Monday, August 9, 2021

Do biodynamic wines taste better than organic wines?

We have heard a lot about organic wine in recent years. This is made from grapes that have been grown using what is intended to be a more “natural” agricultural procedure, whereby both the grape-growing and the wine-making try to use ecologically sustainable processes. This apparently produces more artisanal wines, and which might thereby be more palate-pleasing, as well.

We may rightly ask: Do eco-friendly wines taste better? In answer, we have, indeed, been told that: Evidence mounts that eco-friendly wine tastes better. It is thus argued that this is Why certified organic wines are worth the search. Indeed: “Organic wine-making is all about taking away the shadow and mystery from that translation of a vineyard into the glass ... [the wines] really show the place, down to almost the row” (Why organic Shiraz is a true taste of terroir).

Beyond organic wine, there is biodynamic wine. Biodynamics is intended to take the basis of organics to another level, apparently with the intention of moving closer to some sort of spiritual (metaphysical?) ideal of do-nothing farming and wine-making. Given their intended superiority, we could reasonably ask whether these wines actually taste better than do organic wines; but the literature answering this question is much less clear.

So, it seems worthwhile to look at some data, in which the same people have tasted both biodynamic wines and organic wines. In this regard, wine-quality scores from reputable online sites are of value, provided we can get enough such scores. The quality of the wine tasting procedure is important, of course; but when it comes to plotting a meaningful graph, quantity certainly helps, as well. The people at the James Suckling site have certainly been busy this year, with: 12,000 wines rated, 13,000 to go: The year to date; so we could look at their data as an example.*

Recently, they produced a report on: 12 months of organic ratings: Uncovering some of nature’s finest. This report covers 1,682 wines labeled as organic, with an average score of 92.1 points (and a median of 92). They have also produced a report on: Rating biodynamics: Finding the true soul of wine. This report covers 750 wines labeled as biodynamic, which is 45% of the organic sample size, with an average score of 93.5 points (and a median of 93).

The first graph below shows the data for the organic wines, with the quality scores horizontally, and vertically a count of the number of wines at each score. The second graph shows the data for the biodynamic wines. tasting of organic wines tasting of biodynamic wines

As expected from the data summaries listed above (average and median), the scores for the biodynamic wines are shifted to the right in the graphs, compared to the organic wines. That is, in general, the biodynamic wines do get higher quality scores than the organic wines. Note that this conclusion is independent of whether the James Suckling site tends to give higher scores than do other wine commentators (as has sometimes been suggested), since we are comparing the scores within the same group of wine tasters.

It thus seems reasonable to anticipate that, at least at the moment, organic wines taste better (on average) than do conventional wines, and biodynamic wines taste better (on average) than do organic wines. The future looks better for both the environment and for our taste buds.

This is not to say that these attempts at ecologically sustainable agriculture are without problems. Most of these problems have to do with grape-grower responses to disease. The viticulturalists are not supposed to be spraying their vineyards with modern chemicals. As noted by Tony Ingle (Angove chief winemaker, in South Australia):
If you’re going to be doing it in a region that’s got a lot of disease pressure, then it starts getting really hard. You have to start spraying things a lot, which is why we do it in the McLaren Vale, where there is very low disease pressure ... With organic grape-growing, yes you’ve got to be a little bit more careful, you’ve got to walk through the vineyard a bit more often to see what’s happening, and you’ve got to react when you see things making a problem.
This has become increasingly obvious this year, with, for example, Downy mildew becoming widespread in Champagne and the areas north of there. We may therefore ask: After the storms — do organic rules need to be rethought? (“you have to expect the unexpected; and that makes commitment to organic farming very difficult”). After all, for natural wine, everything depends on Nature; and Nature has the last word.

* Note: I do not have direct access to the database. For my blog posts, I independently extract the data from the online web pages, just like any other reader. This hopefully avoids any potential conflicts of interest; however, access to these pages was kindly provided by James Suckling, for which I am grateful.


  1. My intuition is that conventional / organic / biodynamic are associated with an increasing overall commitment to wine quality rather than the source of wine quality itself. That is, perhaps it's possible to produce "biodynamic level" wines with conventional viticulture if all of the other elements of growing (site, canopy mgmt, yields, etc.) and winemaking (fancy winemakers, processing and elevage) and even packaging were brought up to the same level as the typical biodynamic producer. Correlation, causation and all that.

    1. Given the need to spend extra time in the vineyard, and also the winery, I would not doubt that this extra effort by the producers is producing dividends. It would be hard, however, to do a direct comparison, where the commitment levels are the same but the actual procedures are different, and vice versa. It would be interesting, though.

    2. Thought experiment . . .

      Are organic wine grapes more aromatic or more flavorful than non-organic wine grapes?

      That is difficult to test.

      I would submit that any grower who is committed to organic wine grapes has a considerable "sunk cost" financial interest in garnering certification.

      (And retaining certification. That includes collaborating with one's neighbors to prevent their overspraying insecticide or herbicide or fungicide that could "taint" the property.)

      Consequently, the vineyard owner is motivated to expend more time and effort nurturing those vines than other growers who do not seek organic certification.

      We need a "control" to compare against a test "variable."

      Say . . . a vineyard owner who has divided his/her property and lavished an equal amount of "tender loving care" on both non-organic and organic grapes.

      Grapes from both properties picked on the same day. Handled in the same way. Fermented identically in identical vessels (e.g., oak barrels, stainless steel, concrete eggs, other). Aged identically in isolated vessels. Racked and fined and filtered identically in isolated vessels. Bottled identically.

      Then sampled "blind" side-by-side.

      There may be intrinsic differences independent of whether the grapes were grown "organically" versus "not organically." (To start with: two different properties with two different "terrors." That alone could eclipse any consideration of "organic" versus "non-organic" growing practices.)

    3. Any scientific vineyard comparison will, of course, be impractical — unfortunately. There is too much large-scale difference in management of the vines to make direct comparisons. So, a "manipulative" comparison, such as you describe, is out. We must therefore use "descriptive" comparisons, in which we compare a large number of organic and non-organic vineyards. I have had to do this sort of thing many times in my biological-science career. It is not as good, but it is practical. My comparison in this post is a first stab at doing this, for biodynamic wines.

    4. ERRATUM

      Correcting a typo: "terrors" should be terroirs.


      Different terroirs includes different microbes.

      How that affects the resultant wine . . .

      "Sequencing study lifts veil on wine’s microbial terroir" | UC Davis (November 25, 2013)


      -- and --

      “Microbes May Add Special Something to Wines” | New York Times (Nov 26, 2013)


      -- and --

      "Local Microbes Can Predict Wine’s Chemical Profile, Study Finds" | UC Davis (June 14, 2016)


      Finally, any "scientific vineyard comparison" would need to eliminate the differing contributions of indigenous yeast, by using the same inoculation yeast.

    5. In addition to the hours of labor, there is also a variable of site. Growers more likely to put in the extra work at hi quality sites, not the regular quality blocks or sites. There are so many variables that, using our recent dive into learning about medical science clinical trials, a better study if possible controlling for 1 or 2 more variables would be grand.

    6. Controlling for other variables, such as amount of effort, and price, would be interesting. However, such studies try to identify what causes the increase in quality, rather than simply establishing that there is such an increase, in the first place. My post is simply one step towards the latter.

  2. Also just notice that price wasn't isolated. Would guess that biodynamic wines are, on average, more expensive than conventional wines. Banding by price would probably reduce the difference quite a bit?

    1. Price is problematic, since it differs geographically. Therefore, the original data do not include a price. Including a price estimate might produce less of a difference, or it might not — more expensive wines do not always taste better, although we might hope so.

  3. The article you reference was published by the PR department of a university where a faculty member had just co-authored such a study. Unfortunately, the claimed result that biodynamic and organic wines score higher is untenable.

    You will understand the criticism as your simple bivariate analysis has the same flaw.

    The evidence is not mounting and closer scrutiny of Steiner's theories is confirming them to be 'witchcraft' (to use the term applied by a group of Italian growers last month).


    Andrew Chalk

    1. You seem to switch from organic to biodynamic in your comments. Whether biodynamic theory is witchcraft has little to do with whether the end result produces better-tasting wines.