State of play: Biodynamic & Organic wines

State of play: Biodynamic & Organic wines

They’re the buzzwords in modern wine, but what do ‘biodynamic’ and ‘organic’ actually mean? The Selector panel put Australia’s best Biodynamic and organic wines to the test.

Published Selector Spring 2008

Julian Castagna is a winemaker who is passionate about his craft. He talks of his vines with the pride of a parent, describing their development from childhood to adolescence, from where he hopes they’ll mature to realise their full potential.

Like all good parents, Julian wants the absolute best for his vines. In his case, his aim is for his maturing vines to produce wines that provide the drinker with a sense of the place where they’re grown. To this end, Julian practices a unique method of farming that started over 80 years ago.

Let me set the scene.

It’s 1924 in Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland) and a group of farmers has gathered to hear a series of lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The farmers are looking for an alternative to chemical fertilisers, which they believe have caused extensive damage to their soil and brought poor health to their livestock and crops.

Steiner proves sympathetic as he reveals a system of agriculture that shuns chemicals and treats the farm as an individual, self-contained entity. Rather than focus on the health of individual plants, Steiner’s system teaches that good health requires that the entire eco-system in which the plant exists be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land. The system he describes he calls biodynamics.

By taking away all artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides,  Steiner presented one of the earliest models of organic farming. However, it’s the next steps that really separate biodynamics from organics (and it’s at this point that I imagine some of the listening farmers’ eyebrows began to rise).

Steiner claims that for this environment to truly blossom, a series of field and compost preparations need to be added. These preparations, nine in total, are man-made solutions, derived from nature, that are labelled 500 through to 508. To the conventional farmer, these preparations may appear somewhat far-fetched. For example, ‘500’ is made by filling cow horns with cow manure, which are then buried over winter to be recovered in spring. A teaspoon of the manure is then mixed with up to 60 litres of water, which is stirred for an hour, whirled in different directions every second minute. ‘501’ also requires a cow horn, this time filled with crushed quartz. It is buried over summer and dug up late in autumn, then mixed the same way as 500.

Stretching his credibility even further in the eyes of the pragmatic farmer, Steiner brings a spirituality to his teachings by suggesting the growth cycles of the farm are influenced by astrological forces.

Decisions such as when to spray the preparations, when to weed and when to pick should all be made according to a calendar that details the phases of the moon and stars.

“Hocus-pocus!” I hear you cry.

Not so, according to the ever-increasing number of wine producers in Australia and internationally who have embraced biodynamics. forkandbottle.com maintains a list of biodynamic producers from all over the world, which currently includes over 425 names. Australia has over 70 biodynamic producers and the number is constantly increasing.

Choosing an environmentally sustainable approach to viticulture is obviously to be applauded in these times of climate crisis. However,  talk to biodynamic producers, Julian Castagna among them, and you’ll find that superior wine quality is the number one motivation for being biodynamic.

At South Australia’s Cape Jaffa, the Hooper family has been using biodynamic principles for many years and their conviction in its effectiveness is complete. “We believe that cultivating the vines in this way is what allows them to achieve balance within their environment. Achieve balance, and the vines are able to fully express themselves – leading to a wine that bares a true and remarkable resemblance to its environment,” says Derek Hooper.

Biodynamic growers are not the only producers leaving conventional growing methods behind. Organic wine producers are joining their environmentally friendly biodynamic peers in the quest for better quality products. Not so long ago, organic wines were seen as the poor quality cousins of those made conventionally.

But these days, organic producers are making wines they claim are leaving conventionally made drops for dead. The Robertsons of Thistle Hill in Mudgee believe that soil conservation is vital to premium wine quality and their website details the extent to which they go to create the perfect growing environment. “Instead of using artificial fertilisers, we mulch, compost and plant legumes between the rows to restore nitrogen in the soil, and use a mechanical under-vine harvester to control weeds.  Although this method is more labour intensive, it is a labour of love that leaves the environment in better condition, the soil healthier,  and most importantly, the grapes and wine more full-bodied.”

It’s important to note that biodynamic and organic wines are not necessarily preservative free. Preservatives, i.e. forms of sulphur, are added to wine to protect against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Sulphur dioxide can also be a natural product of fermentation and is therefore often present even if it hasn’t been deliberately added.

As it’s explained on www.organicwine.com.au “under organic and biodynamic certification in Australia, the amount of preservative allowed in the final product is about 50 per cent of what can be used under conventional Australian food standards in wine.” So unlike the US where wines labelled organic must not have had any preservative added, in Australia it’s allowed.

With the increasing number of wine producers using biodynamic and organic methods, as well as the growing consumer interest in these wines, the Selector panel thought it timely to do a tasting.

Submissions were called from all over the country and the response was impressive. In keeping with the aim of State of Play, the panel requested those varieties that are most readily available in the marketplace. In the whites this included Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling and Verdelho. The reds covered Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet-family blends.

In total, 117 wines were submitted from 33 producers. For the tasting, this number was reduced to 44 wines that gave a fair representation of producer, variety, region and vintage. The wines reviewed here were judged as the top 21.

To assist with the tasting, the panel invited that proudly passionate proponent of biodynamics, Julian Castagna, along with Max Allen,  one of this country’s most knowledgeable writers on the subject. Allen first introduced Selector readers to biodynamics in autumn ’07 and he also maintains Australia’s most comprehensive website on the subject, www.redwhiteandgreen.com.au

Get them going and both guests would happily talk all day about the merits of biodynamic wines. Their discussion on the day focused on distinguishing wines made biodynamically from those made organically or conventionally. For both guests it’s an ‘energy’ or ‘vitality’ that’s unique to biodynamics.

For a description of biodynamic wines’ distinctiveness, it is hard to go past this from Max Allen: “Drinking great BD wines is like listening to live music: the best conventional wines are like a standout performance on CD, played on the smartest audio equipment. Listening to the CD can be deeply enjoyable, even moving – but not as profound, memorable or rewarding as being in the audience at a concert, experiencing the moment with all your senses.”

This is not to say Julian or Max absolutely love every biodynamic wine they taste. Of course there are poorly made biodynamic wines around, which are a great source of frustration to Julian in particular.

He feels that many growers see this method as a ‘magic bullet’ for their land, which it most certainly isn’t. He emphasises that biodynamics, when used properly, can make a great piece of land really shine but it won’t turn bad land into a flourishing eco-system.

So let’s say I’ve got a great piece of land which I want to convert to organics or biodynamics. Who’s watching to make sure I follow all the correct procedures? This is where it gets a bit confusing. Without getting into the finer details, there are government approved certification organisations for both organics and biodynamics. To become certified in either system, producers must go through a rigorous four-year process to ensure they meet strict criteria. Once approved, the producer is then able to display an official symbol as a sign of their authenticity.

However, not all producers choose to certify, as our tasting proved. Of the producers included in the top 21 wines, three are certified biodynamic and six organic. One is certified both and two are certified organic but use biodynamic practices. Three are in conversion to biodynamics and one to organics and three are using biodynamic practices but are not certified.

So why not just certify and get everyone on a level playing field? For those who choose not to certify the reasons are varied. Some don’t agree with the Australian rules of certification, and then there are those who feel that the quality of their wines speak for themselves and therefore how they are made is irrelevant. This latter group look with disdain on the idea of using biodynamics or organics as marketing tools as it goes against the philosophical principles of the practices, particularly biodynamics.

However, the danger is that for those who don’t certify, as in any industry are the rogue elements. There are bound to be some producers out there who claim to be biodynamic or organic, but when the pressure is really on, turn back to chemicals. This means that those who do the right thing but choose not to certify are lumped in with those who are breaking all the rules.

For consumers, this can make things complicated. If you’re looking to buy a wine for its environmentally sustainable credentials, the only way you’re going to be assured of its authenticity is to trust the word of the individual producer, or choose a certified product.

On the other hand, if you’re leaning towards organic or biodynamically produced wines because you believe they’re superior in quality, certification shouldn’t matter.

Overall, the tasting revealed 29 wines the panel judged to have achieved a medal-winning standard. Apart from the guests, some of the regular panellists were able to detect the extra ‘energy’ in certain biodynamic wines. For others, including Christian Gaffey and Dave Mavor, the value of the tasting lay more in the fact that it proved that these wines are equal in quality to their conventionally made peers. This was a crucial discovery for the organic wines in particular, as it means they’ve finally shaken off the stigma of their past reputation.

Look out for biodynamic or organic wines next time you’re topping up your supplies. Whether you can detect that extra special element or not, at the very least you can feel the inner glow of knowing the environment is benefiting from every drop!

 

Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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