Biodynamics: up front or backstage?

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted April 21, 2008 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Great article about a stirring debate. It’s important to remember that organic and biodynamic wines, while growing quickly, are still a drop in the worldwide wine bucket, and often still hard to find or spot out at wine stores.

  2. Posted May 15, 2008 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Rémy,
    Thank you for a thoughtful article. I hope you don’t mind if I mention that I present ‘bio’ in a critical light in an overview of organic wines.

    Nicki,
    You can find some no-sulfite wines by using my sulphite avoider.

  3. winecase
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Félicien,

    I don’t mind at all. I think your article is a great primer on many of the nuances of bio wines. Indeed, there is a lot of different stuff going on in that whole natural-organic-biodynamic wine sphere, with some winemakers actually playing the whole thing in rather weird ways. Take this guy, for instance…

  4. frenchscout
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Indeed Clark Smith has a specific agenda. Nevertheless I enjoy reading him as he puts things in an articulate way. I have rather the same stand with The Economist: I am an opponent but their intelligent articles improve my own thinking.

  5. Ned Goodwin
    Posted June 25, 2008 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    …unfortunately, many of the wines do not taste fantastic, and that is the point. Conceptually the biodynamic movement and indeed, the organic movement are to be applauded. Many of the wines are fine to boot. However, when the vague “bio” mantra is over-utilized to push many poor quality and stale wines on markets such as Japan, it is inexcusable.
    I believe that this is the reason many Japanese turn away from wine altogether.

  6. Ned Goodwin
    Posted June 25, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Biodynamics and the organic movement at large are to be applauded ideologically and indeed, for causing us to think about our role as producers and/or lovers of wine. There are many fine examples of wine produced under theses guises. However, I would argue that there are more poor examples. The price to pay for character perhaps, and so be it. A sense of place rather than uniformity is sought by any lover of wine. Being said, deliciousness is to be prized over a wine that rouses interest yet tastes poor.
    Thus, the irresponsible marketing of certain faulty wines in Japan (and likely elsewhere) as “natural”, “bio” and thus healthy and wholesome-without any definition thereof-is inexcusable. That many new wine-drinkers fail to return to wine after experiencing a disillusioning first sip from a bottle that fails to reflect the better examples, yet remains representative of the category at large due to marketing and dishonest salesmanship, is a shame.
    In a new market such as Japan where consumption hovers at a meager 2L/capita, this is a pity.

  7. winecase
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Ned, my experience of biodynamic wines so far has clearly not had anything to do with yours. Most of what I have tasted is really solid.

    If there is bad marketing of bio wines going on, that is a total shame. However, it’s no worse than all the industrial producers claiming terroir while making uniform wines that taste the same year to year, over millions of bottles.

    And who are you referring to, in terms of bad marketing? Clark Smith’s claim of making natural wines while tinkering around with reverse osmosis and designer yeasts?

    I’d love it if you could be more specific about those alleged faults in bio wines. Anything like the domination of brettanomyces in so many high-alcohol, industrial wines?

    Also, do you have figures to demonstrate that the Japanese are being chased away from wine because of bad bio wines? That’s quite a strong statement. Care to back it up?

  8. Ned Goodwin
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    My point remains-and indeed the point of the article-that many of the wines being pushed as “bio” in Japan are a hodgepodge of extreme sans souffe-types, biodynamic, organic, or in other cases, wines simply claiming to be non-interventionist. “Bio” in Japan does not necessarily mean biodynamic or even organic, although you are ardently defending biodynamic wine as if it did. Often “bio” means whatever the distributor or sales-person wants it to mean, even in the case of analytically faulty wines.
    The Japanese consumer is frequently misled down the path of “healthful” drinking when in fact, many of these wines are problematic-extreme levels of brett beyond the levels of tolerance (even for those who do not mind a tad); excessive volatility, re-fermentation etc. Many wines sold are not representative of sound examples and I would hope, for fans of the genre and ideology at large, this is reason for concern.
    To compare this to the (mis)appropriation of “terroir” by “industrial” winemakers and marketing thereof, opens up another can of worms-better perhaps to be discussed over a beer. In any case, “terroir” can not be analyzed nor therefore, can its existence be proven or refuted. I believe that to love wine “terroir” must be championed, but this is aside the point. Conversely, poorly made wine can be found to be faulty-as analyses have proven in the case of much of the “bio” wine coming into Japan.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] share, etc., rather than a primary interest in making great wine in a healthy environment. I wrote a first post on my concerns about the potential greenwashing of organic/biodynamic wines (now includ…) back in the spring, a post that, in many ways, corresponds to Alder Yarrow’s take on [...]

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    [...] of the multiple variables at play, including the role of marketing in the age of “green”, it is very difficult to draw a unique path for everyone to follow. Which doesn’t mean, to me [...]

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