Buried cow horn? The mysteries of organic and biodynamic wine

Is the movement a marketing ploy or a mystical way to enjoy wine?
Biodynamic wine
The wine world’s latest trend sounds pretty good. But how does it taste?

Photograph by Dan Saelinger

“I was just looking at the biodynamic calendar, and Wednesday is a root day . . . not the best for tasting. However, Monday (fruit day) is good, as is Thursday afternoon (flower day).”

I had emailed Eric Brown, the owner of Le Caveau Fine Wines in Chamblee, to talk about sampling some of his organic and biodynamic wines. Just as savvy farmers have tapped into the fervor for sustainable produce, vintners from Oregon to Chile have begun rethinking their use of pesticides in the field and additives in the cellar. But so far, I’d been disappointed with the results: too often flabby, muddled, and over-priced. I wondered, could the organic and biodynamic movement simply be a marketing ploy, piggybacking on the popularity of free-range chickens and organic kale salads? If anybody could convince me otherwise, it was Brown, who has championed these styles since opening his store in 2011. Still, no drinking on a Wednesday because it’s  a root day? What is a root day?

If Brown’s concerns sound mystical, it’s because they are. The roots of the biodynamic movement can be traced back to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a 20th-century Austrian philosopher and mystic. Based on the lunar cycle, the calendar is an offshoot of his work and dictates the optimal time to plant, to harvest, and—as I was learning—to drink. The goal: a wine that most clearly reflects the land and environment in which the grapes toil. “The tides, weather, atmospheric pressure—they all affect the way we experience wine,” Brown said, once the aforementioned flower day rolled around.

Organic producers limit their use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, along with any other chemicals or preservatives (like sulfites) that might artificially enhance or alter the grape. (Instead of organic, Brown prefers the term real wine.) As a result, the vines are more susceptible to disease, the yields are lower, and the product can vary wildly by vintage—but the risks are worth it, Brown said. “With real wine, there’s a bandwidth of flavors and aromas that you don’t get in commercially made wine.”

Biodynamic farmers, meanwhile, follow an even stricter set of guidelines that limit the use of yeast strains, copper sulfate, and enzymes that conventional winemakers add to further shape the wine as it ferments. The most devout dive into the mystic components as well, going as far as burying cow horns stuffed with manure to, supposedly, promote a balanced ecosystem.

I’m sorry. Did you just say cow pie–stuffed horns? Brown was losing me—at least until he opened a few bottles. The wines sang of fruit, earth, and minerality, and thumped with thirst-quenching acidity. One of my favorites was from Atlanta-owned Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery in California, started in 2010 by Hardy Wallace and Matt Richardson, who still lives here with his wife, Amy. With their mailing list numbering in the thousands, orders of the mostly organic bottles have quickly outpaced production—particularly for their 2012 Semillon, an unfiltered and hazy pour that boasts an electric edge, unusual for a varietal typically used to make dessert wine. “Just like anything else, there’s bad organic wine, bad biodynamic wine, and bad conventional wine,” Brown said, swirling his glass and peering into its foggy contents. “But with the guys who are doing it well, the wine can be magical.”

Good to know  Not all organic and biodynamic wines are labeled as such. Some estates have been farming organically for decades (centuries even!) but have never bothered getting certified, which can be expensive.

Four to Pour

to taste the difference

Herve Souhaut 2013 Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet

Ardéche Blanc
A lush white as refreshing as Fresca

Silvio Messana 2012 Montesecondo

Chianti Classico
A rustic, red cherry Sangiovese blend with a quirky, prickly finish

Thierry Puzelat 2013 Clos de Tue-Boeuf

La Guerrerie
An ultra-juicy red from France’s Loire Valley

Dirty & Rowdy 2012 Semillon

Lemon peels for everyone

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue under the headline “A natural buzz.”