Organic, Biodynamic, Natural: Making Sense Of Sustainability

29/04/2021

Almudena Alberca MW, our Oeno Brand Ambassador for Spain and leading Spanish winemaker, explains the differences between organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking and explores how the wine industry is striving to become more sustainable by embracing new practices.

„The organic wine category is expected to account for 3.4% of the industry by 2023, according to market research by the IWSR. The EU has recently set environmental targets for 2030 where it expects 25% of the total agricultural area to be converted to organic farming. The area of organic vineyards currently equals 12% of the whole planted area, doubling in size in the last 10 years. Spain leads the organic production with the largest number of certified organic hectares in the world, 121,279 hectares according to the latest publications of the MAPA. The demand for organic products is increasing in all European countries, especially UK and Germany. In the USA there is a gradual increase in sales and strong demand in Asia.

Within this arena we can find several concepts: organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable. So, what do these terms mean exactly? And what does the future hold for sustainability in the wine industry? 

“Ecológica“ in Spanish, „organic“ in English, and „bio“ in French, is viticulture that respects the environment. Organic wine respects the principles and rules of organic agriculture which is characterized by avoiding synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the control of pests and diseases through preventive methods. This type of production maintains and improves soil fertility and structure, promotes biodiversity and helps preserve water and air quality. It should be noted that legislation varies from country to country. There are differences between European wines, where an organic wine must be made from organically produced grapes and there must be certification of both the vineyard and the winery, while in the USA there are different levels of quality depending on the origin of the fruit.

Biodynamic wines come from the legacy of Rudolf Steiner and Maria Thun who understood the crop as a complex organism connected to the Earth. Here a holistic balance is sought between soils, plants, animals and the rest of nature’s influences. Biodynamics aims to rehabilitate, energize and intensify all organic life in the growing environment. The greatest developer of biodynamics in viticulture has been Nicolas Joly, maker of some of the most legendary wines of the Loire. The approach of biodynamic wines aims to intensify the natural exchanges between the vine and its environment (soil and air) in order to obtain a better development of the grape. The cycles of the moon and planets are taken into account in the vineyard and homeopathic techniques are used for fertilization, nutrition and soil health. In the winery, for example, the clarification and filtration of wines and the use of a lower dose of sulphur than that allowed for organic wines. 

Natural, amber or orange wines have been the trend in recent years. The concept is ambiguous since all wines come from a natural product such as grapes and from ancestral practices such as fermentation. The concept is fundamentally based on organic and/or biodynamic practices in the vineyards and minimal intervention in the rest of the process. This minimal intervention can result in wines that are far removed from their origin and the variety used, creating a wine defined only by its philosophy. The lack of regulation of this category has caused confusion with the general public and above all to the understanding of the concept of quality, especially that quality which makes wines age and transcend generations. This trend has also inspired many winemakers to reflect on their winemaking, and on their impact on the earth. This reflection has led to the recovery of more respectful and careful practices, especially at the origin, in the vineyards.

What’s next?

Many of today’s quality producers opt for a sustainable model where they can apply the best of each philosophy, and above all adapt it to their convictions and their territories in a way that is wholly sustainable, including economic viability. Producers like Jacques Selosse decided to abandon biodynamics as an integral practice after losing several complete harvests; the limitations of certifications made the existence of his business unviable. 

The latest concept to appear and which will dominate the coming years is the environmental commitment called „regenerative viticulture“. Regenerative viticulture is a holistic concept of the Earth as a solution to combat climate change. The way to achieve positive change is through three pillars. The first, of course, is to have respectful farming practices following organic or biodynamic concepts. The second is to support and increase the biodiversity of your crop. The third and most revolutionary is not to limit yourself exclusively to not harming the ecosystem, but to have a proactive attitude trying to adapt measures in your crop that help to fix carbon dioxide (CO2) from the environment.

It can be seen that no method is better than another. However, there are points in common that are the most important, the care and respect for the environment, taking care of the legacy we have received and projecting it into the future so that the next generation can continue to enjoy it.“

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