Breaking down organic and biodynamic wine



If farming grapes under a stag’s bladder leads to tastier wine, Jonathan Brookes is willing to swallow it.

The movement toward organic viticulture has been so remarkable in the last 20-30 years that today it is unusual to find a winery at the top of their game that is not practising organics or biodynamics. But what exactly is organic or biodynamic wine, and why has it become so popular among top producers and those who drink their wine?

Organic or biodynamic wine is made from grapes that were grown using an organic or biodynamic approach to farming.

Organics restricts the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. This fundamentally changes the practices of farming grapes as alternative ways to nourish vines and control undesirable plant and animal life in the vineyard are sought.

These alternative methods are typically lower yielding (at least over the short term), more labour intensive and expensive. Soils rich in nutrients and microbial life, and plant and insect diversity are key in the arsenal of organic farmers looking to grow healthy vines.

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Biodynamics encompasses the restrictions of agrochemicals, just like organics, but goes further in codifying a whole system of agriculture with proscribed animal, mineral and plant-based preparations and treatments designed to support the health of the farm as a whole. It also follows a calendar based around the movement of the moon and the stars that determines when to do what on the farm.

Biodynamics has its doubters. Many will point at what appear to be its wacky practices – such as burying a cow horn filled with poo at a certain time in the lunar cycle, to later dig up, dilute to homoeopathic quantities, and spray over vines, or hanging a stag’s bladder filled with yarrow from a tree – questioning its scientific validity and the authority of its founder Rudolf Steiner.

Personally I take a basic, pragmatic and self-serving position on biodynamics. So many of the wines I love to drink, and many of the most highly sought after wines in the world that I wish I had more opportunity to drink, are made with biodynamically farmed grapes. If the people who make those wines are convinced by this approach, I’m convinced by their wine.

The decision to grow grapes organically or biodynamically is not one anyone takes lightly. For one, it’s simply more work and therefore more expensive. There’s also a lot riding on it being successful. A poor harvest means considerable financial stress for a grape grower, successive poor returns on years of work means they won’t survive.

Compound this with the fact that these approaches to farming are now being used on some of the most expensive agricultural land on the planet, and the risk to finances and reputation these winegrowers take in adopting these approaches is clear. There are of course many different arguments made for organic agriculture, from the health of the land, to the health of workers, and eventually consumers, around the risks associated with chemical sprays, and concerns about the influence of global agrochemical business.

The organic and biodynamic producers I’ve met might share some or none of these rationale, they’re a diverse bunch when it comes to opinions and attitudes to most things. But what they do have in common is that they’re convinced these approaches to farming produce consistently healthy vines and the best grapes from which to make high quality wine. What I’m getting at is that these are not vague ideological commitments but hard-nosed, outcome-focused, practical ones.

Because truthfully, organics and biodynamics has everything to do with winemaking. It’s common to the point of cliché for great winemakers to say that great wine is made not in the winery, but in the vineyard. The growing of healthy grapes year after year is key to great winemaking. Wine is after all an agricultural product, and the best ones reflect that.

The idea of terroir, which can seem a bit obscure and intimidating, really just refers to how the agricultural conditions of the unique time, place and people who grew the grapes, show through in the finished wine. The movement toward organic and biodynamic wine in recent decades reflects the fact that many of the world’s best producers believe these approaches to farming are better for producing delicious wine, and wine that best tells the story of where it came from.

Recommendations

There are two internationally recognised independent organic certification bodies in New Zealand, Biogrow and AsureQuality, and one Biodynamic, Demeter. Each involves a three-year initial process and annual audits. These are three Biogrow certified wines I’ve tried recently:

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Amphora Chardonnay 2021, $50

Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2021, $90

Twin releases from Nelson’s Neudorf. These wines share in common grown up complexity with refreshingly bitter, pithy citrus flavours and plenty of energy and drive. Singular expressions of chardonnay that impress without ever being obvious or overly forward.

The Moutere Chardonnay has a broader palate filling texture, and has me imagining it at a table with a greasy lemon and garlic stuffed roasted chook. Make an event of it and start the meal with the Rosie’s Block, which is more direct and linear. Yum!

Halcyon Days, Heliacal Rise 2022

This is so much fun! A blend of skin fermented chardonnay and pinot noir. Both its blush pink colouring and dusky rose and berry aromatics take me back to the youthful joys of smokers lollies. Not that this is at all sweet, instead being delicate, fresh and oh-so-drinkable. It makes a strong case for more wines at this relatively low 10% abv.



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