It’s no secret that there is a seemingly unstoppable groundswell of support for healthy living these days, with organic foodstuffs abounding and “all natural” labels slapped on everything from carrots to coffee pods to candy bars. It’s unsurprising, then, that this yearning for a healthier, cleaner diet would extend to the things we drink. On the surface, wine is the ultimate naturally made product – take grapes, add water and sunlight, let the wee yeast particles work their magic, and enjoy the fruits of Mother Nature’s incomparable talents – but that’s not always the case, and that’s where this fairly new affinity for organic and biodynamic wine comes in.
We’re not here to ballyhoo about the superiority of one farming technique over another, but rather to give you some insight into the various certifications so you can make an informed decision on what you’d like to stock in your cellar. So, here it is.
The romantic imagery of a sun-drenched hillside vineyard covered in a bramble of grapevines practically bursting with juicy fruit is inarguably tantalizing, but underneath that picturesque façade wine is a cash crop just like wheat, corn, potatoes, or tomatoes, and as such each harvest is just as vulnerable to pests, vermin, and disease. The easy answer lies in a heaping dose of pesticides, but concerns about cancer-causing carcinogens and other pesticide-related health issues has led to a surge in the production and consumption of organic wine.
Organic farming practices are heavily regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and have been since 1990. In order for a winery to legally call their product organic, they must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent who will ensure all production techniques and vineyard management strategies are up to snuff. The exact regulations are pretty involved, but basically organic vineyards cannot use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and must be vinified without the addition of sulfites (although some sulfites will be naturally present in most wine). There are several categories of organic wine that detail the percentage of organic vs. non-organic grapes used, but to carry a USDA seal, the wine must be made with at least 95 percent organic grapes.
While organic labeling can be a good guideline for purchasing wines made without pesticides or synthetic additives the process of becoming certified organic is both long (three years plus, just to transition from tradition to organic farming) and somewhat costly (we’re talking application fees, annual renewal fees, inspection fees, and paying to have someone assess each year’s production over and over and over again, although in the grand scheme of things for most wineries this still won’t exactly break the bank), and some wineries technically qualify as organic but simply don’t bother applying.
Biodynamic labeling isn’t regulated by the United States government, but there is an international agency called the Demeter Association that oversees biodynamic certification. Biodynamic farming includes organic principles as part of a much larger philosophy that also incorporates the Earth’s movements, the lunar calendar, and animal welfare. Specifically, there are nine biodynamic preparations that must be followed, but in more general terms think of biodynamic as a holistic approach to wine growing; each piece of the puzzle affects the others, and there is a definite cyclical feel to the entire practice. Everything is interconnected, and while some of the tenets seem a little ‘out there’ (Anybody feel like burying a poo-packed cow horn before winter hits? Anyone?), the results are widely believed to be worth it. After all, biodynamic farmers spend a ridiculous amount of time carefully tending to their crops, and it’s all hands on – no giant sprayers or hulking machinery in use here – so it’s hard to imagine that not having some positive effect. How much is up to you and your taste buds.
Because biodynamic wines are also organic by nature, they may feature the biodynamic label by default, leaving the organic part of the certification to be implied. A “biodynamic wine” follows biodynamic practices from start to finish, while a wine “made from biodynamic grapes” may be vinified using some form of manipulation, such as the addition of non-naturally present yeasts or the manipulation of acidity levels.
- Fork & Bottle’s Master List of Natural and Biodynamic Wine Producers – This list is about 6 years out of date but still remarkably comprehensive in its inclusion of wineries in a multitude of styles and from wine regions all over the world.
- The Organic Wine Company – The OWC has the self-proclaimed “largest selection of organic, biodynamic, vegan, and no-sulfite-added (NSA) wines from the world’s premier wine growing regions.” They also boast a 100% satisfaction guarantee, ensuring consumers can sample new wines risk free.
- The Town Hall Coalition keeps their own master list of organic and biodynamic producers in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino.
- Buy organic or biodynamic wine