What are the Differences between Organic, Biodynamic, and Sustainable Winemaking?

It is very likely that when you visit a wine bar, a wine merchant, or a winery, you may hear the terms organic, biodynamic, or sustainable wine. What do these terms mean and what are the differences between the three categories in terms of grape cultivation and winemaking?

Let's take a closer look at each of these different types of wine.

Organic wines

Since 2012, the European Union only permits a wine to be certified "organic" when the grapes that the wine is made from originate from an organic vineyard, where only traditional chemical-free formulations are used. Additionally, these grapes must be vinified following a specific protocol, however it does not require natural fermentation. There is no restriction on the quantity of sulfites in European organic wines. However the amount of sulfites added should be 25-35% lower than the maximum quantity that is legally permitted in a particular wine category. In the United States and Canada, the term "organic wine" typically implies that the wine is free from sulfites.

Organic farming practices in vineyards involve significantly reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Within the European Union, there are three-hundred pesticides that are approved for vine cultivation.  A mere twenty of these are approved for use in organic cultivation to meet the requirements of the rules of organic certification. All of these products are made using only natural ingredients. 

The process of becoming organically certified in the European Union is a long and costly affair and requires a high level of commitment from the organization that wishes to achieve this status.  In order for a vineyard to be certified organic in the EU, it must be free of chemicals for a minimum of three years.  The rules are so strict that if a neighboring vineyard is not certified organic then there must be a buffer zone of at least ten meters between the two plots of land (that would absorb any of the chemicals from the non-organic property).  To receive and maintain the organic status, there will be pre-planned or surprise visits to ensure that all regulations continue to be followed once the property has been certified organic.

In the United States, organic certification is mandatory for grapes and all agricultural products that are used in the production of the grapes.  The only exception to this rule is if the products are listed on the National List (a list that dictates what synthetic substances may be used, nonsynthetic (natural) and inorganic substances that may be used in or on organic products). 

For wine to be labeled as organic, certification is required for both the cultivation of grapes and the process that is used when they are transformed into wine. Government bodies in respective countries verify that the grapes are cultivated without the use of synthetic fertilizers, as well as ensuring that environmentally friendly practices are used to protect the surroundings and maintain the integrity of the soil. Additionally, any other agricultural components that are used, such as yeast, must also be certified as organic.

However, organic wine producers do not simply abandon their vineyards to natural processes. To ensure soil fertility and overall health, they employ a variety of alternative methods and strategies. To obtain organic certification for their wines, producers must adhere to specific practices in the winery, provided the grapes come from organically grown vineyards. A notable example is the significantly lower legal limit for the addition of sulfites in organic wines compared to the permitted level for non-organic wines (in the EU region). Additionally, if a producer intends to purchase yeasts from the market, those yeasts must be organically grown.

After assembling all of the pieces of the puzzle, it becomes evident that there is a distinction between “organic wine” and "wine made from organically grown grapes." Organic wine necessitates the use of both organically grown grapes and yeasts, with additional constraints, such as the mentioned restrictions on sulfites. The key difference lies in the fact that, to label a wine as organic, the entire process from start to finish must meet the specific rules for the production of organic wines.

Biodynamic wines

Biodynamic farming shares similarities with organic farming in that both approaches avoid the use of synthetic chemicals. However, biodynamic farming goes far beyond a mere set of practices; it is a comprehensive philosophy that views the vine as an integral part of a broader ecosystem. This holistic approach considers various factors, including astrological influences and lunar cycles (yes, you read that correctly)!  Biodynamic farming encompasses a more interconnected perspective, acknowledging the dynamic relationships within the entire environment. Presently, for a wine to bear the "biodynamic" label, it must adhere to the criteria established by the Demeter Association, an internationally recognized certification body.

Biodynamic wine is made from grapes cultivated through biodynamic practices, and in the winemaking process, the vintner refrains from employing conventional techniques like the use of commercial yeast or acidity corrections. 

In the realm of biodynamic farming, crops are approached holistically, and viewed as regenerative living organisms. In this perspective, plants play a role as the "middle kingdom," serving as a connection between the forces of the earth and the broader universe. The management of crops in biodynamic farming reflects a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of the agricultural system with the surrounding natural forces.

Biodynamic farming can appear mystical to some, as it incorporates celestial and terrestrial forces by aligning with the cycles of the moon and the sun. Winemakers avidly adhere to the lunar calendar for various vine cultivation activities such as pruning and harvesting and consider planetary rhythms. Moreover, the use of mechanical methods is discouraged in this approach, leading to the reintroduction of horses for certain vineyard tasks. Based on the lunar cycle, certain days, weeks, and months are considered more favorable for different stages in the life cycle of a plant. These phases are categorized into four types: flower day, fruit day, leaf day, and root day.

Although biodynamics is not strictly rooted in hard scientific principles, advocates argue that the approach consistently yields positive results in terms of vineyard health. The emphasis on holistic practices within biodynamics is believed to contribute to overall vineyard well-being, potentially resulting in the production of excellent wines. While the scientific basis may be debated, the empirical success and positive outcomes observed by practitioners contribute to the continued interest and adoption of biodynamic farming in the viticulture industry.

Sustainable wines

Sustainable farming not only generates healthy and safe food but also ensures the ongoing and future sustainability of agriculture and our food supply. This approach is instrumental in safeguarding the planet's essential resources, including soil, water, climate, and biodiversity. Embracing sustainable farming practices presents a practical and viable solution, offering a multitude of benefits for both current and future generations.

In the realm of sustainable farming, farmers have the flexibility to adopt extensive organic or biodynamic practices, tailoring their approach to suit the unique characteristics of their individual properties. This flexibility extends to considerations such as energy and water management, emphasizing the use of renewable resources and exploring alternative sources. Sustainable farming encourages a personalized and adaptable approach, allowing farmers to make choices that align with the specific needs and conditions of their land.

Sustainable wine production currently operates in a largely unregulated landscape and lacks a global standard. The term is loosely defined as wine is produced with an awareness of the responsible and mindful use of pesticides and preservatives, all within an economically and ecologically responsible framework. Although the specific criteria for sustainability may vary, the overall focus is on environmentally conscious and economically viable practices in the vineyard and during the winemaking process. As the concept of sustainable wine continues to evolve, efforts are being made to establish more standardized guidelines within the industry.

Certainly, to determine if a wine falls into specific categories like organic, biodynamic, or sustainable, examining the label is crucial. Labels often feature various trademarked symbols and logos associated with these practices. Wineries that adhere to such principles are usually keen on communicating this information to consumers, making it easier for individuals to make informed and conscious choices about the wines they purchase.

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