What's the difference between organic and biodynamic wines?

What's the difference between organic and biodynamic wines?

By Laura Fagan Originally published 2021, updated April 2023

Calling all 90’s kids! Who remembers Captain Planet? I’m sure we can all picture the team of eco-warrior teens, their rad element wielding rings and their quest to protect the earth. Now that we’re grown and the health of our world is in decline, it’s time to channel our inner Planeteer once again and help save the environment one sip at a time. Thankfully, we can answer this call to action because sustainable winemaking practices now offer consumers many earth-friendly options. Pioneering winemakers are paving the way to a greener future by implementing balanced, climate-friendly viticulture methods, leading to an increase in buzzwords like organic, biodynamic and sustainable on wine labels. But what do these words actually mean, and how do they impact the wine we love? As it turns out, they can mean a lot – from classifications to eco-conscious practices. So, whether you're a wine enthusiast or a casual sipper, let's uncork the words and work behind sustainable winemaking and make Captain Planet proud!

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Organic Wine

When it comes to organic wines, there's a lot more to consider than just grape variety or vintage. From sulfite levels to certification requirements - the world of organic wine can be complex and confusing. And just because you shop at an eco-conscious store, doesn't mean the wine you're drinking is 100% organic. In fact, not all organic wines are treated equally. There are different ways in which wine can be classified as organic. It can be "certified organic," which allows for a legal certification, commonly found under USDA Organic or EU Organic. Alternatively, it can be labeled "made with organic grapes." All classifications, however, share these practices: they are made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, contain no GMO's and use only organic additives - such as organic yeast.

So, what distinguishes these classifications from one another?

Sulfites.

While some people associate sulfites with the day-after-drinking headache, they are actually the most useful component for preserving wine. The number of sulfites in a liter of wine can range from 5 mg/L (5 parts per million) to about 200 mg/L. The maximum legal limit in the United States per bottle of wine is 350 mg/L.

The differences in sulfites between the three most common organic classifications:

  • USDA Organic wines have no added sulfites, but 10 mg/L of naturally occurring sulfites may be present.

  • EU Organic wines may contain added sulfites, but they are limited to 100 mg/L in red wine and 150 mg/L in white and rosé wine.

  • "Made with organic grapes" wines can contain up to 100 mg/L in added sulfites.

Now that you know the differences between the classifications and can speak to what an organic wine is, we recommend starting with our Sourced & Certified Collection. Château Trians Provence Rosé is a certified organic wine that is table and food-friendly, and it has been organically certified since 2008. If rosé isn't your preferred style, then try La Cappuccina Sauvignon Blanc. This certified organic Italian wine has intense aromas of peace and grapefruit, finished by soft fragrant notes of mint and herb, making it perfect for a warm Florida evening. For something effervescent and elegant, try Vignobles Bulliat Crémant de Bourgogne Brut. This dry French sparkling wine is created using organic practices and expresses with fine, long-lasting bubbles and a delicate aroma that is reminiscent of citrus and flowers. The wine also has subtle hints of green apple and toasted bread and is perfect for any celebratory occasion or paired with seafood dishes. Each option is a fantastic bottle for more sustainable sipping. And remember, since organic wines have lower sulfite levels, they won't age the same way as other wines. For the best drinking experience, store them in a cool environment.

Biodynamic Wines

If you're someone who believes in the power of the natural world and its ability to nourish us, then biodynamic wines might just become your new vino vibe. Inspired by the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming is an approach that sees the vineyard as a living, breathing ecosystem that is deeply interconnected with the wider universe. It's a holistic and homeopathic method that embraces lunar, solar and cosmic rhythms while seeking to cultivate wine in a way that is both sustainable and spiritually fulfilling.

Unlike conventional winemaking, which relies heavily on artificial chemicals and additives - biodynamic winemakers forgo anything that is not derived from the earth itself. From growth to fermentation, the process is entirely natural and chemical-free. The soil, the most vital component in a biodynamic winemaker’s operation, is nourished with a unique blend of fermented herbs, minerals, cow manure, gems and horns which are believed to stimulate the soil for plant growth and vitality by feeding helpful bacteria and fungi. And the vineyard is tended according to four distinct lunar cycles, each of which corresponds to a different stage in the grape's development and astrological signs:

  • Fruit Days - rooted in the fire signs and are considered the best days for harvesting grapes.

  • Root Days - align with earth signs and are ideal for pruning.

  • Flower Days - occur during air signs and are seen as a time for the vineyard to rest.

  • Flower Days - occur during air signs and are seen as a time for the vineyard to rest.

Cow manure in a cow horn use to help treat the soil in a biodynamic vineyard for better quality fruit in the wine.

This approach may seem puzzling, but for biodynamic winemakers, it's an essential part of their commitment to sustainability and natural winemaking. And once the grapes are prime to pluck, they are then taken to be naturally fermented and bottled. The entire process can be quite pricey and for a wine to be classified as biodynamic, the winemakers must follow a set of strict rules and regulations. The two most popular known governing bodies of this classification are Demeter and Biodyvin. Demeter was established in the US in 1985 as a non-profit, consisting of a network of individual certification organizations in 45 countries around the world. If an item is certified by Demeter, you’ll find their trademarks on the label - “Biodynamic®” and “Demeter®.” Biodyvin runs a slightly smaller operation, but still holds immense value in the biodynamic sphere. Biodyvin was created by a group of 160 European winegrowers from France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, in 1995. To be accepted, a vineyard must be farmed entirely with biodynamic practices and follow a set of specified rules for viticulture and vinification.

If all of this has piqued your interest, then you're in luck. Our resident wine expert, Nathan Dale, has some fantastic biodynamic wine recommendations for you. For a white, Nathan recommends the Pfluger Buntsandstein Riesling which offers a ripe apricot and peach aroma with bright acidity and rich flavors of stone fruit. This firm yet elegant wine is created by Alex Pflüger, a skilled winemaker, who tends to the finest vineyard plots in the Palatine wine region across 40 hectares of biodynamic land at his estate. For a red selection, Beckmen Cuvee Le Bec is Nathan’s top choice. This red blend expresses with a complex blackberry and spice aroma, flavors of dark fruit and pepper and a rich, powerful mouthfeel. Interested in learning more about the Beckman Family vineyards. Read our full article here.

Sustainable Wines

When it comes to sustainable wines, we're talking about more than just a trending hashtag. It's about finding a balance between production and preservation. In winemaking, it can be a combination of organic, non-organic and biodynamic practices that best suits the surrounding businesses and ecosystems. Sustainable vineyards make their decisions based upon resource management. They focus on issues related to their specific geography and act as stewards of the land while preserving natural resources, repurposing waste, improving air and water quality and protecting surrounding wildlife habitats. From reducing harmful emissions by switching to bio-diesel fuels, to cultivating plants that attract natural predators for pests - sustainable winemakers take a holistic approach to wine production that benefits both the land and the people who enjoy their wine.

Being a guardian of both natural and human resources allows for a myriad of sustainability certifications. Every climate has its unique stresses which mean the standards of sustainability may vary. Although it can be pricey for a vineyard to transition to a sustainable state, many wineries have made the move. It's a big job, but one that is vital to ensure the longevity of our planet and the livelihoods of future generations.

While there are many different approaches to sustainability, one winery that stands out is the Shannon Ridge Winery in Lake County, California. Nestled in the mountains, this winery benefits from an ideal climate and altitude for sustainable grape production. The cold winters and shorter growing season require fewer pesticides and other chemicals, resulting in some of the lowest pesticide use of any wine region in California.

Shannon Ridge Winery’s sustainable vineyard in Lake County, California.

The easiest way to lead a more sustainable life is through the wine you drink. We suggest trying Benziger Chardonnay, Shannon Ridge Petit Sirah, 7 Deadly Zins and McManis Cabernet Sauvignon, to name a few. Benziger Family Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are both farmed sustainably and are equally delicious. If you love an oak-forward Chardonnay, we highly recommend picking up a bottle of this eco-friendly wine. Its ripe peach, pear and vanilla flavors are perfectly complimented by a rounded, yet subtle oak finish. If you’re transitioning to a darker option, Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah is a great choice. It has notes of ripe blueberry and cider with hints of warm vanilla. 7 Deadly Zins is also a wonderful option and a fan favorite. This Lodi-produced Zinfandel is filled with spice and earthy flavors. Is smoky more your taste? Then McManis Cabernet Sauvignon should be your top pick on the sustainable spectrum. The dark fruit flavors pair perfectly with hints of smoke, ideal to sip on while enjoying grass-fed beef of dark chocolate. By choosing sustainably produced wines, we can all do our part to preserve the delicate balance of our planet while enjoying delicious wine that has been produced in harmony and reciprocity with the environment.

ABC Fine Wine & Spirits infographic that explains the difference between organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines.

There are so many beautiful wines in each eco-friendly classification. Scope out the label on your favorite bottle to see if you’re already enjoying an organic, biodynamic or sustainable option. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a wine expert during your next visit to ABC Fine Wine & Spirits if you are interested in expanding your horizons. They will be able to find an option that best fits your taste and preference.

Interested in learning more? Visit our ABC Blog page.