No doubt you’ve heard the words ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ tossed around in trendy circles of late, but what exactly do these terms mean? Kyla Kirkpatrick, The Champagne Dame, debunks some of the common myths and gets back to basics on what constitutes organic and biodynamic winemaking.
WORDS KYLA KIRKPATRICK
Over the past decade, there has been prolific chatter in the Champagne industry about organic viticulture and biodynamics. It is topical both in the wine industry and in general life, since the consumer has become more conscious of their health and sceptical about what they consume. The conversation about organic and biodynamic application in Champagne suggests the practices are considered ‘modern- day wine making’ and are used by the ‘next generation’ of vignerons – the young guns.
But is this really ‘modern winemaking’ or is it simply returning to the way wine was originally produced? What does it all mean? Does organic or biodynamic methods make our wine healthier? Does it improve the taste of the wine? Is it mythical hogwash, or does it improve the overall health of the vineyards?
Let’s traverse this current dinner table conversation topic at an in-depth level, so you too can add to the conversation and make up your own mind as to whether you want to prioritise purchasing organic or biodynamic Champagnes.
This topic is certainly garnering attention from consumers so let’s clarify what organics and biodynamics mean. I speak specifically about my wine of choice, Champagne, but the same or similar practices would apply to any wine varietal or region.
Naturally everything has its pros and cons, as does organic viticulture. The big plus here is healthier grapes and the subsequent chemical- free wine. Synthetic chemicals pose great health risks to the wine consumer, as well as workers of the winery. Winemakers in France and around the world are now under tight scrutiny by law over their use of chemicals in vineyards.
Organic viticulture enables the plant to fortify its resistance to certain diseases through organic treatments. For example, using nitrogen to promote plants to pull air into the soil, growing cover crops that attract insects (a natural remedy for farming problems), or having small sheep to graze on the grass and weeds between the vine rows. The challenge, however, in a region like Champagne lies in its dual climatic conditions. Sitting at the most northerly latitude, it is affected by both maritime and continental weather. The region’s tempestuous climate can wreak havoc on the vineyards, and so it’s vital to use certain treatments to prevent crop fatality.
Organic treatments are not dissimilar to homeopathies. These gentler practices could treat minor ailments in vineyards, but they are not strong enough for serious diseases. There are considerable risks in applying this methodology to winemaking. For some devout organics or certified organic winemakers, this is simply Mother Nature’s curse. The choice to grow wine organically is a philosophical choice – there is no backing down in the face of adversity, it’s a way of life.
There are a handful of winemakers in Champagne who will use organic viticulture methods as far as practicable, but will not risk the family’s livelihood if things go wrong. Take for example the Ampelos, an organisation that controls and certifies a sustainable viticulture approach that is followed by Champagne estates Pierre Gerbais and Geoffroy. The Ampelos approach allows no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides.
Logically, organics are more practical for smaller vineyards where vignerons have more control over their land and vines. This control proves more challenging for the big houses that own hundreds of hectares of vines or buy fruit from growers farming land they do not own. But the good news is that more and more vineyards in Champagne, including some of the grand maisons such as Louis Roederer, are striving to reduce the use of chemicals and employ more sustainable, healthy methods to the vines. There is no doubt organic viticulture is the smart way forward, and more producers are coming around to this.
Without over-simplifying what is quite a complex topic, biodynamics is the consideration of the vineyard as a complete and holistic energy system. It incorporates the implementation of organics and also includes consideration of the cosmic, spiritual and astrological approach to farming. Biodynamic viticulture, as used by Agrapart, Etienne Calsac and boutique producer Chevreux-Bournazel, treats the vineyard as a self-contained eco- system; the winemaker is trying to enhance and support the elements of nature that lead to healthy soil micro-organisms and, ultimately, healthy grapes.
These principals of farming were popularised by alternative thinker Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. Most heavily discussed of his many philosophies are the ‘Preparations’, or the so-called ‘500 series’, which are a series of herbal and mineral treatments that help to build healthy living soils in the vineyard. Some of these treatments seem conceivable in their benefits, but others can be harder to grasp. For example, Preparation 505 is oak bark chopped in tiny pieces and inserted into the skull of a domestic animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth where lots of rain flows through. Such treatments can divide winemakers.
Steiner’s approach dictates that there are both lunar and astrological influences on the soil and plant, and depending on the phase of the moon or zodiacal constellation that determines whether it is a root, leaf, flower, or fruit day. This creates an astrological farming calendar that dictates what activity should be performed in the vineyard on each day including; planting, pruning, and harvesting.
There are two authorities in France who have the right to certify a vineyard as biodynamic. The leading authority is the Demeter association, based in America, who owns the trademark of the word ‘biodynamic’, and the other is Biodyvin.
Of the 5000 growers in Champagne who produce wine under their own labels, there are a minuscule total of eleven who are officially certified by the Demeter organisation as biodynamic. Does this show the difficulty in applying the practices and preparations of biodynamics, or does it allude to scepticism many harbour towards managing a vineyard in this way? This is for the vigneron to answer and for some, the jury is still out. For me, I see the benefits of applying a holistic approach to the vineyard to help it become a self-sustaining entity, without any of the nasties.
Without a doubt, organic and biodynamic practices produce more terroir-focused wines, translating into a taste that evokes a sense of place. These Champagnes tend to have less dosage added and more of a hands-off approach, which can include no filtration and no fining. This shows the consumer more of the true essence of the wines of Champagne.
Head to Emperor Champagne online to try the following organic and biodynamic wines:
Pierre Gerbais – L’Osmose Extra Brut
Geoffroy – Empreinte
A.R. Lenoble – Terroirs Rosé
Vouette et Sorbée Fidéle Blanc de Noirs
Etienne Calsac – Rosé de Craie
Larmandier-Bernier – Latitude Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs