Let’s Peel Back the Onion on Biodynamic Wine

Author: Sheila Donohue, Founder & CEO of VeroVino

Wine buzzwords get thrown around a lot.

When I switched careers from banking & technology to wine 6 years ago, organic wine was big. People get this because they relate it to shopping in the organic foods section in the supermarket.

Then in 2019, thanks to movements like Raw Wine and influential journalists like Alice Feiring, we started to hear the term natural wine used more. Around the same time the term biodynamic started to get thrown into the mix as well.

Then last year regenerative farming made a lot of news.

But lately, especially talking with distributors, they are honing in on biodynamic.

What does it mean if a wine is biodynamic?

Of course, the easy answer is if the winery is certified biodynamic.

Like organic, there are certifications for being biodynamic, however organic certification is something overseen by government authorities. Meanwhile, the TTB, does not scrutinize if you put “biodynamic’” on your wine label. Therefore, the US government does not hold you to a claim of biodynamic on your label. 

We all know by now that the most widely known certification body worldwide for biodynamic is Demeter. While quickly browsing their  website, I gather that Demeter scrutinizes how you farm on top of your activities to follow the organic regime requirements. In fact, this is consistent with Monty Waldin, the author of Biodynamic Wine’s, answer when I asked him several years ago what biodynamic wine means;  his explanation was similar: organic is all about what you “don’t do” and biodynamic is all about what you “do do.”  

But there is a lot behind biodynamic farming. After all, if it were easy, wouldn’t every farm be biodynamic? Let’s peel back the onion some more.

Rudolf Steiner

Let’s start with Wikipedia, in fact, it’s in the #1 spot when googling “biodynamic wine.” It says that biodynamic methods is basically organic farming “while also employing soil supplements prepared according to Rudolf Steiner’s formulas, following a planting calendar that depends upon astrological configurations, and treating the earth as ‘a living and receptive organism.”

How did astrology all of a sudden come into the picture when talking about farming?

I turned to some of my import company’s wine producers to get their take. 

Following Lunar Cycles versus Astrology

There definitely has been some backlash on Rudolf Steiner’s beliefs which have evidently carried into the definition of biodynamic farming, such as claims that his teachings about biodynamic agriculture is based on “pseudoscience” and “magic.” In his defense, following lunar cycles is an ancient viticulture practice going back to the Etruscans and even the Greeks, as Lorenzo Corino had pointed out in our last, and, sadly, final, recorded talk, where he said, “The moon is very important. It is doing the tide and the birth. For example, during a new moon the vine grows faster.” In fact, Aldo Clerico, farmer & winemaker in the Langhe, shows the lunar cycle on his Barolo and other red wine labels. Like Lorenzo Corino, Aldo is a firm believer that you should plant a vine during a new moon, when the plant is stronger, and then to bottle on an old moon, in order for the wine to age longer in the bottle. In fact, Aldo has noticed that bottling during a full moon. there is more risk of a second fermentation happening in the bottle, along with oxidation.

But if you ask Aldo Clerico if he is biodynamic he’ll say “No” saying that biodynamic farming and winemaking involves following planets (aka astrology) which is not prudent and too risky. Lorenzo Corino was along the same lines when we spoke with him saying “following the moon is not biodynamics. Biodynamics is from ‘yesterday’.”

Similarly, during our VeroTalk last fall with vigneron Andrea Ivaldi, he explained how he farms his vineyards, where he mulches and applies plant-based cover crops, which are regenerative agriculture principles. Yet, when he asked if he was biodynamic, he gave a quick and flat-out ‘No’ as an answer.

So, between these 3 wine growers, Aldo Clerico, Lorenzo Corino, and Andrea Ivaldi, who all seem to be following and believing in aspects of biodynamic farming, hold a common opinion that they are NOT biodynamic – that a biodynamic farmer is one who uses astrology to guide them instead of scientific principles.

Treat Your Farm as 1 Interconnected Ecosystem

We also recently turned to Lorenzo Corino’s son, Guido, to get his take on what is a biodynamic winery. He caught on, perhaps, to the confusion of the term biodynamic, and clarified that in biology versus agriculture, biodynamic as an adjective has different meanings.

In biology, biodynamic refers to “the dynamic relationship between organisms and the environment; our approach (at Case Corini) in the cultivation and management of the soil and plants is to respect these very important natural relationships as much as possible. Care for the environment therefore springs, above all, from respect for these elements, which interact together as 1 ecosystem, interactions that have taken place between them over time.”

Meanwhile, Guido recognizes that in agriculture the definition of biodynamic has spawn off a completely different meaning, due to those that have taken Rudolf Steiner’s vision and teachings to heart and have created a “series of pseudoscientific practices.”  At that point, our conversation ended… it seemed that he was about to open a pandora’s box of debates and disagreements over biodynamic wine and preferred to no “go there.”

Closed Loop Agriculture

Then I turned to Antonella Manuli, founder of La Maliosa Farm & Winery in Maremma, Tuscany. When La Maliosa was started “from scratch” by Antonella about 15 years ago, they got certified Demeter certified, quite early on, in 2011. In this testament from those early years, La Maliosa explains that they made decision to get certified to have an external verification of their commitment to biodynamic agriculture. Fast forward to today, I asked Antonella why she considers La Maliosa to be biodynamic and she answered “We practice a closed cycle agriculture and give maximum attention to life in the soil. However we don’t spray Demeter commercial preparations on our vineyards.”

What Antonella is referring to as “closed cycle” is also referred to as “closed loop agriculture”. I found this definition which says it’s a “farming practice that recycles all nutrients and organic matter material back to the soil that it grew in. This forms part of an agricultural practice that preserves the nutrient and carbon levels within the soil and allows farming to be carried out on a sustainable basis.”

This definition is definitely a mouthful, as there are papers written about this practice, including the patented Metodo Corino, which Antonella Manuli created together with Lorenzo Corino, to have a playbook for farming and making wine in as natural way as possible. When you think about it, you can see many benefits to this painstaking practice, where as a vintner you spend more than 50% of your resources on the soil. The bottom line is that using a closed cycle farming approach , you not only give back to the earth but you leave it also in better condition. That is ultimately why there is so much hype about sustainability lately and what sustainability investments are trying to achieve, no?

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