Say the words biodynamic wine in any circle of sommeliers and you are introducing a cat among the oenological pigeons. There are some that love it. The “world’s best restaurant” Noma in Copenhagen is one example The three-star Michelin restaurant famously served a glass of €8 biodynamic wine with their €350 signature starter to much consternation. The said wine, from an unknown vineyard in France’s Loire Valley was a natural wine, made without using any pesticides, chemicals or preservatives, harvested from grapes that were picked according to the moon’s cycle. According to many, the white wine was cloudy and noticeably sour.
There are many stories like the above – where high-end eateries serve seemingly odd choices with their tasting menus. Noma is by no means alone – both Hibiscus in London and Mugaritz in San Sebastian are “guilty” of championing biodynamic wine, looking for the flavours that come from 100% natural processing. “Natural wines are in vogue,” reported the Times in 2017. “The weird and wonderful flavours will assault your senses with all sorts of wacky scents and quirky flavours.” That might be so, but do we actually like it?
How does this trend affect the investment market? We have many biodynamic bottles for sale on Vindome.net, and there is no denying that from a taste perspective wines that are made with no pesticides offer the connoisseur a taste sensation like no other. However, from an ageing point of view, how does being grown to a moon calendar and having no chemicals affect the wine, long term?
What Is Biodynamic Wine?
Biodynamic wines are wines made using organic farming processes – such as compost to fertilise, planting various herbs to act as natural pesticides and using soil supplements, to ensure ecological self-sufficency. Planting and harvesting is done on according to an astrological calendar. While it may seem like a new trend, biodynamic farming has been around since 1924, when Rudolf Steiner outlayed the benefits of treating the vineyard as “one living organism.” Steiner’s thinking was that the fields, plants, animals, soil, and even insects should be nurtured in order to support the healthy lifespan of the terroir as a whole.
The process is regulated by very strict guidelines, laid out by the “Demeter” regulations. Demeter farms are inspected annually for compliance with the Standard in addition to the organic inspection, so there is no way a farm can claim to be following the process and not be. Among the regulations is a calendar (divided into quarters, in order to coincide with the four elements of the earth) of when to harvest, prune, water and leave. These are broken down into:
Fruit Days: for harvesting, Root Days: for pruning, Flower Days: for rest and Leaf Days: for watering.
One of biodynamics great champions is Pomerol’s Alain Moueix, who defends departure from traditional winemaking at his estates Château Fonroque (fully biodynamic since 2002) and Château Mazeyres (fully biodynamic since 2012). “Biodynamics makes it possible to make more singular wines that speak better of the place, the vintage, the winemaker. It’s based on a delicate observation of nature in order to follow its spontaneous shifts. It allows freedom from technical constraints to forge an intimate relationship with the terroir. Is this not also tradition?”
However, omitting all additions – such as yeast to help the sugar convert into alcohol, has proved controversial amongst the winemaking community. Some producers, including very high profile ones such as Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, or Château Fonplegade in Bordeaux, are very much for, while others are very much against. Currently, just 9% of Bordeaux’s 122,000 hectares of vineyards are certified organic.
When Did Biodynamic Agriculture Start?
The name’s Steiner. Rudolf Steiner. Many of you will already be familiar with the Austrian philosopher of the early 20th century but for those who aren’t, let us refresh your memory. Steiner (1861-1925) was a scientist, philosopher and artist who believed that entities, such as the human body, or in this case, vineyards, should be treated as a threefold being of spirit, soul, and body. His interests were primarily in education, but also in a wide range of fields such as medicine, nutrition, social renewal, the environment and, of course, agriculture.
Farming according to the stars however is in no way a new invention – records show that agriculture and cultivation based on the earth’s elements go back as far as Plato’s era. The Old Farmers Almanac, the bible that gives reference charts on long-range weather forecasts, the astronomical calendar and planting charts for the year ahead has been in continual publication since 1792 and is the USA’s longest-standing book in continual publication.
How Is Biodynamic Wine Different From Organic Wine?
That is not to say that all organic wine is biodynamic (however, all biodynamic wine is organic). While organic wine has been made with grapes that are organic – i.e. no chemicals were used during the growing period, biodynamic wine takes the whole vineyard into account, including other insects and plants and the lunar calendar.
Does Biodynamic Wine Taste Different?
A 2021 study of over 200,000 independent critics in both California and France saw that wines produced from organic or biodynamically produced grapes do taste better. The real question is, can you tell the difference between organic and biodynamically produced wines?
The simple truth is not really. Organic wines taste better (on average) than conventional wines, and biodynamic wines taste better (on average) than organic wines.
Biodynamic practices lead to higher quality wines, but becoming biodynamic involves a complex set of practices and needs heavy investment. Because of this, only the bigger wineries can embrace the process. However, with the global organic wine market forecasted to grow 43% by 2024, smaller estates can embrace at least the first phase.
In 2018, according to the Bordeaux wine council, there were 608 organically certified producers of AOC Bordeaux – a 29% increase in two years – and 47 certified biodynamic.
Is There Biodynamic Fine Wine?
Europe is leading the way with biodynamic wines, with France, Italy and Germany embracing the trend. Of the above-mentioned 47 certified biodynamic producers, two fine wines stand alone. They are of course, third growth Chateau Palmer, which converted to biodynamics (from organics) in 2014 and Chateaux Latour, which is converting parts of its vineyards to biodynamics with the ambition to preserve its terroir. However, as James Suckling so rightly points out, what your neighbours do can also have a big impact on your vineyard, as the ecosystem is not set according to the lines drawn between your parcels and those next door. So investors should look at Chateaux Margaux (not that you needed telling), which shares a border with Palmer when looking for that tell-tale taste of focus, precision, real succulence, energy and even a distinctive texture. Like most things, the proof is in the pudding (or glass) with biodynamic wine. It really would be best to taste biodynamic wine in the chateau itself – why not have a look at our top picks for wine trips!