From old-time farming to biodynamic certification

About a year ago I predicted that 2011 would be a year when we’d hear a lot about sustainable and biodynamic wines.

Well, I was right, at least as far as first vine is concerned.  One of our producers got certified biodynamic earlier this year.

Looks beautiful — and now they’re certified biodynamic: the fields of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud

I wrote about Valérie Chaume-Arnaud and Philippe Chaume before.  They make wines that are pretty much as un-interfered-with as possible.  The only exception is that their wines do contain added sulfites, which is allowed in biodynamic production.  But there’s no intrusive technology and no other chemicals of any kind.  No added yeast, no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.  No irrigation, either.  And Valérie has been doing it for more than 20 years, making excellent wines the entire time.

When I first met Valérie and asked her how she’d classify her style of grape growing and winemaking, she said it was doing what her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did.  What made her decide to get the certification?  Partly, I think to codify what she was and wasn’t doing, and to have a third party verify it.  Certification is costly and the paperwork takes up time.  But she and Philippe think it’s important enough to put up with some rather onerous requirements to be able to say that their wines are biodynamic and have that mean something definitive.

In order to import and sell these newly-certified wines, I had to do some research on biodynamic certification and figure out what it all means, both from the mechanics of making biodynamic wine and the bureaucracy of certification around the world.

So this week I’ll talk a little about biodynamic agriculture as defined by Demeter, the organization Valérie and Philippe turned to for certification.  And I’ll look at the administration of biodynamics in another post.

Demeter is the largest international organization certifying biodynamic agriculture and wine production.   The farming manual is pretty extensive, as is the winemaking manual.  You can read about all of the individual items in the manuals themselves, but the main thought is that the farm should be self-sustaining, without bringing in any outside materials for raising crops.  Fertilizer should be natural and come from compost and farm animals on the property, and primary importance is placed on the health of the soil, the crops, and the animals.  When these are properly cared for, human health is also protected, as is the environment as a whole.

A lot of discussion about biodynamics has been about the more mystical elements, as I’ve mentioned before.  I don’t think it’s a requirement that you sign a mystical pledge, rather that you work toward the proper result.   I’ve never heard Valérie refer to herself as a creature of the earth or anything like that, she just says that she prefers to farm grapes and make wine with as few negative impacts as possible.

That’s me with Valerie in the winery at Domaine Chaume-Arnaud.

Rules for biodynamic wine production are pretty straightforward.  The winery must use biodynamic grapes.  Hand harvesting is preferred, although farmers can use some mechanical harvesting with permission from Demeter.  Only the yeast on the grape skins can be used, as I mentioned before.   Most wineries don’t have to get new equipment to comply with the standard unless they use plastic tanks, but they do have to be careful about replacing equipment, such as pumps and tanks, which are the things that stay in contact with the wine for the longest time.  The only thing that is a potential issue for some wineries is that biodynamic wine must be bottled in glass – no bag in box or materials like Tetra-pack.  There’s some leeway for closure material, but all closures must be recyclable.

If I have to make any criticism of biodynamic certification (and you know I do, right? 😉 ), it’s that Demeter is trying to lump all different kinds of agriculture together in a kind of grand unified theory.  Demeter’s farming manual doesn’t distinguish between growing grapes for wine and any other agriculture it certifies.  In other words, vineyards growing grapes for wine have to abide by the rules that farmers growing wheat or vegetables do if they want Demeter biodynamic certification, including avoiding monoculture (growing only one type of crop) and crop rotation (not leaving the same crop in the same field for more than two years).

Crop rotation and diversity are good practices for maintaining soil health and avoiding disease.  Obviously, though, they won’t work for vineyards.  Grape vines are perennials and stay in place for decades.  And most vineyards don’t grow crops other than wine grapes, at least not in a systematic way.  I asked Jim Fullmer and Elizabeth Candelario from Demeter USA about these issues and they told me the following:

“Although we are seeing many wineries expand into polyculture with vegetables, farm animals, olive oil, etc., most still only grow wine grapes as crops. … It’s true that in perennial systems there are not crop rotations in the traditional annual sense but the Demeter vineyards still have to avoid monoculture. Also it is not uncommon to see intentional rotations of covers in the areas between the vine rows.”

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud comes pretty close to the ideal for Demeter Certification. Valérie and Philippe also grow wheat, truffles, and olives and raise sheep on their property.  They didn’t apply for biodynamic certification for their other crops and livestock because they don’t have time to manage those things themselves (they contract them out), and as the owners they would ultimately be responsible for those activities under Demeter certification.  So while I’m sure the same care that Valérie and Philippe put into the grapes and wine also extends to the other things on their property, Domaine Chaume-Arnaud is considered a monoculture, at least for now.

In practice, this means that Demeter gives vineyards exemptions from polyculture and rotation requirements.  Which is one way to handle it.  But I think there are better ways.

1)       Why doesn’t Demeter devise a separate biodynamic certification standard for vineyard farming?  Acknowledge that vineyards (and maybe orchards) are special cases that need to be treated separately.  This would also give Demeter the opportunity to require other practices that have been shown to be beneficial specifically for vineyards and wineries that might not apply to other crops.

2)       Alternatively, Demeter could also grant provisional certification to vineyards and give them a certain amount of time to get some other crops in that aren’t just ground covers.  That would be a nod toward asking vineyards to abide by principles Demeter obviously thinks are important.

It’s interesting to see the evolution from “what our grandparents did” to biodynamic certification at vineyards.  Obviously, it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and it will have to evolve a little further to be as useful as possible.  But while we (and Valérie and Philippe, no doubt) wait for Demeter 2.0 and beyond, it’s great to know that there’s an attempt to codify ways of making wine in an ecologically sound manner.   Kudos to Valérie and Philippe and all the other winemakers and grape growers who want to document their sustainable processes for the world to see.


My blogger friend Emily gave me permission to give you her recipe for Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies, just in time for Halloween!

You were probably thinking I was going to give you a recipe to pair with Domaine Chaume-Arnaud wines.  I thought about it, but I’ve recommended the wines with a lot of different food (and will do so again, no doubt).  Since this is my last post before Halloween, I thought I’d give you a recipe for the holiday.

It’s not my recipe — I asked my blogger friend Emily of Sugar Plum Blog for permission to give you one of hers.  But in a way it’s fitting.  As I said in my post about Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, I think Valérie’s a magician.  Emily Hobbs is a magician too.  Most people who bake follow recipes without deviation, because baking requires greater precision than most of us can do without a recipe.  Emily actually experiments.  She knows a lot about baking and her instincts are good, so she comes up with wonderful recipes.

Like this one, for Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Emily set out to make a cookie that’s crunchy and chewy — so there’s brown sugar and some corn syrup in the dough for the chewiness, and she added a pre-baked crumble mixture for the crunch.  Then she enriched the flavor by browning the butter in the dough.  Genius!  People at food companies spend a lot of time and money trying to come up with things like this (believe me, I know since I worked for one), and Emily could put them out of business in one fell swoop.

Milk is a logical choice to serve with the cookies, but being the wine merchants we are, I’ve got something else in mind.  I profiled Jerome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands in a previous post, and told you about his Methode Gaillacoise, a naturally sparkling, lightly sweet wine made from Mauzac grapes.  For 2010 he came up with a new version that he calls Methode Ancestrale Brut ($18).  It’s still sparkling and made from Mauzac, but the grapes are less sweet, so the sparkling wine is too.  It’s not bone dry, and while it pairs well with the cookies, it also works as an accompaniment to poultry, fish, or seafood (and I wouldn’t turn down a glass with cheese, either).  This could easily become your go-to sparkling wine — be sure to raise a glass in toast to Jerome, Valérie, Philippe, and Emily.   Happy Halloween to everyone!

Bon Appetit!


Emily’s Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 24 cookies


2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup ground gingersnap cookies
1/3 cup old fashioned oats

Cookie Dough

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (You could substitute 1 1/4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour (measured by spooning the flour into dry measuring cups, the leveling the top with a knife)
3/4 cup semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat two or three cookie sheets with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together melted 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, walnuts, gingersnap crumbs, and oats until well incorporated. Place crumbs on a cookie sheet and bake 10 minutes or until very light golden brown and toasted; set aside.  (If you only have two cookie sheets, pour the crumbs onto a plate to let them cool and spray the sheet to use for the cookies.)

Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Melt 1/2 cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until butter foams and turns golden brown. (It’s better to do this in a shiny saucepan so you can see the color, rather than a non-stick one.)  Pour into a large mixing bowl and cool for 5 minutes.

Place pumpkin in a small saucepan over medium heat, and cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently, until some of the moisture evaporates from pumpkin.  It may darken a little in color too.

Place pumpkin, brown sugar, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, corn syrup and egg in bowl with browned butter; mix together using a mixer on medium high speed for 4 minutes. Beat in vanilla, baking soda, salt and spices until well combined. Reduce mixer speed to low and beat in flour until well incorporated – about 1 minute. Stir in walnut-gingersnap crumbs and chocolate chips until combined.

Chill dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Drop tablespoons of dough onto cookie sheets, 12 cookies per sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 6-7 minutes before transferring cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

This entry was posted in Biodynamic farming, Biodynamic Wines, Demeter Biodynamic Certification, Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, Domaine la Croix des Marchands, Emily Hobbs, french wine, Gaillac Wines, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Sugar Plum Blog, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to From old-time farming to biodynamic certification

  1. Sue says:

    That’s so interesting. I’m keeping this post for reference.

    One question. You didn’t use the word “organic” once. I think in this country, it has a legal definition. Does biodynamic production take the wine process further than organic? Are all biodynamic wines organic? Or vice versa? I’m not an organic iconoclast, I just wondered about the terms.

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Sue,

      It’s a good question. “Organic” has a strict legal definition in the U.S. and other countries, but biodynamic doesn’t. The EU definition of organic is pretty much the same as USDA’s. There are rules for growing organic grapes and then additional rules for making organic wine. You’ll see very little wine labeled as organic, but more of it labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes.”

      Biodynamic grapes could also be organic and usually are. But organic grapes can’t be biodynamic unless the additional biodynamic treatments are followed. The farm manual describes preparations that farmers must use during the year. I didn’t want to get into that in the post, but those preparations are part of what gives biodynamics its aura of mysticism. They’d probably be fine for organic growing. Demeter offers USDA organic certification to those getting biodynamic certification, but most don’t choose to do that.

      Biodynamic wine allows added sulfites, which organic wine doesn’t.

      Confusing, isn’t it? I just stick to remembering that “Organic” designation comes from governments, while others, like biodynamic or sustainable, don’t.

      I used to see some wines labeled as “Made using biodynamic principles,” which doesn’t tell you much, since you don’t know which principles they’re talking about. If the wine is simply labeled as biodynamic, it may not be certified. As far as I know, Demeter is the only organization that does the certifying, so if they are certified the label will say some combination of the words Demeter Biodynamic Certified. TTB will accept the word biodynamic on the label if you can document it. Short of actual certification, I’m not sure how you would do that.


  2. Pingback: Terroirist » Daily Wine News: Bacchanalia

  3. Not a word about Bouillie Bordelaise, that I think practically everybody use.

    • firstvine says:

      True, but you have to draw the line somewhere. The “Bordeaux Mixture” is copper sulfate and lime, that gets sprayed on the vines to control mold. Growers all over France certainly use it, although not all of them do. Demeter encourages growers not to use it, although they permit it in specific quantities. The rationale is iffy in my opinion, supposedly because copper sulfate and lime are both natural products, it’s OK to use them. The same rationale goes for sulfites in wine too. I don’t object to using either, but Demeter is making obvious concessions to its philosophy simply for the sake of attracting wine producers to get biodynamic certification — after all, wine is a high-profile product and brings more attention to biodynamics in general.

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