Organic Wines, Biodynamic Farming & Sulfites in wine
By Damon Adam Lobato
Recently, Naches Heights, Washington applied for its own AVA (American Viticultural Area). The proposed appellation is 13,254 acres in size and will be newest Washington State AVA. Currently, 40 acres are being farmed organically and biodynamically in Naches Heights. If approved, Naches Heights will enjoy bragging rights as the country’s only all-organic appellation. The Tasting Room Yakima at Wilridge Vineyard are now at the forefront of it all getting asked the following questions daily. “What is biodynamic farming? What are organic wines? What are sulfites in wine?” And this blog is an attempt to clarify the differences.
What is Biodynamic Farming? Biodynamic is a method of farming that treats the vineyard as a living organism. Based on a philosophy created by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, who was also the founder of the Waldorf school system, Steiner created the “spiritual science” of anthroposophy, which was to understand science through the spiritual world.
Because the soil is treated like a living organism, it is therefore necessary to build its “immune system” and maintain its health. Since pesticides and chemicals tend to deplete the nutrients of the soil, biodynamic methods ban the use of both. Instead, following lunar and cosmic patterns, homeopathic mixtures called “preparations” are used to nurture and protect the soil from pests and disease. For example, Preparation 500 calls for Cow manure fermented in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil. In short, the goal of biodynamic farming is to be in tune with the totality of life forces affecting the plant.
There are two main factors that make biodynamic farming distinctly different from organic farming. The first is the use of a complex system of herbal sprays and composting techniques, known as “preparations.” The second is the timing of the operations on the vineyard, which is strictly regulated by the movements of the spheres. Demeter (www.demeter-usa.org) is the international organization that certifies and monitors biodynamic farmers around the globe.
What are Organic wines? Organic wines defined by the USDA are “wines made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites.” The grapes are grown naturally without the aid of pesticides or chemicals. In order for this method to be successful, the farmer must maintain the soil through regular plowing and applications of organic composts. They also encourage biodiversity as well as cover crops to help create a stable environment. Certified Organic producers must follow rules and regulations in addition to a certification process administered by Organic certifiers.
What are sulfites and how are they used? Sulfites occur naturally in wine during the fermentation process, as well as occur naturally in your body and many other foods. In wine production, the addition of sulfites act as a preservative used to prevent oxidation, bacterial spoilage, and help stabilize the wine.
Wine is similar to a cut apple that rapidly turns brown; to prevent an apple from browning you add a little bit of lemon juice. The lemon juice does not change the flavor of the apple it just preserves the apple from breaking down quickly. Sulfites are the same for wine; they are wine’s version of lemon juice.
When a winemaker chooses not to use sulfites in the wine (organically made wines) they run the risk of having the taste and flavors vary from bottle to bottle and a decreased shelf life, quickly moving from fruity, to nutty, to cardboard, and then to vinegar.
A wine without added sulfites is going to be more fragile, lose its aromas and color, and eventually become muddy and cloudy. If too many sulfites are added it can affect the aroma and taste of a wine as well. The wine will smell and taste like burnt matches; harsh, bitter and pungent. Too many sulfites also cover errors in winemaking, similar to the use of too much oak treatment; the key is balance.