I’m a huge fan of a great number of biodynamic wine producers, and several “natural wine” producers, this last category essentially meaning that they are not only made from organic grapes, but also totally free of added sulfur, a widely-used stabilizer (For a quick description of the various types of bio wines, click here). Very often, wines made according to these methods have incredible character and individuality. You’ll probably read many raves from me about the artisan winemakers who promote that sort of viticulture and winemaking.
What strikes me, however, is that the promotion of biodynamic winemaking is presented in two ways. Some producers simply acknowledge that they work their vineyards that way – some do it only when they are asked – while others promote the fact that they are biodynamic producers almost as an end in itself. For example, you can’t tell, when looking at a bottle of Petalos, by Alvaro Palacios, that it’s made from biodynamic vineyards. Yet it is, and it has crisp, extremely well-defined flavors and aromas. On the opposite end, there is an Australian producer called Organic One, which puts a lot of importance on stating that it is biodynamic, yet the wines have gotten very moderate reviews, being called “lacklustre”, among other things.
Part of me cringes when I read some people discuss biodynamics as a “hot” topic or point out how it’s “cool to be green”. The last thing anyone would need would be for environmentally-friendly winemaking to be a fad!
Yet mentioning that a wine is organic, biodynamic or “natural” is becoming more and more of a marketing argument per se. And this, in turn, is creating a reaction from people who resent this push to market “green” wines as being naturally superior (pun more or less intended) to conventional – i.e. chemically-produced – wines.
I can understand why people can get confused and maybe a little frustrated about the way the whole category is presented. There are even people who are rejecting the whole organic category outright – which is as stupid as declaring that all organic wines are good, and all conventional wines are bad. There are great wines on both sides of the debate.
Today, I caught a debate on Alice Feiring’s excellent wine blog, about the Japanese “craze” for what they globally call “BIO” wines. Feiring was in fact reacting to an article in Wine Business International (the piece actually feels more like an editorial than a report) that took a very negative view to the whole issue. After making some rather extreme statements (for instance, quoting a “statistic” according to which 95% of the natural wines imported to Japan are “riddled with volatile acidity and brettanomyces”), the author of that piece, Ned Goodwin, concludes by saying that: “In a society fuelled by fads, let’s hope the BIO phenomenon is merely a passing one.” While she disagrees with Goodwin on several things, and notes some mistakes in his article, Feiring does question the use of bio as a marketing tool. She wonders if it’s not “the beginning of the end “when natural wines makes its way into a trend story”.
Mind you, I wish Mr Goodwin would spend as much energy denouncing producers who doctor their wines with yeast inoculations destined to produce programmed flavor characteristics, and produce overly ripe, overly alcoholic wines that drown any senses of place. Especially when such producers insist that their wines have a sense of place and that they reflect the true sense of their terroir. Very often, that’s total bull. When a producer is making 500 000 bottles of a wine, with grapes coming from all over a region, there is no sense of place in any meaningful sense.
That being said, the great majority of organic, and especially, biodynamic winemakers seem to be into it for more fundamental reasons than the sales pitch. And frankly, with the amount of extra work you need to perform to produce biodynamic wines, it’s logical that most producers who have adopted this approach would be highly dedicated to producing superior wines.
Also, in the specific case of biodynamic wines, many commentators keep repeating the same basic idea: the wines just taste fantastic. As Australian wine columnist Max Allen writes on his website Red, White and Green:
Like many other consumers of organic produce, I used to be quite sceptical about many aspects of biodynamics – stirring fermented cow poo in water and spraying it on your vineyard under a waning moon, or picking grapes on ‘fruit days’ when the moon was in a ‘fire’ constellation all sounded like wacky nonsense.
But then I noticed that, more often than not, well-made biodynamic wines were sending a chill down my spine with their intensity and complexity of flavour. They not only tasted better than most ‘conventional’ – even organic – wines. They tasted different.
These were wines with an extra vitality and liveliness on the tongue, wines that were incredibly satisfying to drink, wines that made the flavour descriptions tumble out of my brain when I came to writing tasting notes.
Eric Asimov, quoting Kermit Lynch on his NY Times blog The Pour, also pointed in a similar direction:
To Lynch, who got into the wine business back in the 1970’s, it’s a catastrophe. More than anything else, great wine has to be natural and alive. These are the qualities that make it poetic and magical, like the sea and mountains, and winemakers, in the name of progress, are turning glorious individuality into homogenized commodity.
In many ways, Lynch was wise and prophetic, foreshadowing the natural wine movement that is giving great energy to the French wine industry today. Indeed, the best winemakers in France now are returning to the methods of their grandfathers, with the aid of modern technology.
Beyond environmental arguments, the basic reason why producers adopt biodynamic or organic practice, generally speaking, is to make better, more distinctive wines that draw more directly from the earth and give a true sense of terroir. That, in every way, deserves praise.