chemical fertilizers.

Although his theories are sometimes dismissed as non-scientific and too dogmatic, and even discarded by some due to Steiner’s connection with the German nationalist movement, Biodynamics have been adopted and reinterpreted all over the world. Farmers the world over have been able to observe a significant improvement in soil health and quality of harvests when working under the biodynamic charter. 

Is it the same as organic? 

No, organic and biodynamic are quite different in their approach to farming and winemaking. While organic farming basically revises traditional farming practices with a focus on sustainability, lesser use of chemicals and restriction of polluting agents, biodynamic goes a step beyond. While in organic farming fertilisers and some (natural) chemical compounds can still be used to promote growth and control pests and diseases, biodynamic uses only a few homeopathic preparations, akin to infusions, to treat the fields. Organic wines can also make use of commercial yeasts for fermentation while biodynamic wines can only be spontaneously fermented with the yeasts that occur naturally in the plants and cellar. It follows that while a biodynamic is necessarily also organic, the opposite is not true. 

It also requires farmers to plan their work according to the lunar calendar, as it is thought that this follows the natural cycle of the plants. 

There are three main prescriptive biodynamic principles that make it quite different from organics: 
  • The vineyard should become a self-sustaining ‘farm organism’ capable of balancing and regenerating itself and which has all the necessary elements and nutrients for all organism to thrive.
  • The vineyard should be treated regularly with nine herb- and mineral-based biodynamic preparations, made through the blending of specific formulas, whose composition is based on each field’s specific needs and season. These are then ‘activated’ by being mixed and buried in the field, inside cow horns, before being sprayed the vineyard.
  • All tasks, in the vineyards and cellar (planting, pruning, ploughing, picking, fermenting, and bottling) need to be timed according to the biodynamic calendar, in other to harness the vital forces propelled by earthly and celestial rhythms and cycles (namely planetary, solar, stellar, and especially lunar). 
The biodynamic calendar was devised by Maria Thurner, the most authoritative figure, after Steiner, of the biodynamic and anthroposophical movement. Thun divided days into four categories: Root, Fruit, Flower and Leaf Days.

Each category in turn corresponds to one of Plato’s four classical elements:  Earth, Fire, Air and Water. This then serves as a guide to which operations should and shouldn’t be carried out in the vineyard and cellar, to promote and respect the natural dynamics. 

As an example, you would avoid harvesting on a Leaf Day because Leaf Days correlate with the Element water and you’d end up picking rotten, waterlogged grapes. 

  • Fruit Days: Best days for harvest
  • Root Days: Ideal days for pruning
  • Flower Days: Leave the vineyard alone on these days
  • Leaf Days: Ideal for watering plants

How are Biodynamic Wines certified?  

Biodynamic certification is overseen and granted, under strict rules and regulations, by two governing bodies:

  • Demeter International – the first biodynamic certification organisation to be created. It certifies all practices and products, not just wine.
  • Biodyvin – a certification body for European wineries only. 

Due to the complexity and costs of obtaining biodynamic certification from these institutions, many producers chose to work under biodynamic practices without an official certification. 

Which producers and regions pioneered biodynamic practices?  

Following its conception in Germany, where biodynamic certification has become widespread across all farming sectors, its methods were adopted quite early by many small grape growers and winemakers.

But it would thanks to the French that the biodynamic wine movement really gathered pace, eventually being adopted by winemakers worldwide. France’s first biodynamic wine-grower, François Bouchet (1932–2005), began using the techniques on his 6 ha/15 acre Domaine de Château Gaillard in Touraine in 1962. But is was not until the 1980s, when Bouchet began helping leading names such as Domaine Leflaive of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Leroyin Vosne-Romanée, Chapoutier in Hermitage, Huet in Vouvray, and Kreydenweiss in Alsace to convert to biodynamics, that the movement truly gathered pace.

Other important names followed, in France and beyond: Nicolas Joly in Savennières (1985), Jean-Pierre Fleury in Champagne (1989), James Millton in New Zealand (1989), Château Romanin in Provence (1990), Guy Bossard in Muscadet (1992), Michel Grisard in Savoie (1994), the Fetzer and Frey families in California (mid 1990s), Cazes in Roussillon (1998), Nikolaihof in Austria (1998), Álvaro Espinoza in Chile (1999), Cooper Mountain in Oregon (1999), Reyneke in South Africa (2000), Valgiano in Tuscany (2001), Comte Abbatucci in Corsica (2002), Stéphane Tissot in the Jura (2004), Domaine Vacheron in Sancerre (2004), Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux (2005), Dr Bürklin-Wolf in Germany (2005), Cullen in Western Australia (2005), Noemía in Argentina (2006), and Southbrook in Canada (2008).

These eventually catalysed widespread adoption, consumer awareness and a better understanding of the premises and befits of biodynamic practices. 

Does biodynamic wine taste better?  

The short and quick answer is No, it doesn’t. Many of the world’s finest wines are not biodynamic. It is generally accepted, however, that practices that favour a more mindful work in the vineyard, avoid the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, not results in the production of better fruit and ultimately better wines, but is allows for a purer expression of terroir.

More important that the taste of the wines they make, what bonds biodynamic winemakers is a general belief that these practices are a better way of working altogether, in balance with all aspects of nature, time and life itself.

Next in our expert advice series: Pairing Food & Wine