Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

A six-year comparison of organic, biodynamic, and “low-input” and “high-input” viticulture (three years of conversion, three of maintenance) recently came to fruition in South Australia, courtesy of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The full report is freely available here (and three cheers for research freely shared). It’s 73 pages long, but the conclusions are fairly simple. The most worthwhile among them: in blind trials, experienced wine professionals rated the organic and biodynamic wines more interesting than the conventional versions.

  • Soil health (nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, microbe mass) was most strongly improved by compost, not by any particular management system. All four systems were tested with and without compost.
  • Compost had the single most dramatic positive effect on soil health, no matter the underlying management system.
  • Management system had no consistent effect on vine growth, berry weight, or berry composition.
  • Low-input, organic, and biodynamic alternatives yielded at 91%, 79%, and 70%, respectively, of the high-input condition.
  • Organic and biodynamic wines were more “textural, rich, vibrant, and spicy” than their conventional counterparts. (pH, TA, and color held constant; high-input wines were a bit higher in alcohol.)

Improved soil health with organic/biodynamic management has been demonstrated numerous times over, and so have the benefits of compost. This study was unusual in making compost a separate variable, showing that both organics/biodynamics and compost, separately, were beneficial. The upside here is the attitude, across the study, that conventional growers can benefit from organic techniques even without undertaking a full-on organic conversion.

The downside is that the “organic” and “biodynamic” management used in the comparison are weak compared with what many committed non-conventional growers undertake. How can you practice biodynamics without compost? “Biodynamic” here seems to have meant nothing more than adding the core preparations 500 and 501, a far, far cry from anything Demeter would certify as honest biodynamics. Even the organic system is pretty bare bones: weed control with mowing and cultivation instead of herbicides; no insecticides or pesticides other than copper. (The low-input condition pulled back on the insecticides and some of the pesticides.)

Talking about those lower yields, the researchers make an important point. Very little research has been done on organic or biodynamic cultivation methods. We could develop better techniques within those systems and preserve environment and fruit quality while improving yields. Many organic/biodynamic growers have surely worked out such techniques on a local scale, which leaves a role for scientists to listen to what they’re doing, identify why it works and how/whether it can be generalized more broadly. Some environmentally conscious wine people are happy to pour their big pharma money (or whatever it might be) into projects they believe in with no thought for financial return, but most are trying to support their families as well as their values. Sharing successful organic/biodynamic techniques — say, for weed management, which was the biggest issue in this study — developing them scientifically, and stamping them with a scientific seal of approval so that they’re not dismissed as just those quacky organic people, will help conventional growers improve their weed management tactics, too. Likely, too, with economic benefits you can appreciate even if you honestly don’t care about trashing the environment for short-term gains.

The researchers should have made another point about those yields. Are the high-input yields a reasonable benchmark? Should we buy short-term gains with long-term environmental and social damage? If your business isn’t “sustainable” without using chemical warfare to eke every last grape out of the earth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your business practices in other areas. It comes back to the old resurrecting dinosaurs argument. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean we should. The wine might even be more interesting.


8 thoughts on “Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

  1. Using synthetic copper pesticide, which is allowed in BioDynamic farming, means that copper, a toxic heavy metal, which sterilizes soil, is being used over and over in these BD vineyards to prevent mildew. This is terrible for the environment. Certified Sustainable viticulture has the same composting and cover cropping of organic and BD without the negative environmental damage.

    • I understand your concerns about copper, John, but I’m not sure that what you’re saying makes sense. There are many different “certified sustainable” systems and, while I’m not familiar with all of them, my understanding is that they certainly allow copper use in the vineyard. Individual vineyards choosing to use less copper is great, but I don’t see how copper is part of the conversation about conventional s “sustainable” (as it’s variably defined) vs organic vs biodynamic practices.

      • New Class IV low risk pesticides replace many copper applications, which will reduce annual environmental impact. I was surprised to see no Stylet Oil mentioned as being used in the organic / biodynamic vineyards. Do you think it is an oversight?

        • The methods these folk outlined were pretty bare-bones, as I mentioned, so I don’t think that not using any of the various organic alternatives to standard practice was an oversight, just a choice. Whether that choice was about comparing very simple regimens to see whether those very simple changes could produce a demonstrable effect or whether it was just a matter of keeping the experimental design and management protocols as simple as possible I couldn’t say, but, again, the results seem to reflect well on organics in basic principle.

    • the copper (as a fungicide not pesticide) allowed is not synthetic, CERTIFIED BD and organic practioners are limited to 3kg/ha per season and this is rarely used, other systems allow more. They are required to soil test and monitor copper levels in soils, other systems do not require this. Having taken many soil multi residue tests I can tell you that previous land use (when operating under conventional agriculture/horticulture) have left far more problems than any footprint left by BD or Org practioners

      • All good and very valid points. You’ve pointed to the crux of the matter as I see it, which is not whether a given practice is “good” or “bad” but how it measures against alternatives in any given setting, and how we could be doing better.

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