Monthly Archives: November 2018

Sorting Through The Certifications: Biodynamic Wine

This is the second of a 5-part series of posts covering the most common certifications found on wine labels by guest writer John Szabo MS. Read Part I on Organic Certifications.

Biodynamics takes organics a step further. Biodynamics is a philosophy and method of farming originally devised by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. Steiner laid out his ideas in a series of lectures, which included a healthy dose of spiritual science, with the practical aim of increasing the nutritional value of food (physical and spiritual). In the post-WWI period, when chemical fertilizers became prevalent, it was noticed that industrially-grown foodstuffs were not providing the same level of nutrition as traditionally-farmed products. Steiner and his followers sought to remedy the situation by using a more “holistic approach to agriculture in which farms and vineyards are considered as living organisms and farmers take into account every aspect of their natural environment.”

In practice, Biodynamic farming meets the organic standard including the prohibition of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The maximum allowable use of other vineyard treatments are generally lower than what is authorized under organic standards. Only half the amount of copper, for example, used to fight mildews, is permitted under Biodynamic standards compared to organics.

Biodynamic preparations, essentially homeopathic treatments, are also used. Made from medicinal plants (e.g. yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle) and other natural products (cow manure), these preparations are applied to boost the vines’ own immune system, and proactively eliminate the causes, not just the effects of diseases, and to improve soil health. Work in the vineyards and in the winery follows the earth’s natural daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms (lunar, solar, astral), maximizing vineyard health, and ultimately, it’s believed, wine quality.

Going even further, biodynamic farmers also seek to maintain the balance of their ecosystem by integrating animals and animal feeds, perennial plants, flowers and trees, water features, and composting, and setting aside acreage to encourage biodiversity (riparian zones, wetlands, grasslands, and forests, etc.). The goal is to be fully self-sufficient, with nothing entering or leaving the farm (except the final product, eventually).

In the winery, permitted sulfite additions are also lower than for organic compliance, and the list of processing ingredients in the winery is likewise considerably shorter. No laboratory-selected, aromatic yeasts (only wild/native/indigenous yeasts carry out the fermentation), bacteria, or enzymes additions are permitted, for example, and acid and sugar adjustment is forbidden. In practice, most biodynamic winemakers use virtually nothing other than minimal amounts of sulfites in the winemaking process, and sometimes none at all.

Biodynamic Certification

Demeter International, a private, non-profit organization, controls the trademark for the term Biodynamic® around the world (capital “B”), and was the first, and still is the largest certifier of Biodynamic farms. In order for a winery or a vineyard to refer to itself as Biodynamic, it must adhere to the Demeter Farm Standard for a minimum of three years if formerly conventionally farmed, or a minimum of one year if organically farmed, before certification is granted. Farms are inspected annually by Demeter employees, and the whole process is extremely rigorous. The Demeter certification is recognized in all Canadian provinces. Nikolaihof estate in the Wachau, Austria, was the first winery to begin farming vineyards according to Biodynamic principles in 1970, and today, some 700 wineries are Demeter-certified worldwide.



Two other private organizations also offer certification for biodynamic operations (small “b”). Biodyvin, originally established in France in 1995, currently counts 135 members in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, in addition to France. The splinter biodynamic association of wine producers called Respekt was founded in 2007 by a group of Austrian vintners, and now counts 22 members, including several German producers. Both essentially operate according to Demeter standards, and their certifications and logo/wordmarks are recognized in Canada. Many other wineries around the world have adopted some or all of the principles of Biodynamic winegrowing, but opt not to seek certification, as it’s a costly process, in both time and fees. But according to the Demeter website, to use “some Biodynamic practices” is a bit like being “a little pregnant”. These folks take it seriously.



Detractors of biodynamics scoff at the perceived pseudo-science of the processes and new-age, faith-based beliefs in scientifically unverifiable claims, as traditional medical practitioners might roll their eyes at homeopathic remedies or Chinese medicine. In my experience, however, a disproportionate percentage of the world’s best wines are made biodynamically, an unlikely coincidence. But whether quality is due to the harmonization with the Cosmos, or simply the considerably higher time, energy, care and observation one must put into biodynamic production that makes the difference, is still up for debate.

At Phantom Creek, we are working towards organic and biodynamic certification under the guidance of Olivier Humbrecht MW. Olivier initiated Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s transition to organic and biodynamic practices in 1997, and is now the President of Biodyvin. Led by the tireless efforts of John Pires and Ryan McKibbon, our farming does not include any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. Biodynamic farming requires meticulous attention to detail, which in turn makes us more attuned to our vineyards. It is a sustainable approach, which we think yields exceptional wines.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.


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Sorting Through The Certifications: Organic

We’re thrilled to welcome back guest writer John Szabo, MS. This is part one of a five-part series on the most common wine certifications, and what they mean to you.

Of all the labels for consumables, those for wine surely offer the most confusing tangle of nomenclature. Countries, regions, sub-regions, vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking techniques, fantasy names, cuvée names, lot numbers and other codes, and much more, can appear. Some mentions are legally required, others are applied by whim, and the order and placement of these mentions change from label to label. It’s no wonder even trained sommeliers have difficulty sorting out what’s what.

But there’s more. Official-sounding certifications are also turning up on wine labels with growing frequency, along with a whole new harvest of logos and word marks from the various private and government entities who control their use, making the label landscape even more inscrutable.

And certifications like organic, biodynamic, sustainable, natural, and vegan all have different meanings and degrees of legitimacy. Some are government-regulated, others are bestowed by private companies or industry associations. Others still have no universally agreed upon meaning. So, what’s what?

Read through this special 5-part series to learn the differences between the most common certifications, and what they might mean to you.

Part I: Organic

Let’s start with the term that’s most likely familiar to you: organic. Use of the term “organic” for wine, as for food, is legally defined in most countries, even if the definition varies from country to country. There is no international governing body that regulates a unified standard for what it means to be “organic,” so practices vary, but typically, organic wines must be made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. There are further restrictions on allowable processing agents in the winery, most notably limits on the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative agent, as well as permissible fining/clarifying agents.

Wines produced in Canada with an organic claim and wishing to be sold across the country must comply with the federal Canadian Organic Regime, which is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA creates, oversees, monitors and enforces the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime using an accredited third-party auditor.



British Columbia was one of the first provinces in Canada to establish an organic standard in 1993. As such, it was one of the front runners in developing certification systems. Today all products labeled as organic in BC must be certified to either provincial standards, a process administered by the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), or federal standards, if the wine is to be sold outside of British Columbia.

Foreign wines wishing to be sold in Canada with an organic claim must also comply with Canadian Organic Regulations, regardless of the country of origin. Compliance is verified by the provincial monopolies responsible for alcohol sales in each province. Wineries must provide a certificate from an organic agency recognized by the CFIA, which also establishes organic equivalency arrangements with other countries. The CFIA currently recognizes organic claims certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the European Union, Switzerland and Japan. Wines from other countries claiming an organic certification that is not recognized by the CFIA are required to bear a sticker stating that “Organic claim not recognized in Canada”.  These claims are taken seriously.



Aside from the bonus of having no pesticide residue (though fear not, conventional wines won’t harm you), likely of greatest interest to you is the reduced sulfite levels in organic wine. Sulfites are the most effective anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial wine preservative, and have been used for centuries. Organic wine does not mean totally sulfite-free (even if no sulfites are added, they are produced naturally during fermentation), though the legal maximum of how much can be added is less than for conventional wines (which also have limits). The limits are determined by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in a particular wine – the more sugar, the higher the permitted sulfite level, mostly to prevent refermentation.

For the record, according to the Canadian Organic Regime, wines with less than 50 grams/litre RS (dry to semi-sweet) may contain up to 30 mg/L (ppm) free sulphur dioxide, up to 35 mg/L for wines between 50 and 99 g/L RS, and up to 45 mg/L for really sweet wines with more than 99 g/L RS. By contrast, the allowable SO2 limits for conventional wines in Europe, for example, is 150mg/L for red wines, 210mg/L for white and rose wines, and 400mg/L for sweet wines. In the US, the legal limits top out at 350mg/L and in Australia at 250mg/L.

Detractors of organic certifications point to the overly long list of permitted agro-and-oenological products permitted, and the generous maximums set for the use of certain products. Imagine, if you will, the discussions to create a pan-European Union organic certification, acceptable to all member states. An exercise in compromise and flexibility.

At Phantom Creek, we farm our estate vineyards without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers. Instead, we rely on traditional techniques such as the use of organic compost and hand hoeing for weed control. We’re currently working towards certification for all of our vineyards, with a target date for organic certification of 2020. We believe certification is important in an era of greenwashing and exaggerated organic claims.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.


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Passing the MW Practical Exam

Phantom Creek is thrilled to share that both Winemaker Ross Wise and Marketing Manager Geoffrey Moss have passed Stage 2 of the Masters of Wine study program, and are now one step away from becoming Masters of Wine.

What does it take to pass the MW practical exam? The short answer: a lot of work.

The practical exam features three 12-wine blind tastings, in which candidates provide written answers to questions on grape variety, origin, winemaking, quality, style, and more. This year’s exam featured a diverse selection of wines that ranged from 1999 Dom Pérignon to Yellowtail Chardonnay.

To state the obvious, it is necessary to taste broadly. This means not only tasting often, but also drawing from a range of price points and styles. Any wine that is commercially available is fair game, from everyday sippers to classics like top shelf Bordeaux and Burgundy. It is important to understand and recognize quality – and that means being able to differentiate the exceptional from the ordinary.

The practical exam is about more than just your palate. There is also the “theory of the practical.” You have to know the world of wine inside and out. At a rudimentary level, this means knowing your regions and appellations. You do not want to place Pouilly-Fumé in Burgundy or Pouilly-Fuissé in the Loire. That would be a howler – or a particularly outrageous mistake that would undermine the examiner’s confidence that you are indeed a “master.”

You must also be able to accurately describe the differences between appellations. For example, what are the sensory differences between the communes of the Medoc, from St. Julien to St. Estephe to Pauillac to Margaux? Similar to a lawyer proving their case, you must prove why that 2005 Chateau Rauzan-Segla could only come from Margaux and no other commune. And, of course, you have to know your vintages. How is the 2005 vintage tasting? Is it ready to drink or will it continue to improve in bottle?

It is not essential to get every detail correct every time, but rather to demonstrate that you have tasted the wine accurately. The expectation for wines from less common regions or varieties is to show an understanding of what is in the glass and its place in the larger world of wine. So, you don’t have to zero-in on that Xinomavro from Naoussa, Greece (although it is a nice feather in your cap if you do). But you should be able to describe its quality, style, and commercial potential. For example, where could it be sold and who would buy it?

In the 6+ months leading up to the exam, Ross and I would taste 4-5 days per week. We would each bring a flight of wines, taste, and write full answers under timed conditions (just over 11 minutes per wine). The answers would then go up on a TV screen to review and critique. There was no hiding; if we couldn’t convince one another, then we weren’t going to convince the examiner. It required a substantial amount of time – and wine.

But it’s all worth it now. Now, we’ll move onto the third and final stage of the MW program, the research paper.