Biodynamic & Organic Viticulture in Modern Day Winemaking


Posted by

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of talk in the champagne industry about organic viticulture and biodynamics. It is topical in the wine industry as well as in general life, since the consumer has become more conscious of their health and skeptical about what they consume. The conversation about organics and biodynamics applications in champagne is considered to be ‘modern-day wine making’ and used by the ‘next generation’ of Vignerons – the new young guns.

But is this really ‘modern winemaking’ or is it simply returning to the way wine was produced in Roman times? What does it all mean? Do organics or biodynamics methods make our wine healthier? Does it improve the taste of the wine? Is it mystical hogwash or does it improve the overall health of the vineyards?
Let’s traverse this current dinner table conversation topic at a high level so you too can add to the conversation and make up your own mind as to whether you want to prioritise purchasing organic or biodynamic champagnes. This topic is certainly garnering attention with consumers so let’s clarify what organics and biodynamics mean. I speak specifically about my wine of choice, champagne, but the same or similar practices would apply to any wine varietal or region.

 

Understanding Organics:

Naturally, everything has its pros and cons as does organics viticulture. The big plus here is healthier grapes and subsequent wine derived from chemical-free farms. Synthetic chemicals pose great health risks to the wine consumer as well as workers of the winery. Winemakers in France and around the world are now under tight scrutiny by law for use of chemicals in vineyards.

Organic viticulture enables the plants to fortify its resistance to certain diseases through organic treatments. For example, nitrogen fixing plants to pull air into the soil, growing cover crops to attracts insects - a natural remedy for farming problems, or having small sheep graze the grass and weeds between the vine rows. The challenge however in a region like Champagne lies in its dual climatic influence. Sitting at the most northerly latitude, it is swayed by both maritime and continental weather. The regions’ tempestuous climate can wreak havoc on the vineyards and so it is necessary to use certain treatments otherwise this can prove fatal to crops.

Organic treatments are not dissimilar to homeopathies. These gentler practices could treat minor ailments in vineyards but not enough for serious diseases. There are considerable risks in applying this methodology to winemaking. For some devout organics or certified organic winemakers, this is simply Mother Nature’s curse. The choice to grow wine in an organic way is a philosophical choice – there is no backing down in the face of adversity, it’s a way of life. 

There are a handful of winemakers in Champagne who will use organic viticulture methods as far as practical, but will not risk the family’s livelihood if things go wrong. Take for example the Ampelos, an organisation that controls and certifies that sustainable viticulture approach that is followed by champagne estates Pierre Gerbais and Geoffroy. ‘Ampelos allows no chemical fertilisers, herbicides or insecticides.’

Logically, organics are more practical for smaller vineyards where Vignerons have more control over their land and vines. There is no doubt organic viticulture is a smart way forward and more producers are coming around to this.

 

Understanding Biodynamics:

You cannot be move onto biodynamics without being organic. Winegrowers who practice biodynamics refrain from using pesticides, herbicides, or any genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which is the foundation of organic farming.

But without over-simplifying what is quite a complex topic, biodynamics is the consideration of the vineyard as a complete and holistic energy system. It incorporates the implementation of organics and also includes consideration of the cosmic, spiritual and astrological approach to farming. Biodynamic viticulture as used by Agrapart, Benoit Marguet and boutique producer Chevreux-Bournazel treat the vineyard as a self-contained eco-system; the winemaker is trying to enhance and support the elements of nature that lead to a healthy soil micro-organisms and ultimately healthy grapes.

There are two authorities in France who have the right to certify a vineyard as biodynamics. The leading authority is The Demeter Association based in America who also own the trademark of the word ‘biodynamics’ and the second body who has a right to certify vineyards ‘Biodynamic’ in France is Biodyvin.

Of the 5000 growers in Champagne who produce champagne under their own labels, there are a minuscule total of eleven who are officially certified by The Demeter Association as biodynamic.

Does this show the difficulty in applying the many practices and preparations of biodynamics or does it allude to skepticism involved in managing your vineyard in this way? This is for the Vigneron to answer and for some the jury is still out. For Emperor, we see the benefits of the holistic approach to the vineyard, which becomes a self-sustaining entity without any of the man-made nasties.

Without a doubt, organic and biodynamic wines tend to be more expressive of their place and leave a lasting impression. These champagnes tend to have less sugar or dosage added and more of a hands-off approach, which can include no filtration and no fining which shows the consumer more of the true essence of the wines of champagne.