Burgundy Vintage Guides

Viticulture

Organic or Biodynamic? What’s the difference?

In the world of wine the terms organic and biodynamic are becoming increasingly common but in our experience very few people really know what they mean. Does employing these methods really make a difference to the end result and is it worth the extra cost to the consumer?

Before explaining the differences it is important to make the distinction that the terms predominantly apply to practices in the vineyard rather than the winery; it is the vines not the finished wines that are certified.

Organic viticulture is the production of fruit in a holistic, ecologically-balanced way, without the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers or pesticides. It is regulated by independent bodies which certify producers according to certain requirements.

Biodynamic viticulture takes things a step further, viewing the farm, or in this case domaine, as a single organism which is subject to the natural rhythms of the earth. Strict biodynamic treatments are prepared for use as natural fertiliser and pest control, and the lunar cycle is crucial in planning the life cycle of crops – for example in selecting optimum planting and harvesting dates. Outside influences should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is also strictly assessed before certification.

Whilst there is wide agreement that these two methods deliver fruit which is often superior to that produced by ‘conventional’ methods, there are drawbacks and it shouldn’t be assumed that they are always preferable.

The requirements of the various organisations differ from country to country, with some being stricter than others, for example regulators in some countries allow the use of certain synthetic pesticides as a last resort. This means that an organically produced wine from one country may have followed organic principles that are much more relaxed than one with stricter standards but will still be viewed as of the same quality.

There is also a cost implication as going through the certification process can be very expensive and takes several years. Yields are usually lower so less wine is produced and vineyard practices are generally more labour intensive therefore bottle prices must go up to reflect this.

Vineyards are also at greater risk from pest damage and disease as there are fewer tools available to fight them. This means that the risk is also greater from a business point of view as a crop and therefore all revenue can be wiped out for that year much more easily. Some minimal interference can even be beneficial if it maintains a consistent level of quality, something we particularly expect from top producers.

The result of these drawbacks is that there are many domaines who effectively compromise. They take the route of ‘sustainable’ winemaking whereby they follow organic or even biodynamic practices but don’t incur the cost or regulation of official certification. This is the case with a large majority of the producers we work with. Where the quality of the fruit is already paramount the introduction of certification often seems a little unnecessary; the wines speak for themselves and in many cases have done so for several generations.

So, are organic and biodynamic wines better? Generally speaking, these terms give the consumer some reassurance as to the amplified level of care and consideration that has gone into the wine they are purchasing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that other wines are inferior, perhaps just that a little more research about the producer is required to gain the same assurance.

VM 7/4/10