Dry Farmed, Organic, Biodynamic, Oh My!

Why Pay Attention to the Dirt?
I’ve recently become more interested in the farming aspects of the wines I drink. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about winery and vineyard visits with an eye to how the dirt is managed. Consider this a preview and to answer the question: “Who Cares?”

This is the Montrachet Grand Cru, one of the finest vineyards in Burgundy. Wines cost upwards of $200 a bottle. Individual rows are owned by different wineries

The Wine is Made in the Vineyard
When I have the opportunity to visit a winery, seeing the vineyard is high on my list. Standing and looking all around, taking in the environment where the grapes grow cements in my mind a memory and a sense of that wine. Is it a cool place, or a hot place? Cloudy and rainy or hot and dry? What is the ground like? How does the winegrower manage the vineyard? Most artisan vignerons freely offer that their job is to grow the best grapes possible, then to try to not mess them up in the cellar. This approach is what draws me to such wines.

(click on either photo to view full size in a slide show, hit “escape” to return)

There are lots of technical fixes to flaws in the grapes that come in the door, from adding acid, reducing tannins, reverse osmosis, spinning cones to raise or lower the alcohol. Adding coloring agents, the list goes on. Just as I prefer pasture raised, grass fed meats, I’d like my wine to be closer to fermented grape juice and nothing more. In both cases, careful human hands are necessary, in fact, more care is required to produce a great outcome with less intervention.

Conventional Farming, with Restraint
Conventional farming has lots of advantages. It’s typically less labor intensive per acre and is easier to maintain control of the farming aspects in tough vintages (especially cold and wet). Wet climates with large vineyards (e.g. Bordeaux) are a good example of a place in which organic viticulture may be expensive and difficult. However, the temptation becomes to manage everything by chemical intervention. All nourishment comes from the “fertigation” system, pests are snuffed out chemically. Unfortunately, so are the beneficial insects, earthworms and beneficial micro-organisms.

A Bordeaux vineyard in spring

Frequent rains in Bordeaux make organic viticulture a challenge. The vineyards are still beautiful! And dry farmed as most of Europe.

Even conventional growers are becoming sensitive to chemical use with  “La Lutte Raisonnée”, or using only the minimum chemical inputs necessary becoming popular. Skeptics complain this can just be an excuse; I prefer not to judge as I’m not the farmer!

Merlot vines at Frog's Leap Winery in Napa

Dry farming is doable in many parts of California. The vines are dry farmed and managed organically at Frog’s Leap in Napa.

Dry Farming
In virtually all of Europe, regulations prohibit irrigation in vineyards with the exception of getting vines through their first couple of years.  Somehow, irrigation has taken over in the US, even in regions which get enough rain to dry farm. The question I ask myself is this: how can the wine show the place and vintage if the grapes have been irrigated to meet their needs? Several of my winery visits in the US allowed me to observe and ask this question. The answers varied from totally satisfying to “hmmm…” How freely is that spigot used?

vineyard at Matthiasson in Napa

Organic farming with carefully managed irrigation at Matthiasson in Napa.

The goal of organic viticulture is to foster the maximum health of the soil, including the micro-organisms that inhabit the ground. Fertilizer is limited to grape pomice, manure and other organic sources. Grapes are grown without use of chemical pesticides or herbicides. This is relatively easy in warm, dry Mediterranean climates where there is little disease and pest pressure.  However, in regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, it’s not so easy. The vines must be monitored closely and only approved organic treatments can be used. Some of the traditional, allowed treatments have environmental effects.  Interestingly, neither organic nor biodynamic viticulture require dry farming, so in the US, it’s a separate question.

Biodynamic compost at Littorai in Sonoma

Compost is an incredibly important piece of both organic and biodynamic farming. Here, a biodynamic compost pile at Littorai in Sonoma

I’ll give the reader’s digest version here, with a more in-depth discussion in a future post. Biodynamics is a step beyond organic.  That is, the farmer starts farming organically, then adds additional steps to implement biodynamics. The goal in biodynamics is to integrate all elements of the farm with no outside inputs and no outputs other than the produce of the farm. The intent goes beyond the health of the soil to the entire ecosystem of the farm. So far, so good. The problem is that many of the techniques challenge our modern notions and seem a bit like hocus-pocus or folk tales. Cow horns are filled with manure in the fall, buried, then dug up in the spring, diluted with water and either sprayed on the crops or added to the compost pile. Operations on the farm are governed by the phase of the moon.  You can see where readers might be a bit skeptical, I was.  After many visits, I’ve concluded that farmers are supremely practical. If the practices didn’t pay off in a superior product, they wouldn’t use the methods.

Biodynamic vineyard at Domaine de la Bonne Tonne in Beaujolais

What do you think? Does the vineyard management matter to you? Are the extra costs justified?  Stay tuned…

14 Responses to “Dry Farmed, Organic, Biodynamic, Oh My!”
  1. Great introduction to such an important factor in wine production. I look forward to reading the next chapters!

  2. Duff's Wines says:

    I’d have to agree with those that say, “It matters!” It’s complicated enough when wine doesn’t require an ingredients list, or for that matter any description of how we ended up with what’s in our glass.
    Like you, I really enjoy being in the vineyard as a window into what I might expect. You don’t even have to have a very sophisticated palate to taste the dirt, shale, schist, etc. in most wine unless they’ve screwed with it. Looking forward to your next instalment.

  3. Rupal Shankar says:

    A wonderful summary. I really enjoyed your read, like you I love exploring the dirty(mostly dirt and soil) aspects of grape growing. I look forward reading your future posts.

  4. It’s like the beginning of my level 3 exam! Thanks for the refresher. Keep em coming!

  5. Lynn says:

    Great topic- it may become as debated as whether ingredients should be listed on wine labels! Look forward to your “stay tuned” posts.

    • Thanks, Lynn. I’d love to see ingredients (and techniques) voluntarily listed. One Bordeaux producer proudly mentioned on their back label their modern equipment including reverse osmosis. I knew to put that one back on the shelf!

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