Jancis Robinson presents an open-minded overview of biodynamics in an article for the FT last year, despite the title: “Biodynamic wine and the Hogwarts school of viticulture“. Discussions with people in the wine trade often include a certain amount of scepticism or just a quizzical shrug. Consumers are confused as well, most don’t know how a biodynamic wine differs from an organic or natural wine.
Biodynamics is based on theories described in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. As a baseline all biodynamic vineyards practice organic viticulture, but with three key differences: the farm should become a closed, self-sustaining system; it should be treated regularly with nine herb and mineral-based biodynamic preparations; and key tasks such as planting, pruning, ploughing, picking and bottling should be timed to harness beneficial forces exerted by earthly and celestial rhythms. The aim is to create healthy self-sufficient ecosystems with an equilibrium between pests that are predators and prey. Practitioners believe that when everything is in balance the vines will produce better quality fruit, which as we all know leads to better wine.
In 2017 around 4.5% of the world’s wine grape vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic, that’s circa 316,000 hectares, and 80% of this is in Europe.
German-based Demeter is the main body overseeing and certifying biodynamic wineries, there is also the French-based Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-dynamique (Biodyvin) and the Australian government has its own biodynamic stamp.
Back to the three building blocks of biodynamic farming. The first – building humus or organic matter within the soil – is shared with organic farming and generally thought to be a ‘good thing to do’ by quality minded wine producers. They’re aiming for soils with a rich microbiology, nutrients and insect life, just like the forest floor that vines evolved from.
Where biodynamics goes an extra step is that wineries should create their own soil improvers via composts or manure from the farm, thus working towards the ideal of each farm or vineyard becoming a self-sustaining living organism rather than a commercially efficient monoculture. In addition to providing manure animals are often used to plough creating a lighter impact on the soil than a tractor; sheep or goats, sometimes even ducks keep cover crops under control; and boxes encourage bird predators to eliminate unwanted pests.
The aspect of biodynamics that causes most discussion is the application of homeopathic doses of numbered special preparations that have been ‘dynamised’ (energetically stirred into water) to the soil, compost or to the plants themselves to build strength or counter maladies. There are nine of these: preparation 500 based on fermented cow manure, powdered quartz (501), yarrow (502), chamomile (503), nettles (504), oak bark (505), dandelion (506), valerian (507) and horsetail plant or casuarina (508). When the doubters really start to roll their eyes is on the mention that some of the preps should be buried in cow horns, bladders or intestines for a period of time before use, and all of them are supposed to be applied according to the celestial calendar. This biodynamic growers argue creates ‘formative forces’ capable of transmitting energy and health to the soil, vines and therefore grapes. In his article ‘What is biodynamics’ Jamie Goode starts by saying:
“It is helpful to think of biodynamics not primarily as an agricultural system, but rather as a philosophy or worldview that then impacts on the practice of agriculture in various ways. In other words, to farm biodynamically, first you have to think biodynamically”.
It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, not using chemicals to control weeds or to treat diseases requires winemakers to be very hands on, spending more time in the vineyards, ploughing and cutting or administering preventative doses of various preparations and anticipating problems by an intimate knowledge of each vine. It can also result in lower yields if it’s a tough year pest and disease-wise.
Nine producers in our portfolio are certified biodynamic and many more use some practices. We have spoken to several of them to understand what biodynamics means to them, how they implement it and the difference it has made to their vineyards and their wines. Watch out for a series of interviews with these producers that we’ll be publishing over the next few months.
Find out more about our certified biodynamic producers: Birgit Braunstein, Clemens Busch, Eugenio Bocchino, Familia Nin Ortiz, Frank John, Hirsch, Joan d’Anguera, Jonathan Maunoury, Super Uco (some wines).