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  • Guest contributor
Written by
  • Guest contributor
11 Oct 2018

11 October 2018 In view of Caro Feely's review of a book about pesticide residues in wine earlier this week, we're publishing free this survey of the good guys around the world.

25 July 2018 Wine writer Monty Waldin, author of Biodynamic Wine (Oxford, 2016) and contributor to the Oxford Companion to Wine, has compiled this extensive and up-to-the-minute review of the progress, or otherwise, of organics and biodynamics in the main wine-growing regions of the world. All images from Jon Wyand, this one taken at Bordeaux first growth Ch Latour. Monty is also a photographer.

In 2017 around 4.5% of the world's wine grape vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic (BD), a total of 316,000 ha (780,520 acres) of vines. Of this, Europe's 281,000 ha (538,460 acres) gave it an 80% share of the global total. 90% of Europe's organic vineyards are found in three countries: Spain, France and Italy (source: Millésime Bio 2017 dossier de presse).

In March 2018 there were more than 616 wineries with Demeter biodynamic certification worldwide with more than 8,200 ha (20,254 acres) of vineyards. Demeter is the 'official' body which sets standards for biodynamic farming (and wine-growing and winemaking) worldwide. To be biodynamic you must first be (a) certified organic and (b) follow the biodynamic rules set by Demeter. To be certified organic, you need to follow organic standards and these are set either by governments (federally in the case of the USA), or by supra-national bodies such as the European Union.

There are three building blocks for successful biodynamic farming:

  1. Organic matter via soil humus, humus being the 'soil within the soil' (this is an identical building block in organics, so not unique to biodynamics). This also helps create soils with the vine's preferred forest-floor-like, mycorrhiza-rich microbiology (again, just like in organics, so not unique to biodynamics).
  2. The idea unique to biodynamics that by creating your own source of fertility on the farm (vineyard) you work towards the ideal of each farm or vineyard becoming a self-sustaining living organism. This idea of a farm/vineyard 'organism' is where the term 'organics' came from after the Second World War and led to the founding of the UK's oldest organic farm body, the Soil Association. And vineyards that create their own fertility – shutting the farm gate – also have the best shot at making a truly terroir-driven wine.
  3. The second idea unique to biodynamics, and the most controversial one, is that biodynamic composts and field sprays provide not just physical food (minerals) and life (worms, beneficial fungi, bacteria, yeasts), all of which are measurable, but also immeasurable or intangible 'formative forces'. These formative forces are seen by biodynamicists as forming and shaping physical matter such as vine trunks, leaves, pips, grapes, shoots, cuticles, leaf hairs and tendrils. The aim is that cultivated plants such as vines grow in the 'archetypal' way, meaning as they would do in the wild. (In Jon Wyand's photo below, horn silica 501 is sprayed on the Corton-Charlemagne vineyard.)

Charlemagne_spraying_JW-3.jpg

Biodynamic growers also argue that successful crops need three things to be in balance: the mineral (eg magnesium, potassium, calcium), the vegetal (digested pasture plants that cows might eat and then excrete as manure) and the animal (the digestive juices the cow provides during digestion, but also the 'forces' she exerts on the matter she is digesting).

You get all three in compost (whether organic or biodynamic), but you get just a single one in a sack of soluble fertiliser, namely the mineral, in the form of NPK or nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. No vegetal. And definitely no forces.

Conventional growers who went biodynamic and then got some cows invariably tell me the animals brought a 'completely different feel to my land.' A different anima, perhaps?

The rest of this report focuses on a selection of countries/regions of interest, presented in this order.

France

  • Alsace
  • Bordeaux
  • Champagne
  • Rest of France

Italy
Spain
Germany
Austria
California
Oregon
Argentina
Chile
Australia
New Zealand
South Africa

FRANCE

In 2016 France had the world's third largest surface area of organic vines, after Spain and Italy. A total of 70,740 ha (174,730 acres) or 9% of the French vineyard was certified organic or biodynamic or in conversion in 2017, with 5,263 growers producing nearly 2 million hectolitres of wine, according to Agence Bio. Of this total, Demeter France certified 5,500 ha (12,350 acres) of biodynamic vines from 418 wine-growers with a further 50 asking for certification.

An alternative biodynamic wine group (to Demeter France) is the Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-dynamique (SIVCBD) or Biodyvin. This was founded in 1995 by 15 French wine-growers who wanted to create a biodynamic association specific to wine-growing (rather than agriculture in general, which is what Demeter France covers), and with a set of standards – notably for the winemaking side – which offered more flexibility than those set by Demeter in France. In 2018 the SIVCBD certified a total of 3,500 ha (8,645 acres) of vines and had 137 winery members. Of these, 130 were French, three were Italian, two were German, and one each was Portuguese and Swiss.

Note that some wineries are members of both Demeter France and Biodyvin, both organisations having worked closely with each other to make it easier for wine-growers wanting dual membership (which makes paperwork simpler when exporting), without watering down their respective rule books for either wine-growing or winemaking.

Alsace

Alsace in eastern France is one of the world's true hotspots for organic, biodynamic and  natural wine-growing. In 2015 Alsace had 15,600 ha (38,532 acres) of productive vineyard. Of this, 2,078 ha (5,132 acres) had full organic or biodynamic certification and 281 ha (694 acres) were in conversion. The 2,359 ha (5,918 acres) total represented an impressive 15.1% of the Alsace vineyard and this proportion is rising.

Alsace is home to the world's oldest Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyard, Domaine Eugène Meyer, which went BD in 1969. France's second Demeter-certified biodynamic grower Jean-Pierre Frick went BD in 1980. He is also based in Alsace.

Alsace is a hotbed of organics because it has a strong food culture (well endowed with Michelin stars), where the difference in taste matters so the difference between conventional and organic/biodynamic is noted.

On a practical level, the influence of thought-leader wine-growers such as Olivier Humbrecht MW, Jean-Michel Deiss, André Ostertag and many others in the early 1990s (see also Burgundy below) created a groundswell, and this was nurtured by those teaching better wine-growing and winemaking practices via short day-courses hosted by Centres de Formation Professionnelle et de Promotion Agricole or CFPPA (adult education programmes).

This meant best practices such as getting cover cropping right and making compost the right way were ingrained from the get-go. It also meant that growers could hit the ground running and with a much greater chance of making it through the tricky conversion phase, especially in the second year when the vines have to switch from feeding off soluble fertilisers to feeding off the soil via biota on their roots, which entails roots finding new ways of expressing themselves underground.

Bordeaux

In 2016 around 8% of the Bordeaux vineyard was certified organic or biodynamic. In 2015 Bordeaux had 8,135 ha (20,093 acres) of organic and/or organic-in-conversion vines, of which 6,829 ha (16,867 acres) were organic and 1,306 ha (3,225 acres) were in conversion (Source: Agence Bio). This is quite impressive growth considering that back in 2002 there were 1,290 ha (3,186 acres) of organic vines and 449 ha (1,109 acres) in conversion (source: Agence Bio).

Of the 1855 classed growths, the following are either organic or biodynamic: Chx Latour (pictured above right), Brane-Cantenac, Durfort-Vivens, La Lagune, Palmer (whose vineyard and sheep are pictured below, courtesy of Jon Wyand), Haut-Bages Libéral, Pontet-Canet, Climens and – my favourite – Guiraud, not because it was the first 1855 first growth to go organic but because of how Xavier Planty did it, by breaking his vineyard down piece by piece, and farming and picking and fermenting and ageing each piece on its merits. This is now fashionable. In the mid 1990s when he started, this kind of thing was not in fashion – in Bordeaux at least.

Palmer_Sheep_JW-3.jpg

Champagne

In 2015 Champagne had just 523 ha (1,292 acres) of organic and biodynamic vines, of which 380 ha (939 acres) had full certification and 143 ha (353 acres) was in conversion from a total of 127 Champagne producers (source: Agence Bio). Assuming Champagne has 33,000 ha of vines, this means only 1.58% of the Champagne region is organic or biodynamic.

Champagne Roederer have around 10 ha of Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyards, but only by virtue of having bought them from the estate of the late Pascal Leclerc Briant. Their other c 250 ha are conventionally farmed, as are the majority of vines in their Anderson Valley outpost in California.

The three major hurdles to surmount when going organic or biodynamic in Champagne are weeds, downy mildew (peronospora), and the resulting drop in yields. This can be up to 20% because yields are pushed hard here since the majority of grapes are grown by growers and then sold to houses. Growers naturally always look to produce more than the legal maximum to be safe. As a result, Champagne is probably the most heavily sprayed premium wine region in the world.

If it wasn't, it would have much better organic numbers. Less than 2% certified organic in 2018 is decidedly unimpressive in an era of satellite weather predictions and precision planting, drones to identify vineyard weak spots, probes to measure soil and leaf moisture and nutrient availability, precision sprays, wide-tyred tractors to prevent compaction when spraying and, even better, helicopters to do the same for the big houses, not to mention hourly updates on potential population explosions of mischievous mites or rot-causing berry moths.

But the key stat is this. The Champenois continue to sell an average of 850,000 bottles a day worldwide. If it ain't broke …

Rest of France

In Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is now a member of the SIVCBD, having taken a slow but meticulously planned route to biodynamics, beginning in the early 1990s under Lalou Bize-Leroy.

France's biggest area overall of organic vines occupies less aristocratic terrain stretching from Roussillon on the French border, via Languedoc and the southern Rhône into Provence and to the border with Italy.

One of the most interesting estates is the Pugibet family's La Colombette near Béziers, where they practise minimal intervention on vineyards they planted with disease-resistant interspecific hybrids. A red wine with no added sulphites made from two such, Cabernet Jura and CAL14, both very high in polyphenols, is the among the best of this sort of wine I have tried.

ITALY

In 2016 Italy had 66,133 ha (163,348 acres) of certified organic vines plus another 37,412 ha (92,408 acres) in conversion, making a total of 103,545 ha (255,756 acres) overall. My calculation is that in 2016 over 11% of the Italian vineyard was certified organic or biodynamic. The leading Italian regions for organic wine-growing were Sicily, Calabria and Tuscany, with, in the case of the last, particular concentrations in Montalcino (one in five estates there are already organic or biodynamic) and Chianti Classico (Panzano in Greve is a particular organic hotspot, as pointed out by Jancis in her article about Fontodi).

In December 2017 Demeter Italia certified around 300 ha (741 acres) of vineyards as biodynamic from around 70 producers, of which around 50 estates bottled their wine and 20 consigned their grapes to co-operatives, the most notable of which is Lunaria in Abruzzo.

SPAIN

In 2015 Spain had 96,951 ha (239,469 acres) of organic vineyards, representing 9% of the national vineyard. It does extremely good organic bulk wine for the Scandinavian monopolies and budget German retailers such as Lidl, who want certified organic wine at everyday prices.

Key suppliers are Spanish co-ops such as Alcardet (3,000 ha) and Bodegas San Isidro/Latúe (1,800 ha) in La Mancha, the Unión Campesina Iniestense (2,000 ha) in Manchuela, and Bodegas Pinoso in Alicante (850ha). If these five co-ops were to cross the Pyrenees to France, their organic vineyards would account for more than 10% of France's own national organic vine total.

Spain also has smaller estate growers working with Spain's wide range of native grapes in both classic (Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat) and emerging (Galicia, Canary Islands) regions.

Spain is the most versatile and best-value source of organic wine right now.

GERMANY

Germany has around 9,500 ha (23,475 acres) of organic vines, meaning around 10% of its national vineyard is organic. In 1994 organic vineyards represented just 1.2% of Germany's total vineyard surface area.

Currently around 58 German wine-growers are certified biodynamic by Demeter Germany.

A rival biodynamic wine group called respekt–BIODYN, which started in Austria as an alternative to Demeter, is now attracting such high-flying German wineries (all VDP members) as Clemens Busch, Ökonomierat Rebholz, Dr Wehrheim and Wittmann, all of whom make outstanding wine in my view. As of March 2017, respekt-BIODYN had 22 member wineries from Austria, Germany, Italy and Hungary, cultivating a total vineyard area of around 600 ha (1,482 acres).

Weingut Dr Bürklin-Wolf in the Pfalz was the first blue-chip (VDP) German winery to go biodynamic in the mid 2000s, but it joined France's Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-dynamique or Biodyvin rather than Demeter Germany. I worked with them from 2006 to 2013, starting a year or so after they joined the SIVCBD. Bürklin-Wolf's owners were influenced by biodynamic wines they tasted from just across the border in Alsace such as those made by Marc Kreydenweiss.

AUSTRIA

Austria is a global leader with regard to both the extent of its organic and the quality of its biodynamic wine-growing. Over 10% of the national vineyard of 45,500 ha (112,430 acres) is organic or biodynamic.

In April 2018 Austria had 60 wine estates with 990 ha (2,445 acres) of vineyards with full Demeter biodynamic certification, plus another 10 estates in conversion with 210 ha (518 acres).

What marks out Austria's biodynamic wine-growers is their commitment to biodiversity (wild habitat breaks, incorporating of livestock, use of a wide range of flowering cover crops and permanent or semi-permanent ground cover – either a sown or a wild sward). They see creating a biodiverse vineyard as common sense rather than a hassle. (Karl Schnabel in Styria is a good example; there are many others.) Austrians tend to know how to make really good plant teas, which ones to use, how and when. These include stinging nettle or chamomile tea to prevent vine stress; horsetail tea to ward off fungal diseases; oak bark teas for vine resistance and so on.

They are not fundamentalists about adding sulfites to wines and when they do make wines with no added sulfites the results are generally outstanding because they understand the importance of microbiology. The Demeter Austria wine event in February 2018 had about 50 biodynamic wineries and it was easily the best wine tasting I have been to (in 30 years). There was everything from amphora-aged, skin-contact whites to traditional-method fizz, Beaujolais-style picnic reds and long-haul reds, too.

One of my co-speakers there, oenologist Arnaud Immele from Alsace, made some very pertinent comments about 'wild ferment' wines. Natural, organic and biodynamic wine fairs are full of lifestylers proudly telling you they do wild ferments in used barrels bought from… (insert name of famous Bordeaux or Burgundy or Rhône grower here). But if the barrels come from a winery in which cultured yeast has been used (the vast majority), it will be the aggressive selected yeasts, not the cuddly wild ones, which will dictate the ferment and the resulting flavours. This is one of the biggest holes in natural, organic and biodynamic wine philosophy. 'We don't add yeast' does not translate into a wild ferment. As I always say: 'Don't tell me what you don't do, do tell me what you do do or did do, because it is what you did do that makes the wine taste the way it is.'

CALIFORNIA

In 2018 California leads the US for biodynamic wine-growing in terms of surface area, with 647 ha (1,600 acres) of vineyards certified by the Demeter Association in the United States, giving it 49% of the national biodynamic vines total.

The most concentrated area for biodynamic vineyards is in Mendocino County in the North Coast with 310 ha (767 acres) of Demeter-certified vineyards such as those of Frey Vineyards and Bonterra. The Central Coast had more than 243 ha (600 acres) of Demeter-certified vineyards in both Santa Barbara County (141 ha/350 acres) and Paso Robles (101 ha/250 acres). Sonoma had 174.5 ha (431 acres) of Demeter-certified biodynamic vines, spread throughout the county.

In terms of organics, California underperforms. In 2016 the state had an estimated 226,720 ha (560,000 acres) of grape-bearing vines. In 2016 CCOF, the main organic certification body, counted 4,309 ha (10,644 acres) of organic wine grapes on its books, meaning that just 2% of California's grapes are CCOF-organic certified.

But step forward Fred Franzia of Bronco (creator of Two Buck Chuck), whose budget organic Charles Shaw brand will expand as 2,000 ha (5,000 acres) of Bronco's own organic estate vines come on-stream. Whether consumers buy the wine because it is organic, because it is cheap, because it is good, or simply because it is on the shelf at the right height, remains to be seen.

OREGON

In 2018 Oregon led the US in terms of percentage of biodynamic vines with 4% or 528 ha (1,305 acres) of its 12,322 ha (30,435 acres) of vines certified by the Demeter Association in the United States. Oregon had 14 biodynamic wine estates, of which the largest, King Estate, is also the largest biodynamic vineyard owner in the US with 188 ha (465 acres). The biggest producer of Demeter-certified wine in the US is Montinore Estate with 89 ha (220 acres) and producing 40,000 cases of certified biodynamic wines each year. Both estates are located in the Willamette Valley AVA, making it the US's leading region for both Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyard surface area and Demeter-certified biodynamic wine production. (Sources: Millésime Bio 2017 dossier de presse, Demeter International, SIVCBD.)

ARGENTINA

Argentina has around 2,500 ha (6,175 acres) of organic vineyards out of a national total of 207,000 ha (1.2%). The challenges are lack of water, high luminosity, and generally low levels of soil humus. Leading biodynamic estates are Alpamanta in Mendoza and Bodega Noemia in Río Negro. The La Riojana co-operative in the Famatina Valley in La Rioja province has 345 ha of organic vineyards (in 2016) and is Argentina's biggest producer of organic wine.

CHILE

In 2014 (the latest data I have) Chile, the self-styled wine-growing paradise, had 3,571 ha (8,825 acres) of organic wine grapes. This equated to a pitiful 2.77% of the national vineyard. Compare this with Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Austria, none of which explicitly market themselves as wine-growing paradises and all of which have 9% or more of their national vineyards certified organic or biodynamic. And if just one Chilean winery, Emiliana in the Colchagua Valley, is removed, then Chile's numbers would be even worse. Currently Emiliana owns or controls 1,413 ha (3,565 acres) of vines, all of which are farmed to biodynamic standards, with Demeter biodynamic certification 'only' for its 843 ha (1,408 acres) of estate vines. It is the biggest biodynamic wine operation in the world and is very well run.

The picture below was taken by Jon Wyand in the Seña garden in the Aconcagua Valley.

Sena_502_plants_JW-5.jpg

AUSTRALIA

Australia does not count its organic vineyard surface area, only tonnage of grapes. My fellow wine writer Max Allen estimated in 2016 that around 150 of Australia's roughly 2,500 producers, or 6%, were certified organic or BD – although, because most of them are quite small producers, this accounts for only roughly 2,800 ha (6,900 acres), or around 2% of Australia's total vineyard area, he says.

Australia's wine thought leaders (we won't name names) still do not appear to see organics as necessary or desirable. Little money has been spent on researching organics v biodynamics v conventional. One study by the University of Adelaide published in 2015 which compared organics versus conventional versus what they called biodynamics (but wasn't) came up with the earth-shattering conclusion that compost is A Good Thing.

Australia is the world's driest continent. It is facing an environmental catastrophe in its Murray-Darling basin thanks to over-irrigation of vines as well as other crops.

Australia's winegrowers face a combination very old soils (no recent glaciation) and arid conditions coupled with the risk of creating subsoils which manifest salinity or sodicity when irrigation is used long-term. This potential scenario would make me reach for my compost shovel, compost being a low-tech, cost-effective get-out-of-jail card under such circumstances.

But composting is less ingrained here than it is in New Zealand, partly because Australia's leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture has promoted his own short-cut compost spray as easier to use than making physical piles of compost.

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand ranks with Austria for the exceptionally high overall quality of its organic and biodynamic wines. This is due to the country being blessed with some top-drawer consultants. Examples include Andreas Welte (wine plus other crops, based in Nelson), Bart Arnst (wine only, based in Marlborough) and Peter Proctor, a British-born New Zealand resident and teetotaller who has spent much of his long life working with farmers in India, where the cow, whose manure is a fundamental quality tool in biodynamics, is seen as sacred. New Zealand is also blessed in that the majority of its organic or biodynamic vineyards are grazed at some stage during the year by sheep, cows, horses or other livestock.

The combination of Proctor's down-to-earth but still science-based guidance and literally heaps of readily available, high-quality animal manure and other organic matter for composting allows New Zealand's biodynamic wine-growers to add to their soils – via the compost – the three building blocks of successful biodynamic farming, as outlined above in the introduction.

In 2015 New Zealand had 165 certified organic or biodynamic estates (12% of all NZ growers) with a collective 1,900 ha (4,693 acres) of vineyards and 69 certified organic wineries. This meant 5.4% of New Zealand's vineyard area had organic or biodynamic certification. The main areas for organic wine-growing in NZ are Central Otago and Marlborough. Key estates are Felton Road, Millton, Seresin, Urlar, Rippon, Dog Point, Loveblock (Kim Crawford) and Churton.

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa has only a handful of organic and biodynamic esates, but the best are excellent. Paul Boutinot's Waterkloof estate in Somerset West is one of the most impressive set ups I have seen, with a serious focus on using animal traction (horses) over tractors. The horses are cheaper to run and do not damage the soil. Boutinot have designed their own machinery for the animals too. And working with animals and building ploughs on site is beneficial for employees who learn life skills.

Johan Reyneke is another top biodynamic wine producer who also places great store on social issues. He was the first to develop an empowerment project which actually allowed his employees to own their own (rather than stay-for-free-in) houses, giving them a real stake in the community and educational opportunities.

Finally, another outstanding project is the Stellar winery in Vredendal along the Olifants River on the west coast. The Rossouw family and their co-owners also have a strong social focus, after a fatal bus crash had a big impact on the local community, especially on the affected children and their potential education and life chances. Stellar also made the first range of no-added-sulfite wines which I found tasted of wine rather than of vinegar.

Overall South Africa has similar issues to Australia. Old soils, an arid climate, dependence on irrigation, and thought leaders who still think conventional farming has all the answers.