This article was a guest piece I wrote that was originally posted here.
Why I am Convinced that Biodynamic is Better than Conventional, Organic or “Natural”
Wait, is that the sound of torches being lit? Do I hear pitchforks being sharpened? Are the tar and the feathers being prepared?
Hear me out, before you run me out of town.
I am speaking generally. Yes, I think that biodynamic viticulture (and the wines that result from it) is better than “just” organic – and, honestly, it is certainly better – for all living things – than conventional viticulture as well. But this does not mean I think there are no excellent wines, winemakers or estates producing compelling, exciting wines in all of these other categories; there unequivocally are. I have favourite estates with fabulous wines using all the viticultural methods that there are. My appreciation for biodynamics is a sum of several things: the wines, the winemakers and the vineyards.
So why is biodynamic better?
I will explain below, but first let’s deal with the nuts and bolts, so to speak.
What is Biodynamics?
Biodynamics is a system of organic agriculture, but it is also much more than that. It is a philosophy – one that is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner back in 1924, who delivered a series of lectures on agriculture. These formed the foundation for Biodynamics. It is organic, which means that synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (with the exception of Bordeaux Mixture and sulphur) are not used. In Biodynamics the vineyard (or farm, as the case may be) is understood to be an ecosystem, its health is approached holistically and the goal is to be self-sufficient. Biodiversity is key, and is nurtured through composting and encouraging diverse and useful plants to root between the vines – and often under them. The harvest is always done manually, but many practitioners eschew machinery entirely, with the result that all vineyard work is done by hand – sometimes with the assistance of horses, where conditions permit. This is done partly to reduce compacting of the soil. So far, so organic.
But then there is the twist: vineyard activities – from planting to spraying to harvesting – are done in accordance with the movement and position of diverse celestial bodies. And there are a variety of preparations used variously for composting, as fertiliser, as pesticides or fungicides, all of which are prepared from sometimes fairly exotic body parts of common domestic animals and employing somewhat homeopathic methods.
Why is it Good?
Short and sweet:
The soils are better
They are more erosion-resistant (due to increased humus and active plant cover), less compacted, healthier, and with far more microbiological activity. The composting used is also very high quality.
The vineyards are more biodiverse.
Not using pesticides or herbicides, combined with the encouragement of a wide variety of plant life, means many kinds of insects, birds and other animals take up residence or visit. They often look wild, but a biodynamic vineyard is markedly full of life, a fact which I have witnessed firsthand on dozens of visits to producers throughout Europe – and stands in stark contrast to all other vineyards even in the near vicinity.
The practitioners are dedicated to the health of their environment
The health of all the living things in their vineyard is vital, and they seek to work in harmony with the natural world so that the vineyard ecosystem largely keeps itself healthy, instead of subjugating it through the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. This is done to achieve a healthy, stable and consistent harvest, as well as for the benefit of living things generally. What can I say? That’s admirable – and it seems to work.
The wines are more interesting.
Okay, this is a personal opinion and very difficult to prove objectively without organising blind tastings. Personally, I like a wine that tells a story – a wine with something to say. I may not always like a biodynamic wine, but I find they are almost always interesting. And I find that far fewer of them are faulty or poorly-made in comparison to conventional, natural, or even other organic wines. I find that many wines from conventional viticulture taste much the same as one another. Interestingly, I find the same to be true for natural wines. With biodynamic wines I find this is very rarely the case.
So What’s the Criticism?
The complaints about biodynamics can be summarised pretty quickly. Let’s have a look at these point-by-point.
It is unscientific
Not much need to spend a lot of time on this point: it is at least partly true. The esoterica of biodynamics are difficult to do controlled studies on. The view of vineyards as ecosystems makes it likewise difficult to do a side-by-side trial of conventional and biodynamic practices. That being said, research has been done (several studies published in the journal Science, in fact) demonstrating that soil quality and biodiversity in biodynamic vineyards is far better than that of conventional or other organic vineyards. As of yet there is no real understanding of why that should be so, however. My own hypotheses on the topic do not involve the cycles of the moon and planets. Critics of biodynamics rail against the unscientific foundations of the practices, calling it “voodoo” and “hocus-pocus” or worse. They often feel the practices are unproven or insufficiently-proven, generally laughable and strictly for the naïve.
My purpose here is not to try to prove that there is a scientific foundation – that bit doesn’t actually matter to me that much, because biodynamic practices are not harmful. And so I ask: so what if the foundation of biodynamics is unscientific?
Don’t get me wrong, I am passionate about fact, evidence and science-based decisions and policy-making. For me, however, if something isn’t harmful, then what is the problem? I don’t think anybody can claim that biodynamics is harmful. Quite the contrary, in fact. Biodynamic farms and vineyards literally buzz with life, they are bursting with diversity. Even if they look a bit wild and unkept, they are healthy, you can quite literally see it and hear it. The practices do no harm, so so what if you think the philosophy is a bit daft? Does it matter? I care about what ends up in the bottle, I care about the long-term health and resistance to erosion of the soil, I care about the health of the plants, the animals, and the people working the vines. I challenge any critic of biodynamics to show that the fanciful practices of biodynamics do damage. Folding your arms, stamping your foot and wailing “but it is unfounded” is simply so much sour grapes.
The wines are bad
They can be, just as wines from any kind of viticulture and winemaking can be bad. Beyond cork taint, wines can be bad for many reasons, but most of them stem from poor hygiene in the winery, bad winemaking, or inappropriate viticulture. These three elements are factors for all wines from any viticultural practice. The greater danger with biodynamics is the same as with other organic wines, in particular “natural” wines: sulphur. Many organic producers, including biodynamic ones, try to reduce the amount of sulphur used during winemaking and bottling. Many makers of natural wines try to avoid it altogether. This can be risky winemaking, requiring very healthy grapes and a scrupulously clean winery – and things can still go wrong. Nonetheless, my personal experience of biodynamic wines is that there are less defective examples than what I get from organic producers generally, and far less than what I find from natural producers.
It is elitist
There is definitely some truth to this one. The image of biodynamics propagated by many of its fans among wine journalists, combined with the near-religious fervour of more than a few of its practitioners, has created an “our way is the only way” mentality. This is unfortunate, not constructive and not really true. There are many fine organic and conventional producers that care very deeply for their vines and for the environment, to say nothing of the natural producers, who are often easily as fervent as the biodynamic ones.
The wines are too expensive
The wines certainly do generally cost more than wines of similar quality from other viticultural practices. Then again, doing everything by hand is time-consuming and difficult – and neither certification nor the biodynamic treatments are free.
Cards on the Table
Here are my main beefs with the other systems, and why, in my eyes, they are not on equal footing with biodynamics.
Conventional: be it pesticides, herbicides or fertiliser, once you start spraying it is difficult to stop – and conventional viticulture is relatively easy to do on a large scale, which is responsible for far too many technically well-made, distressingly bland cookie-cutter wines.
Organic: there are many organic producers doing spectacular work, but the organic market is so valuable that there are also many producers – often on an industrial scale – producing quite poor wines for which the main sales argument is “it’s organic”. They populate the “organic” shelf in wine shops and fill whole sections of the local organic store. The first sales argument of a wine should be its quality, not its viticulture.
Natural: oh, how I want to love these wines – but I just can’t. Still too many faults, and too much “sameness” within the category. It is a different flavour palette, to be sure – and yet seems to have reached a similar kind of interchangeability within the category that has long been achieved by conventional wines. But I have high hopes that the winemaking and the wines will improve. There is a lot of potential here.
To Sum Up
The thing is, biodynamics isn’t easy. In fact, it requires a near-fanatical commitment to make work. It takes years to convert from conventional to biodynamic viticulture, and then often a few years more to get certified. Those who practice it are crazy about life, crazy about their vineyards, and crazy about everything that lives in them. The practitioners are in their vineyards every day, checking on every vine. They have an intimate knowledge of their soils, their vines, their grapes and their microclimates. This is irreplaceable and, I think, is one of the main reasons why the wines can be so good. Conventional viticulture is far easier to manage on an industrial scale – even “normal” organic viticulture has fallen victim to industrial methods due to the money that can be had. This is far more difficult – though by no means impossible – with biodynamic viticulture. I, personally, have never met anyone who follows biodynamics that has given me the impression that they are doing it for the money, although I have heard that these people exist.
The result of all this? The wines are most often original, compelling, even fascinating – and unquestionably made with a respect for life. And this is perhaps my main point: if I go into a shop and want to pick a wine from a producer that I don’t know, it makes a difference to me if that producer is biodynamic. The organic aspect is important, yes – but it is more than that. I feel very confident that I will have something interesting, something worth trying – and isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?