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What's the Big Deal? Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture in 2022

I studied abroad in Angers, France in the fall of 2012. Everyone in my class had to write a 10-page mémoire on the topic of our choosing. Just 10 pages, but in French of course, so no small task. Certainly I was going to write about wine, but what exactly? I landed on a topic that I was passionate about then and which still motivates me today: organic and biodynamic viticulture. I titled my paper "Le Vin Biologique: Une Vraie Tendance ou Une Simple Vague?" (Organic Wine: A True Movement or a Simple Fad?"). My prediction that organic wine in France is here to stay has proven to be the case. The surface area of vines in France certified organic tripled between 2007 and 2011, and has more than doubled from 2012 to 2020. 7.4% of vines in France were certified organic in 2011. The number is around 10% today, but when you include vines that are undergoing conversion to organic viticulture, that number jumps to 17.2%. At the time I was in France in 2012, around 29, 000ha were certified organic. In eight years that number jumped to just shy of 80,000ha. (A hectare is about 2.5 acres). And it's not just in France that the organic wine train is steaming along, but throughout the world.

That's all good and well, you might say, but why do I care? There are many reasons why organic viticulture is important to the wine industry. Above all though, it simply produces a better product. Forgetting climate change and other unfortunately politically charged reasons for the moment, organic viticulture's main aim is to respect the grape and it's environment. When you do that, the grape is able to thrive and produce better fruit. Better fruit=better wine. Voilà! We should all be jumping on the organic wine train just for that reason alone. Who wants to drink inferior wine? Life is too short for that.

My host family hooked me up with an interview with Jean-Yves Lebreton at Domaine des Rochelles in the Loire Valley. He was in conversion to organic viticulture at the time I interviewed him in 2012 and achieved certification in 2015. According to him, an organic vineyard is a more sensitive terroir and organic methods support the terroir. This not only leads to healthier vines and grapes, but to grapes that are more sensitive to the nuances of terroir and therefore a wine that is more indicative of its origin. For wine geeks like me, that's the raison d'etre of making a wine--to hone in on its unique properties, to make a wine that is inimitable. Admittedly, there are wine consumers who want the opposite. Some want their cab to taste like cab and their chard to taste like chard--the CocaCola-ization of wine, as I like to call it. You like oaky, buttery Chardonnay? Take some chardonnay grapes from high yielding vines, ferment the juice, turn up the malolactic fermentation to 100% (this releases diacetyl, which tastes like butter or buttered popcorn) throw in some oak staves for toasty notes, and a stick of butter in the vat just for good measure. Okay, they don't actually throw in sticks of butter into the vat...at least I hope not.

In reality, organic viticulture is nothing new. It is new in the sense of a certifiable, conscious act on the part of the winemaker, but before the modern era, there wasn't really a choice between organic and conventional agriculture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries European vineyards were hit hard: phylloxera, a tiny little pest that destroys the entire root system of the vine leading to its imminent death, struck first, followed by two world wars. Economic devastation lead to producers choosing quantity over quality in their vineyards to cope; some even chose to quit viticulture altogether, ripping up vines for more profitable products. Yields increased, wine flowed, but quality was often dismal. The modern era brought chemicals and mechanization to farming. At the time, these things probably seemed like saviors to a crashing industry.

Even a hundred years ago, however, there was a consciousness about more holistic farming methods. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher (and occultist and self-appointed clairvoyant at that), came up with the origins of biodynamic farming in 1924. Farmers in the early 20th century were already noticing a degradation of the health of their soils due to chemical fertilizers. Steiner undertook to convey a method of farming that would stop the use of these fertilizers, while at the same time creating a healthy environment for agriculture. He viewed the farm (or vineyard in our case) as an organism in itself. For this "organism" to function properly, it should be as healthy as possible; this requires ensuring the health not only of the vine and the soil, but the other flora and fauna in the vicinity in order to achieve a certain harmony in the vineyard. Instead of trying to treat disease, the idea is to create a space where the vine can defend itself from disease either through its own strength or help from other flora and fauna. Sheep are used for weed control, chickens for pest control, and plants are grown to attract beneficial insects such as bees to the area. This all sounds good and well to most until you get to some of the more pseudo-scientific dogmas of biodynamic methods such as herbal preparations (potions?) and consulting the lunar phases and positions to determine important viticultural practices such as harvesting and bottling. I'm not really a believer in these occult aspects of the practice, but it is hard to argue with the quality of the wine once it's in the glass. The fact that these quality wines are made from vineyards prepared with biodynamic preparations sprinkled on the soil with a bull's horn is most likely correlation, not causation. What is clear, however, is that the practitioners of biodynamic viticulture are extremely dedicated and hard-working individuals who focus an enormous amount of energy into producing wines of quality. With no mechanization and no chemical fertilizers and pesticides allowed, you cannot be a lazy winemaker and practice biodynamic, or organic for that matter, viticulture.

Rising global temperatures over the past century have had a real effect on viticulture. This isn't a political issue for winemakers, but simply a concrete fact with which they must contend. I think that climate change has spurred many winemakers to pursue organic viticulture--not simply as an attempt to reverse climate change--but rather as a better way to cope with the uncertainties that climate change brings. Champagne used to be on the very edge of suitable land for grapevines--many years the grapes simply didn't reach physiological ripeness at all; hence the creation and necessity of non-vintage champagne. Now, however, the grapes are ripening more reliably than ever, and England across the Channel has entered the sparkling wine game. This is good, yet it comes with its own set of problems. If you've been drinking wine over the past two years (haha) and been keeping up with the news, there has been difficulty getting enough champagne into the states. The 2021 vintage was hectic for the champenois. It was a year of drastically reduced yields. Frosts hit early in April, followed by rain and then hail. Comité Champagne, the official governing body for the region, estimates that perhaps 60% of the harvest was lost due to these climatic factors. What does this have to do with rising temperatures? Well, budburst occurs as Winter turns to Spring. The rising temperature signals to the vine that it is time to wake up and prepare for the year. The buds are what will eventually become the grapes on the vine. It is at budburst that the vine is most vulnerable and there is the largest potential for crop loss. If there is a frost after significant warming, or substantial rain or hail, the buds can die from the cold, be knocked off the vine from hail, or suffer mildew due to water stress--all of which unfortunately occurred in Champagne. With global warming, budbursts are occurring earlier, and vines in cooler climates across the world are more vulnerable than ever.

In his book Champagne, Peter Liem points out that Louis Roederer (I mentioned in my video tasting his Brut Premier that I'd get back to this) is the largest biodynamic vineyard holder in Champagne, even though not all of the parcels are certified as such. Liem mentions that the biodynamic parcels "have been better able to handle adverse conditions such as mildew, botrytis, and water stress." So, biodynamic and organic farming in Champagne is often a coping mechanism, a survival technique to adapt to rising temperatures. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is good news for the consumer. It protects and supports viticulture better than conventional farming can, all while producing higher quality fruit. Even better news for wine consumers is that organic and biodynamic wines are found at a multitude of price points. Sometimes, as in the case of Roederer, wines are farmed organically or biodynamically, but simply not labeled as such. Some want a little leeway in their viticultural practices, while others just don't want to go through the bureaucratic headache to become certified. So there's a pretty good chance that that bottle of French wine you pick up is made organically, whether it's labeled as such or not. Louis Latour and Joseph Drouhin practice some variation of organic and/or biodynamic farming, but you won't see the certification on the bottle.

If you value and appreciate the efforts of organic and biodynamic viticulturists (and I hope I have convinced you of its importance), a little online surfing before or while buying your wine is the best tool to use. Sometimes, it will be loud and clear on the bottle, but not always. Keeping an eye out for the importer could help as well. Louis/Dressner for instance is a wine wholesaler and importer out of New York that focuses on independent winemakers that use wild yeasts, hand harvesting, and natural (i.e. sustainable/organic) viticultural practices. Vineyard Brands, in Birmingham, AL, also focuses on winemakers who employ environmentally sustainable viticulture. The importer logo will be on the back of the bottle. The good news is that many importers and producers are increasingly recognizing the importance of sustainable viticulture in order to preserve a bright future for wine. As I mentioned above, the rate of increase in organic vineyards in France is staggering, and that's just one country. New Zealand is renowned for its sustainability measures and Argentina's dry climate makes for a rather easy task to practice organic viticulture, as disease pressure is relatively low.

And if in the end I haven't convinced you to seek out organic and biodynamic wines for the sake of the planet, then just do it for the sake of good wine. Your palate (and your head the next day) will thank me later.


*Data on French vineyard area under organic certification was found on AgenceBio.org. Here you can find all sorts of information on organic farming in France, not just for wine. It helps to know French, but they do have some data available in English, it is just limited.

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