What is biodynamic wine?
Whether you know much about it or not, everyone has an opinion when it comes to biodynamics. It has been called many things from the more positive ‘holistic’ and ‘selfsustaining’, through to ‘sorcery’, ‘voodoo witchcraft’ and ‘Harry Potter does winemaking!’.
Biodynamics meets with a lot of criticism, largely because many of its most integral practices cannot be explained scientifically. Despite the criticisms though, biodynamics within the wine industry has grown significantly over the last few decades, with many big names adopting the philosophy. There is general consensus that biodynamics makes for interesting wines.
Isn't it just 'organic plus'?
It’s easy to see biodynamic as a rigid adherence to the principles of organic farming with an added dimension: the strict application of specific ‘preparations’. However, while the preparations are important, there is more to biodynamics than this…
The name itself comes from two words: ‘bio’, meaning life, and ‘dynamic’, meaning forces. It is a way of seeing and emphasising the interconnectedness between all the life forces within the vineyard. A biodynamic farm should be self-sustaining with all these life forces working in unison to optimise the health of the soil.
Biodynamic philosophy is based on the works of Rudolf Steiner and a series of eight lectures on agriculture he gave in 1924. It is strongly linked to his thinking on anthroposophy (human wisdom), a philosophy that places human beings in the centre but acknowledges all the influences (physical, emotional, biographical etc) that go into making a being. Similarly by looking at and understanding all the influences and interconnections in the vineyard, we can better appreciate what actions we can take to help redress any imbalances.
Biodynamic principles, practices and certification
Referred to as ‘homeopathic remedies’, to many the nine preparations laid out by Steiner are central to biodynamics, and it is certainly true that in order to become certified, all the preparations must be adopted. Ideally, they should all be made from materials sourced from within the farm, in line with the notion of a self-sustaining farm. But since this is not always possible or practical, they can be purchased as well.
The most well-known of these preparations is a cow horn filled with fresh manure (ideally from local cows that have been reared organically or biodynamically) and buried underground during winter. Once dug up it is then diluted in water and ‘dynamised’, a process of vigorous stirring first in one direction and then another to create a vortex in the liquid. These dynamic energies the stirring creates are said to become concentrated in the solution, enhancing its effectiveness once sprayed, immediately, onto the soil.
If all of this seems a little farfetched to you then you’re not alone. Many of the world’s biggest advocates of biodynamics were once sceptics. Yet while there is no scientific evidence, it isn’t difficult to find often impassioned anecdotal accounts from growers and producers of how biodynamics has revived their vineyards and changed their wines.
Sun, moon and stars
Rudolf Steiner was very much a philosopher rather than an agriculturalist or a scientist. He believed that modern science was too narrow and that there was a role for cosmology within the biodynamic farm.
The life force of plants is very much connected with energy it derives from the sun as part of the process we call photosynthesis. So is it such a leap to consider that they might also be affected by the energy from the moon, stars and planets? For example, we already know that the moon influences water from its effect on ocean tides. Biodynamic farmers believe that the moon also influences the movement of water through plants, with sap rising as the moon ascends. An ascending moon would be a good time to harvest as the vine’s life forces will be concentrated in the fruit.
These principles were developed into the biodynamic calendar after Steiner’s time by Maria Thun, a German biodynamic gardener. Not all biodynamic producers use the calendar and those who do use it, often do so pragmatically, incorporating it only when it makes sense to do so.
A flexible approach
Just as not everyone practices the same type of yoga, not all growers approach biodynamic viticulture in the same way. Much importance is given to the preparations and calendar during discussions on biodynamic viticulture, but it’s a mistake to see them as all there is to biodynamics; just as conventional viticulture is far more than just the use of chemical fertilisers. The reality is that in both cases they are just a few tools among many available and like a doctor, the grower must first diagnose the problem before establishing a treatment plan.
Biodynamics in the winery
In the winery, biodynamics is largely similar to organic winemaking, in that there are two tiers of labelling: ‘biodynamic wine’ and ‘wine made from biodynamic grapes’. Again, there are rules limiting the use of certain additives and controlling techniques. The general approach is one of ‘hands-off’ winemaking: allowing the wine to make itself, rather than following a recipe. Many but not all biodynamic wines are made with skin contact and no or low SO2, but it wouldn’t be contradictory to use SO2 if it were needed.
The calendar might also be considered for certain activities, such as deciding when to rack the wine off its sediment.
The main certificating body for biodynamic farming is called Demeter. It is based in Germany, but has branches in other countries as well, and governs all types of farming including grape growing. Outside of Demeter the only other large organisation is the French certificating body Biodyvin, which is solely concerned with wine production. Both impose rules governing growing and vinification practices, for example by specifying the maximum amount of copper that can be used. The main stipulation though is that all the preparations must be adopted (with 500 and 501 being used at least once annually).
As with organics there is a distinction between ‘biodynamic wine’ and ‘wine made from biodynamic/Demeter certified grapes’. Controversially, anthroposophical philosophy doesn’t encourage drinking alcohol, so there is a certain level of scepticism among some members about including wine! A possible reason for the French establishing Biodyvin…