Do You Really Know What Biodynamic Means?
Wine labels emblazoned with buzzwords like organic, biodynamic and sustainable are ubiquitous—but what these terms actually mean for winemaking is not always clear to the drinker.
Just in time for Earth Day, here’s your ultimate guide to green labels.
Organic wines are generally grown without the addition of chemicals either in the vineyard or in the bottle, with few to no additives. While this method of viticulture is becoming more common, obtaining organic certification can be an expensive and laborious process because there’s no supreme governing body calling the shots. For instance, the USDA alone has three categories governing organic labeling. Still, consumer trends reveal wine devotees scour store shelves looking for “organic.”
Look for: Organic labeling runs the gamut, from the USDA Organic Seal to “Made with Organic Grapes” or “Made with Organically Grown Grapes.” Also keep an eye out for seals from organic-certifying agencies.
Biodynamic viniculture, credited to Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and social reformer, is a stricter version of organic practices, though some critics deride the system’s more homeopathic preparations, such as burying a cow horn full of manure in the vineyard.
At the core, biodynamic farmers see their vineyard as an interconnected and living, breathing ecosystem, and their goal is to create harmony between the soil, the vines and the land’s other existing flora and fauna.
Regardless of the more “hippie” elements of biodynamics, its tenets force practitioners to focus that much harder on their vineyard work, with fans praising the wines as more expressive of terroir.
Look for: Two biodynamic certification groups are Demeter and Biodyvin which has more lenient vinification rules. “Made with biodynamic grapes” means the grapes are farmed biodynamically, but the winemaker is more lax on the rules in the winery.
This catch-all category means that grapes are grown with as few chemicals as possible, and minimal additives are used in winemaking. Alternatively, sustainability focuses on not harming the environment. Winemakers who identify as sustainable sometimes choose not to certify as either biodynamic or organic due to the cost associated with certification, while others adhere to their own rules governing organic winemaking. In fact, many old school European winemakers have always been some combination of organic, biodynamic and natural, but don’t see the value in labeling as such. They much prefer going their own way. The best way to learn about these winemakers is through their distributor’s Web site, which offers lots of information on their vineyard and winery practices.
Look for: These third-party organizations are just some sustainable seals to look out for: Sustainability in Practice (SIP), Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), Qualité France, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
Arguably the most divisive term on this list, natural wine is also the hardest to define. According to natural winemakers, “natural” means “nothing added, nothing removed,” or “noninterventionist.” In other words, rather than heavily working the vineyards and wine, they shepherd the wines, allowing them to develop as naturally as possible. For the consumer, this means no added sulfites, organic vineyard practices and ambient or wild yeast fermentation. Often times, there’s a blurring of biodynamic and natural winemaking, depending on which winemaker you ask—while critics believe adherents to the natural-wine movement make exaggerated claims to the “purity” of these wines.
Look for: You won’t find the words “natural” on labels. Instead, look for words like “wild” or “native” yeast, “spontaneous fermentation,” “unfined” and “unfiltered.”