What in the World Is Biodynamic Wine?

Biodynamic wine is growing in popularity stateside and has the reputation of tasting pretty darned good. Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock

Q: Last night I went to a restaurant in the city where everything was local-this or organic-that — something that I’ve grown used to in the last few years. But now it seems to have made its way to the wine list as well! One particular bottle of white was not only listed as organic but as “biodynamic” as well. What on earth is this? I'm used to hearing wines described with ridiculous adjectives — whiff of leather, hint of cherry, undertone of currants, etc. — but this is the first I've ever come across “biodynamic.” Is this just a fad? Or something actually worthwhile?

A: I hear ya. With the arrival of newfangled eco-friendly descriptors like “biodynamic” on restaurant wine lists, oenophilia isn’t as effortless as it used to be. Personally, I do enjoy my organic — and sometimes biodynamic — wines, but during the sultry summer months I’m all about a refreshing and cheap-ish “green” wine from Portugal: Vinho Verde. And when I say “all about” I mean that you’ll have to pry the stuff from my cold dead hand when Friday evening rolls around.

To answer your question, no, I don’t think the biodynamic wines are some flash-in-the-pan vino trend invented by a French dude in the last 20 years to make a quick buck. Biodynamic — short for “biologically dynamic” — farming practices actually predate organic practices by 20 years, so biodynamic viticulture isn’t exactly a newfangled thing.

As you noted, a single bottle of wine can boast both USDA organic certification — no chemical pesticides or fertilizers touched those delicious fermented grapes — and biodynamic certification by Demeter International. Despite a couple of basic similarities, the certifications are indeed totally different creatures.

Here’s a way to think of the differences between organic and biodynamic: Imagine a decent bottle of organic wine — a luscious and full-bodied Cab Franc — as your sister (or good gal pal if you don’t have one). Your sister lives a happy if somewhat mundane existence somewhere in Northern California working in some capacity for the federal government. There’s nothing wrong with her but as she’s grown older she’s become a bit, well, unexceptional, a bit uptight. Predictable. And then one day your perfectly average organic sister starts to let her hair grow out. She quits her job and starts studying astrology. At dinner parties, much to your embarrassment, she spouts out esoteric jibba-jabba relating to farming and the late Austrian philosopher/founder of the Waldorf School, Rudolph Steiner. Then, she moves to France to become involved with the preparation of homeopathic “medicines” for the Earth. Her friends think she’s lost the plot when in reality your sister has moved “beyond organic.” She’s biodynamic and loving it.

That’s biodynamic viticulture in a nutshell for you. It’s essentially the same as organic farming but with a holistic, mystical twist in which the plants, the soil, the farmer and other organisms, including animals, within an ecosystem are all on the same cosmic “page.” Sure, when you read more about biodynamic farming practices, it can all seem a bit arcane. OK, totally batty. For example, the cornerstone of biodynamics, “Biodynamic Preparation 500,” involves burying cow horns filled with the dung of a lactating cow on fall equinox and then, six months later, unearthing the horns, removing the manure and mixing it with water in a process called dynamization. According to the bio-curious folks at Sustainable Table, this process “creates a vortex that cosmic energy can be funneled into.” After the cosmic funneling of manure and water, the stuff is sprayed directly on the soil.

Cosmically correct farming practices aside, biodynamic wine is growing in popularity stateside and has the reputation of tasting pretty darned good. In terms of eco-friendliness, the bottle with both organic and biodynamic certifications that you spotted on that restaurant wine list is about as green as your red, white or bubbly can come provided that it hasn’t been shipped from some remote corner of the Earth.

On that note, organic and biodynamic certifications aside, the greenest, most carbon-conscious way to imbibe vino is to drink locally — purchase whatever bottle is produced geographically closest to you. I’d check in with MNN’s resident foodie and wine sipper, Robin Shreeves, a fellow Jersey resident, to see what fine Garden State wines are out there. Although I have a thing for Oregon and Washington State whites, fizzy Italian reds and that aforementioned Portuguese “green,” I’ve also fallen for a wine bottled within my very own ZIP code: Red Hook Rosé.

So there you go. Biodynamic wine = kind of weird but totally worthwhile. If you find one that strikes your fancy and you just happen to be in the city, I’m always free for tastings.