Biodynamics - just a load of manure?
“Biodynamism is here to stay,” says Gergely Barsi Szabo, Bibendum Fine Wine Sales.
“Most of us in the wine business have thankfully passed the phase of ridiculing sane people for stirring shit in a cow horn with silica. If you take a look around the market, more and more key players are applying some or all of its principles, and more and more consumers are looking for biodynamic wine. The main problem is that the debate still feels a bit sectarian.”
Something had to change
“In 1988 French microbiologist Claude Bourguignon declared Burgundy’s vineyard soils completely dead on a microbial level, due to decades of synthetic fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide usage,” Gergely says. “Since biodynamic viticulturalists did not use any of these, microbial life was thriving in their vineyards compared to the microbial deserts of their neighbours. He did not claim to have a scientific explanation, but the differences were visible.”
“So what happens, when a bunch of people start questioning the whole system? What happens when someone points out that we live in a rather destructive and unsustainable way? Some will pay attention, but without reliable evidence about these practices, most see these whistle-blowers as a bunch of (agro)-extremists.”
“But what I see in the biodynamics movement is a group of forward-thinking, peaceful people, with pretty great ideas about agriculture, meticulousness in what they do, and pretty convincing wines,” he explains. “It is certain that the way we live is not sustainable, even for the near future. At least the biodynamic wine producers are actively seeking and testing an alternative that seems to have pretty good results.”
In harmony with nature... naturally
One such biodynamic producer is James Millton, artisan winegrower in New Zealand’s Gisborne. James and Annie Millton started Millton winery on the banks of the Te Arai River, near Manutuke, in 1984. Inspired by their time working for various Old World producers and the natural techniques being used there, they became the first producer in New Zealand to attain Bio-Gro certification for organic wine production.
“I have always worked with wine and when, at 28, I was given the opportunity to grow and bottle wine under my own directions, biodynamics was central to it all,” James says. “The rhythm of the four seasons and the enhancement of the five senses meant there was little need for makeup or disguise. It was the opportunity to work with my head, heart and hands.”
At Millton, they assemble and use preparations made from herbal, mineral and animal materials. James explains: “These involve cow manure (from our own cows), silica in the form of quartz (from the mountains and the sea), as well as a range of local flowers from yarrow, chamomile, nettles, oak trees, dandelions, valerian and equisetum. These preparations help the soil and microbes communicate through the mycorrhizal fungi.”
“As the growing season commences, the branches, leaves and fruits communicate with the sun and moon, thereby getting their light energy from the influence of the quartz (much like your cell phone!),” James says. “The resulting fruits and grape juice have a balance of nutrients for healthy fermentations and the sediment, which consists of yeast and bacteria, are the protective life that contributes subtle, supple flavours.”
The proof is in the bottle
At the end of the day, it’s about what’s in the bottle and James believes that the resulting wines have a special taste, a taste of ‘somewhereness’ – of their place. “These wines appear to have a shine or reflection when poured into a glass. We call this luminosity, a measurement of light intensity. So, while all wine can travel thousands of miles from the producer to the consumer, we think that the final few feet from the glass to your mouth are the most important. We believe that before a wine can be great, it must first be true.”
Two other biodynamic producers to watch:
Minervois La Liviniere | France
From their hemp winery to the barley, bulgur and mustard that grows between rows and is ploughed into the soil, Chateau Maris is biodynamic through and through. “We believe that the plant itself has a soul,” says British ex-pat Bertie Eden who owns the chateau, “– we believe in the individuality of the plant.”
Chateau Maris covers 50ha in Minervois’ La Liviniere in Languedoc and was certified biodynamic in 2002, completing the Demeter certification in 2008. They make all their wines in a ‘vegetable’ building, made from hemp bricks that consume CO2, breathe, and therefore control humidity and temperature. The winery never changes more than 5-6°C in temperature. Chateau Maris produces a white, rosé and various red wines from grapes including Grenache Gris, Carignan, Syrah and Grenache Noir.
Alto Adige | Italy
Alois Lageder is an ultra-sustainable biodynamic estate established in 1823 and now run by fifth-generation family members Alois Lageder and Alois Clemens Lageder. In 2012 they were named Sustainable Winery of the Year by Italy’s influential wine guide, Gambero Rosso. Alois is a pioneer of biodynamic principals and has farmed biodynamically since 2004, ensuring that everything that happens on the farm is guided by the forces of nature – including their gravity-fed, carbon neutral winery.
At the top of the range, the single-vineyard estate wines are fantastic expressions of both grape and terroir, and display the brightness and beauty that are the hallmarks of great Alto Adige wines.