Learn what the terms organic, biodynamic and sulfite-free mean when talking about wines

I once asked Michel Chapoutier what he meant when he described his wines as biodynamic. I understood organic, but biodynamic was a term I was unfamiliar with seventeen years ago. Like most French wine makers, he made it simple. “Like my Grandfather would say, ‘Why would you S#!% where you eat?’”

I had to agree with Michel. Like all wine makers and grape growers, Michel is a steward of the land. Like the old African proverb says, we don’t own the land, we inherit it from our parents, and hold it for our children. Chapoutier has never put anything foreign in their soil, why would they start now?

What Is Organic?

Most people are familiar with the word organic. With “100 Mile Diets” and “Omnivore’s Dilemmas” everywhere, the term has become synonymous with healthy mindful eating and drinking. But what does it really mean? In the wine world it describes wines that are produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Today there are nearly 2,000 certified organic wineries world-wide, with almost 900 in France alone. Practices vary from country to country, as do organic laws, so do a little research. While grapes may be organically grown, the wine they make may not be organic. Many US wines for example, bare the label, “Made from Organically Grown Grapes”. While still classified as organic, this label means that the wine was not organically produced. Certain additives or preservatives were used during the wine making process that are not considered organic – such as added sulfites.

The aforementioned biodynamic process involves strict organic practices while taking it all a step further. There is an ethical and spiritual component involving moon cycles, interconnected eco-systems, and cow horns filled with manure and pulverized quartz. Confused yet? Are you a little weirded out?

Organic and biodynamic practices are all part of the larger philosophy of sustainable farming. Many wineries have been around for generations and wine makers like Michel Chapoutier plan to pass their legacy on to future generations to come. Farming organically just makes sense.

May Contain Sulfites

Many people seek out organic wines because they want to avoid sulfites. Sulfites are a preservative used in wine making. They help stabilize the wine, prevent oxidization and halt fermentation. While they are often added during wine making, they do occur naturally with grapes. Most wines contain between 30 and 150 parts per million (ppm).

Many drinkers are convinced sulfites are the reason for wine headaches. In reality, less than 4% of North Americans have a true aversion to sulphur dioxide. The “bastard behind the eyes” is more likely due to tannins, histamines and other enzymes also present in the wine. Again, these all occur naturally, even in organic grapes. So more organic doesn’talways mean a lesser hangover. Just remember, if a wine has the words, “Contains Sulfites” on the label, its sulfite count is more than 10 ppm.

Many wine makers, particularly our European cousins, believe wine is made in the vineyard. What they put in the soil and on the grapes affects the wine they will become. Conversely, avoiding chemicals in the vineyard ensures that a wine reflects its own distinct “terroir”, or place of origin. Organic proponents insist their wines are unique and vibrant in the glass. While this is all up for debate, many farmers agree, a more balanced, sustainable approach to wine making just makes sense.

An Old Idea

Of course, the practise of organic grape growing is as old as the grapes themselves. But biodynamics are a relatively new phenomenon.

Biodynamic agriculture sprung from the mind of Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolph Steiner. In 1924, he delivered a groundbreaking series of lectures called the ‘Agriculture Course’ to a group of European farmers. Steiner saw the farm as a self-sustaining organism, with animals and crops all interdependent on one another. While many of the practises involved in biodynamics may seem eccentric to say the least, (the nine biodynamic preparations include the aforementioned cow horn ritual, as well as stag’s bladders, goat skulls and the spring equinox), just the simple idea that grape growers are practising mindful farming ensures a finer crop.

These ideas soon spread to California where the freethinking vintners of the 60s and 70s embraced the philosophy gratefully. Many of today’s organic farming practises morphed out of these radical ideas.

The process of achieving organic certification is a long one. And it is not cheap. There are many fine, sustainably grown, organic wineries that have been operating for decades that have never gone in for certification.

Free-range sheep that eat weeds, ladybugs that hunt fruit-chewing insects, rows of snap-peas growing in between vines; there are countless ways wineries are striving to ensure a more natural approach to winemaking. In the end, it makes for some great stories, and above all, some sensational wines.

Wines to try

Chapoutier 2011 Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, Rhone Valley, France

Chapoutier 2011 Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, Rhone Valley, France

This Côte-du-Rousillon Villages is a complex Rhone blend of syrah, grenache and carignan. Hints of tobacco, black pepper and sage give way to a rich black berry fruit on the palate. The 2011 scored a 94-96 from Parker and has been on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 for two years in a row. Find it on shelves at $35

Benziger 2012 Merlot, Sonoma, California

Benziger 2012 Merlot, Sonoma, California

Benziger have been producing biodynamic, sustainable wines in California’s Sonoma Valley since they received certification in the mid-2000s. Known for full-bodied cabs, their merlot is a real treat. Rich ripe plum and redcurrant notes develop into black cherry and spice. An extremely drinkable red for any occasion. Retails for around $25

Dominio de Punctum 2011 Tempranillo/Petite Verdot, Spain

Dominio de Punctum 2011 Tempranillo/Petite Verdot, Spain

Spain’s Dominio de Punctum has been producing some very interesting biodynamic wines in recent years. Value is the key word for their tempranillo/petit verdot blend. Robust and full-bodied, this tangy red matches well with red meats, game and nippy cheese. Try a bottle for $20

Elios 2011 Priorat, Spain

Elios 2011 Priorat, Spain

Hailing from the famed Spanish region of Priorat, the Elios is a hand-harvested, biodynamic blend of garnache, carignan, cab sauv and syrah. Age-worthy, yet ready to go, this food friendly red is a steal at $25

Johan 2012 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Johan 2012 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon

An elegant Alsace-style white from the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Notes of stone fruits, apricot and peach, with great acidity. A lively companion for white fish or risotto. $30

La Bérangeraie 2009 La Gorgée de Mathis-Bacchus, Cahors, France

La Bérangeraie 2009 La Gorgée de Mathis-Bacchus, Cahors, France

Sourced from 35 year-old malbec vines, an incredible expression of this wonderful grape. In barrels for 2 years, it’s ready to go now or cellar for the long haul. $41

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