Day 19: Why is there Not a Large Natural/Organic/Biodynamic Movement in Germany?

When i started this whole project i was wondering why i got the same answer back from everyone whom i asked about natural wine in Germany/Austria. The response was always some variation on “sure there is plenty of natural stuff. Just try some Nikolaihof.” After about four or five of these (seemingly) stock responses i decided to hit up Lyle Fass of rockssandfruit about the subject to find out why so many people otherwise knowledgeable on the subject came up with the same response. He was more than happy to oblige, given his passion for the subject, and to take his mind away from the pain of being a Mets fan.

Considering that Germany gave partial birth to “green politics” and “green parties” I have always thought it strange that there is not a bigger organic movement there. The biodynamic/natural wine movement has been a tremendous boon to enhance the quality and healthfulness of wine. Unfortunately, while the creation of a strict set of dogma works wonders at the desks of wine writers, the application of these principles is not so straightforward in the real world of winemaking. This is especially true in Germany, given the severe topography of many of its vineyards and its unique winemaking style. Many of the best sites in Germany are extremely steep and are often spread out which makes them very difficult to farm. It is my opinion that organic principles need to be adapted to Germany with a bit of flexibility and a healthy dose of common sense. And while we are at it organic principles should be adapted this way in all wine-growing regions, not just Germany.

Some of the basic tenets of “natural” wine, which can be dogmatic at times, have proven to be a problem for German wine growers. It has always seemed a strange disconnect. Sure there are organic and biodynamic wineries in Germany. Some are very good (Wittman, Clemens Busch), some merely good (Bruder Dr. Becker, Gysler) and others not so good (Zwölberich, Sander). There are also a good amount of producers that fall just short of organic and/or biodynamic and that will be explored later.

One popular organic association in Germany called Bioland has 22 “fruit juice and wine producers” listed on their website. Another organization called Ecovin has a large following in the Rheinhessen with the average size of the estate being 10 ha. Wittman is also classified with Ecovin. Demeter, which is the main organization of biodynamic growers is also very big and has a small number of German estates that are certified. Plus there are also a small number of estates that adhere to these principles that do not belong to any organization.

For the bulk of my research for this piece, I used paraphrased notes from a translation of Reinhard Lowenstein’s chapter on organic/biodynamic wines from his book entitled “Terroir.”. Reinhard Lowenstein is the man behind the brilliant estate of Heymann-Lowenstein in Winningen in the Lower Mosel. Interestingly enough, the Lowenstein estate is not organic which does not stop me at all from enjoying the wines. Much of the below is taken from that book and is principally relating to the organic issue in Germany.

Since natural wine is almost non-existent in Germany as classified by its supporters there really is not much to talk about but the organic issue is more interesting and practical in regards to Germany. Part of the natural wine dogma is minimal sulfur. This is obviously only compatible with an academic at best selection of German wines. I do not even say estates, as in Germany an estate typically makes a range of wines from dry to sweet and sulfur is added to stop fermentation so the wine can correspond to the respective pradikat level. Sulfur is also used to prevent oxidation and re-fermentation in bottle, which can happen when there are higher sugar levels present. Sweetness is only a by-product of the most important thing that determines a German wine pradikat level, which is ripeness. I consider estates like AJ Adam, Schafer-Frohlich, Clemens Busch, Peter Lauer, Knebel and Stein to be natural wine estates. Clemens Busch is the only one that is classified organic. Many of my brethren I am sure do not. Some of these estates do use herbicides and fungicides when needed, even if they are ambiguous about it, as it is not worth it to lose money while preserving the moniker “organic.”

I know of people who make wine as naturally as possible with minimal sulfur intervention in Germany but as we all know a large part German wine is on the sweeter side and the only way for this to be accomplished is to add sulfur. That is how Kabinett is Kabinett and Spatlese is Spatlese etc. Kabinett and Spatlese and even Auslese can be dry but that is less common to find over in the US market. Also for the Grosses and Erstes Gewachs you need to sometimes add sulfur to stop fermentation. If you just let German wine ferment to its “end expression” you will more than not often wind up with halbtrocken and feinherb wines. Some can actually be at or below 9 grams of RS and be legally “trocken.”
There are some who claim there are no “natural” or good Mosel growers because of the sulfur issues inherent in German wine. This is rubbish. A noted Mosel grower says that it is impossible to make top-level Mosel Riesling, Alsatian Riesling and/or Wachau Riesling without sulfur. So the whole natural wine thing regarding sulfur and German wine is a bit like pissing in the wind. Most of the anti-Mosel and anti-German arguments about sulfur make people’s faces yellow. Also having no or minimal sulfur is much easier to do with red wine (Lapierre) than it is white wine (Overnoy).. The tannins in red wines from the grape skins, pips and stems help prevent the wine from oxidation so it is easier to have minimal sulfured red wines. Overnoy is an exception of someone who can make poure, cripsp white wines without sulfur.

The Green movement which started in the 70’sformed factions and one of these declared that mechanization in the vineyard and chemical treatments would kill the soil and leave the plants weak and extremely vulnerable to disease. To avoid this the key is to nourish the animals, soil, plants as to enable themselves to defend against disease and rot and if and if this does not work there are a number of alternative and healthy treatments against rot and other vineyard nuisances.

An interesting point in Lowenstein’s book is that as a result of the Green movement in Germany, many extremely toxic fungicides and insecticides were altered to make them much more environmentally friendly and also nitrate levels were lowered in artificial fertilizer. This is a huge step and one in the right direction but many observers continue to just say they spray and do not note the steps taken to reduce harm to the environment. Also, if organic mixtures are applied to the soil via helicopter or say tractor, dogmatists immediately declare it is raping the soil. This seems silly. How can one get a horse in the Winninger Uhlen? Have you seen how steep and terraced this vineyard is? A counterargument could be made tio work the terraces by hand.

Lowenstein also raises the point that if you try and strengthen the vines and plants against disease it is bound to fail. The vines just cannot fight the fungal diseases brought over from America. The European vines genes simply have not had enough time in their evolution to become resistant via mutation. Many organic growers have no choice but to spray special preparations against such things as downy mildew. Vermin also presents the same problem. Through much practical experience it has been shown that the vines cannot protect themselves from the various vermin and many of the so called natural products are not the best choices. But again this is a complex issue as it depends on the vermin, their natural predators and what type of synthetic or organic sprays are used and so forth.

A funny little anecdote is that in the old days, and at the beginning of the organic movement, nicotine was the accepted product to rid your vineyards of vermin. It is obviously very toxic it was ruled illegal to treat German vineyards before WW II. Another very toxic insecticide was called pyrethrum which was proven to cause nerve damage. Pyethrum can be created from either synthetic means or from blossoms. So either way this one screws you. One variation that is used is the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis whose poison kills worms and at the same time being harmless for endotherms. Another application which is considered more efficient and intelligent is something called RAK which gives off female odors that confuse the male butterflies and as a result of this odor being released into the air the male butterfly cannot find a female to mate with. This is not a great way for a male butterfly to live but so far there have been no protests from the animal rights movements. But again because of the dogma associated with “natural, organic and biodynamic wine” certain consumers out there would be appalled that a synthetic substance is used in the making of their organic German wine. Kind of funny how it works and how dogma can really bite you in your ass if you do the proper research.

Mildew is a huge issue when it comes to the battle between conventional wine growing and organic/biodynamic wine growing. The Green Party/organic wine movement of the 70’s approved the famous “Bordeaux mixture” in the 70’sbut synthetic modern compounds were not approved. The latter are extremely difficult to decompose and they are so complex that their decomposition is difficult to even describe. But the main and vital problem is that the fungi learn to become resistant and a as result the chemical industry is very pleased. Why? Because they can push through new patents and sell even more expensive sprays. Are these sprays any worse than the copper compounds used by the organic movement? And if they are deemed worse, who decides? Copper is a heavy metal that is also toxic and can accumulate in the soil. In many vineyards in Germany, as elsewhere, there are copper concentration limits that are way above the legal limit. Sometimes they are above the legal limit by a hundred fold and these sites should be declared hazardous waste zones, yet it is all certified organic. Not so black and white anymore is it?

Lowenstein says we need to look for “sensible compromises” which he even admits is extremely difficult. Many people who like and promote organic products tend to be blinded by what he calls “good person” ethics and “idea-world ideology” and have a lack of real knowledge when it comes to this regarding wine. This also affects the organic growers who have moved away from the 70’s/80’s Green Movement and they find themselves asking themselves difficult questions. Who is in need of more protection? The grower, the consumer or the earthworm? How should weeds be pulled out? By hoe, tractor, by hand? And if one attaches the proper device to the tractor to pull out the weeds what does one do then? Do you use a flammable device or chemical weed killers? Is the weed killer worse than the tractor. Many sites in Germany due to their steep slopes cannot be attended to by tractor. With the use of fossil fuels by the tractor, the transmissions of rust particles are in play now as well. The tractor also compacts the soil which can destroy animal (microbial, worms etc) life in the vineyard. What about humans after all? Should man be included in the equation? Is it ok for a man to work eight hours a day in the sweltering heat with a hoe or pulling out stakes by hand in a very stony and very steep vineyard in a bent-over position all day? How much more should the wine cost if the grower sets aside the tractor and chemical treatments. One euro, two euro, five euro, twenty euro? Lots of questions and not a lot of answers out there. Are consumers in the USA and abroad willing to pay more, for example if Clemens Busch is consequent with organic and biodynamic viticulture? Are they willing to pay more for high-quality wines? So far no as Many of Clemens Busch’s better wines are not imported to the USA because of price issues.

There are so many other issues out there to. Some of the most conscientious producers in Germany are happy using their methods but will criticize other growers who use subsidies for being organic to make lousy wines. No one wants a bad wine, organic or not. There is a grower in the Mosel, who shall remain nameless, that will use a synthetic fungicide to battle problems in the vineyard when it is warranted. His wines are fantastic and he will never be labeled organic and that is a shame as his wines are wondrous and very high quality. Growers in Germany will more often than not leave the door open to use a fungicide and herbicide if the situation warrants it. It is a shame that many miss this grower’s wines, but they are being missed, especially by those in the fundamentalist organic movement. Most of the top growers in the Mosel do not use insecticides. Vineyards are greener than ever with cover crop abounding and happy bugs, weeds and whatever else can flourish. Many producers can even make it without herbicides depending on the weeds, weather and the size of their vineyards. A large plot of say 100 hectares is impossible and way too costly to manage without herbicides. It is a wonderful sight I can attest to as vineyards do not look as dead as they used to 20 years ago. The same can be also said of Burgundy today.

I hope this helps and can somewhat explain why there is not a huge movement in Germany as there is in France and other countries. There are many practical and logical issues that come into play and just because German wine does not fit into a certain dogma espoused by some does not mean they are not conscientious growers trying to make the best wine possible.

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Up next: Detroit’s Putnam Weekley Slows it down; or: Keep your LeBrons and your Kobes, give me some Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 9, 2009.

11 Responses to “Day 19: Why is there Not a Large Natural/Organic/Biodynamic Movement in Germany?”

  1. This is a great article that I enjoyed reading very much.

    There are more and more German wine makers saying farewell to the German Prädikat system and letting their wines ferment dry. There are also many that are getting more natural and I salute the wine makers you mention and I also salute one that should be mentioned. Oliver Spanier makes brilliant dry rieslings with minimal sulfur use for the Battenfeld-Spanier and Kühling-Gillot estates.

  2. at the outset I declare myself as a (australian)biodynamic vigneron,certified demeter.
    Whilst the difficulty in managing soil and weed control in the steep vineyards along the german rivers is indisputable this article shows all the ignorance and muddleheadedness tpically seen when those who have no practical experience in biodynamic/organic farming lend their commentary.
    As one (of many possible) example to suggest that oidium and mildew cannot be controlled using natural low hazard substances including when necessary low rates of copper(this intermittant low rate of usage does not result in soil accumulation) in a biodynamic vineyard is just plain wrong.
    To suggest that vignerons resorting to synthetic chemical use in their vineyards should still be allowed organic certification is rather strange.
    My advice is to talk to those practikants of bd/organic rather than cobbling together worthless (and I suspect for your readers, confusing) gobbledygook

  3. The varied perspectives and viewpoints contained herein continue to provide what I feel to be the most enjoyable, provocative and informative blog series on wine on the web today. Anyone who loves wine should get amongst these posts and peruse, think, discuss. It’s all about what’s at the core of how and why we drink wine, and what wine truly is. A glass with you, Saignee!

  4. This post brings up more questions than it answers, both about German wine and natural wine in general.

    The Mosel is obviously an extreme example in terms of climate and topography. But it’s not alone in terms of cool/cold climate wine regions – Champagne and Alsace face similar challenges and there are notable practitioners of Biodynamics and “natural” winemaking in these regions.

    An interesting question is how to compare the issues of RS and SO2 in the Mosel versus Vouvray and Montlouis? If Huët and Chidaine can make more or less “natural” wines with high levels of RS, why isn’t this possible in the Mosel?

    The Pradikat system is a man-made construct which by it’s very nature is artificial. As long as producers are forced to shoe-horn their wines into the strictly defined styles of the Pradikat, then it’s impossible to make wines that could be defined as “natural” – at least in terms of allowing the vineyards, wines, and fruit to express themselves with minimal intervention.
    If I’m not mistaken, the Pradikat system is a relatively recent development. Are wine with RS truly “traditional” for the Mosel and the rest of Germany?

    I agree that being dogmatic is not necessary. I love German wines, particularly from the Mosel.
    By it’s very nature, agriculture is interventionist and not “natural.” The Pradikat system is a highly evolved program of man-made constraints that has produced some incredible wines, and will continue to do so.

    So, what is natural? How much intervention is too much? What is tradition?
    If we’re going to hold Germany (and the Mosel in particular) to a different standard, we need to be up-front about it. But if we’re going to discuss this point, let’s stop making excuses.

  5. John,

    Thanks for your comments. To clarify, so I can understand what you are saying, no one is qualified to speak about these issues unless they are a biodynamic/organic/natural producer?

    My main source is Reinhard Lowenstein’s wonderful book, Terroir, and he is not bio/organic so i guess that book is gobbledygook. Oh well My article does raise more answers than questions as this is a complex topic, but hopefully we can remain civil when discuss it like Paul does in his insightful comment.

    John, yours was insightful too, but the tone was attacking and that is not the type of discussion I am trying to foment. I want to learn why not, so I wrote an article. I don’t have all the answers or claim to, but it would be nice if people who seem to think they do, like you, would engender a civil tone.


  6. Paul,

    The Champagne producers that are biodynamic are even smaller than in Germany! Numbers wise, but I applaud their efforts.

    Alsace has many biodynamic producers but also has a very confusing system of labeling., not that Germany doesn’t, but that confuses consumers about sweetness level. and me to boot. I never know if it will be sweet, semi-sweet or dry. even after all these years! The topography is also very different, as you said and has more in common with the Pfalz.

  7. John,

    Also you are calling Reinhard Lowenstein ignorant along with me. I never claim not to be, but I have a hard time swallowing Mr. Lowenstein’s ignorance as you claim, as he is one of the greatest producers in Germany. If he is ignorant then I want to be ignorant…wait i am!!

  8. John,

    I’m not sure if you read the article. You seem to have missed the point.

    1) Just because you are certified organic doesn’t really mean much. If we had some evidence that you know how to make good wines with organic techniques, that would be interesting. Organic crappy wines (and there are plenty) are of little interest.
    2) The point of the article was not to suggest that people can use pesticides and be considered organic.
    3) The point of the article is that rigid guidelines with no regard for local terroir are foolish.
    4) The VLM makes a similar point in his excellent post in this series.
    5) Given that 2 of the preeminant wine experts in the US (who frequently meet and speak with producers) agree – I would think that their opinion should be given more consideration than your hastily penned screed.
    6) Your obnoxious post I think proves Lyle’s (and Nathan’s point) – that fanatical organic/natural proponents are, in their zealotry, actually harming the movement.

  9. Now that I have your attention let me elaborate (from the back of the classroom).
    Each age produces its own perspective, the prism thru which we all evaluate our perceptions of the world.Our present age is dominated by the overarching influence of western “science” which presents a concrete reductionist view of creation/universe/etc.
    All of we products of western society are coloured by this perspective in conscious and unconscious ways and it is brought to bear especially when we analyse and interpret concepts unfamiliar to us (ie from first principles).My furthur comments relate to biodynamic agriculture specifically,not to organics in general. I would also mention that the concept of natural wine is distinct from biodynamic and organic wine-there are more or less clear generally agreed upon and legislated definitions of the latter, whilst the former is much more of a fuzzy concept albeit not without merit and both good and bad wine is produced under each category.
    With my initial proposition in mind, the problem with consideration of biodynamic agriculture is that the method to many appears contrary to what passes for scientific logic.(I suggest this is due to the rather blinkered perspective inherent in the modern scientific method and its practitioners rather than any limitation in the BD method)
    If this is true,then seeking comment on this method from conventional vignerons, no matter how esteemed or successful will produce the predictable and to my mind worthless commentary seen above(no offence intendeded) much like asking a blind man to comment on todays sunset.
    Now before you come back and say it, I realise that the original discussion went well beyond the bd method however by lumping them all (bd,organic,natural) together we tend to assume a commonality in method and limitation which is not justified.
    I think the biodynamic method has to be seen to be understood and that the method is too important to be sullied in uninformed discussion. If that sounds fanatical I suppose I must be guilty as charged.

  10. […] Guilhaume Gerard’s frankly dogmatic manifesto, Joseph di Blasi on Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Lyle Fass on natural in Germany, Joe Manekin on Spain, Brooklyn Guy on Bernard Baudry’s Rose and my dear friend Alice Feiring […]

  11. John,

    We could go back and forth forever but it is sad that you believe one is not allowed to research an article on something one finds interesting without having experienced it themselves. It is impossible for me to stop my life for five years, live in a vineyard, and watch how biodynamics works. It is ideal and also extremely impractical for almost everybody on earth except winemakers who practice biodynamic viticulture in their vineyards. I hope one day your view on this will change as you are truly limiting yourself to great reading in all disciplines,

    Lyle Fass

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