Biodynamics (also referred to as Biodynamic Farming or Biodynamic Agriculture) is definitely a hot topic in the wine world theses days. Some of the most revered vineyards in the world have adopted the practice. We are talking the likes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine LeRoy, Maison M. Chapoutier, Domaine Zind Humbrecht, to name just a handful of the more than 700 worldwide wine estates employing this controversial and little understood practice.
Our interest in the topic has become piqued as we are meeting more and more winemakers whose vineyards are employing the practice. A recent trip to the Willamette Valley in Oregon took us to 5 excellent wineries, all of which were certified biodynamic, a fact we learned only after we tasted there.
Biodynamics is an alternative to conventional agriculture. Conventional agriculture needed an alternative because its reliance upon adding chemicals to the soil, which over time was depleting the soil of nutrients and life. To help them with their problem of depleted soils, a group of German farmers approached Rudolf Steiner, an architect and philosopher. In 1924 Steiner produced a series of 8 lectures on the subject for 111 attendees and published them with first English translation appearing in 1928 as The Agricultural Course.
Biodynamic agriculture views the farm as a self-sustaining, complete system which can look after itself for best results. It does not need anything synthetic added to it function at its best. In that way it is similar to organic farming in its shunning of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamic farming goes beyond organic farming in the encouragement of biodiversity: multiple crops, wildlife and even man are all a part of a complete and natural ecosystem. Each element of the system benefits all of the other elements and therefore benefits the whole. Fundamental to biodynamics is the use of compost-based fertilizers and teas that are spread in the vineyard to enhance soil life. Insects are encouraged to burrow in the soil to keep it loose and not compacted. Animals are encouraged to live on the farm as their hooves help keep the ground from becoming compacted and their manure can be mixed with the compost to a positive effect. Biodynamics is very much about the interplay of the elements naturally occurring on the farm. It is about nature helping nature.
Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyard in Oregon told us “Biodynamic growing is a long process. It doesn’t offer a quick fix of problem or dramatic shift in the nature of a farm. In our culture we often seek instant remedies; the Atkins diet, the early ripening tomato, Beaujolais Nouveau. But BD just isn’t of this mind set. It offers a long, slow path to better health, first in the soil and then in the plants growing in the soil and then in the fruit of those vines and ultimately in the wines from that fruit.”
Some controversy has arisen around some of the more mystical/spiritual aspects of the practice. Lunar cycles are followed to determine planting, pruning and harvesting days. A minor aspect of biodynamics that has received much attention is the planting of cow horns that have been filled with herbs and manure and then dug up 6 months later to be mixed with water and sprayed onto parts of the ground. The lack of strict scientific basis for this practice seems to have coloured the rest of the practice with a taint of the occult or pseudoscience.
Perhaps the pseudoscience element becomes reduced when you hear the theory behind this practice. Elizabeth Candelino, a director of biodynamic certifying body Demeter USA said “Cow manure is a dense nutrient rich material. When placed in a cow horn under the ground, where the temperature is constant throughout the winter, the manure ferments much like a sourdough inoculate, or a kombucha culture, ferments. When it is exhumed, the material looks like chocolate and has a beautiful earthy aroma. This inoculate is then added to water and broadcast on soil, where it directly impacts the microbial life of that soil.” A lot of the voodoo comes out of the practice when stated that way.
Doug Tunnell has a similar view: “One shift [caused by biodynamics] is improved moisture holding capacity of our soils. The building of more organic matter results in soils that can withstand drought conditions more readily. This is an area on which we are now newly focused, given the warm, dry growing seasons of recent years. We recognize that we need to improve soils first and the improvements in the vines will come. We are relying in large part on Biodynamic preparation 500 (horn manure applied as a compost tea) and on BD compost to build that organic matter.”
Mysticism aside, all of the winemakers using biodynamics that we have met with state their interest in the practice evolved from their pre-existing respect for the land specifically and for nature in general. That fundamental respect is at the foundation of biodynamics. While some aspects of biodynamics may be underpinned more by belief than proof, there can be no escaping the fact that more and more vineyards are employing the practice. Are these beliefs that biodynamics has an efficacy in the vineyard, even in the absence of proof, correct? The answer is always in the wine glass!
Fortune Magazine conducted a study and put the theory to the test. They wrote: Out of ten pairs of wines, only one of the conventionally made wines was judged superior to its biodynamic counterpart. Says Doug Frost, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier: “The biodynamic movement seems like latent ’60s acid-trip-inspired lunacy–until you taste the wines.”
While the majority of our panelists were skeptical about the theories behind biodynamics, they were not surprised by the results. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Master of Wine and co-author of Wine for Dummies, says, “I almost always perceive biodynamic wines … to have more fine-tuned aromas and flavors than ‘normal’ wines.” Several panelists suggested that the biodynamic winemakers are a self-selecting group with a common trait that makes them better craftsmen. As Bernie Sun, head sommelier at New York City’s Montrachet restaurant, puts it, “Most biodynamic winemakers are artists–they’re very intense and focused.”
Wayne Bailey, owner and winemaker at Oregon’s Youngberg Hill Vineyard told us of going biodynamic “the difference we are seeing in the vineyard (and on the entire property) is healthier plants, more balance in terms of vegetation and crop load, higher biomass in the soil, and fruit that ripens more balanced. That translates in the wine primarily in two ways; because the fruit is more balanced coming into the winery, there is much less need for any manipulation in the winery (less manipulation, the more expressive the wine is of the place grown and the weather grown in) and the resulting wines are more vibrant and alive, particularly as they age in the bottle.”
Australia’s Dave Powell of Powell and Son in the Barossa told us, in his characteristically iconoclastic way: “I think biodynamics works well with white wines but I am not sure about with reds. I think the vineyard might get too healthy.”
The winemaking community has learned that keeping intervention to a minimum when making the wine allows the terroir, the essence of the vineyard, to show through, and this results in the best tasting wine. Intervention in the winery, is usually the necessity created by imperfect grapes coming out of the vineyard; grapes that need some additional processing to enhance the quality of the wine. Nadia Barnard, who makes the terrific wines at biodynamically farmed Waterkloof Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa, told us “When you adhere to biodynamic methods in your vineyard, your job in the cellar is basically done. There is no need to compensate for any vine issues as it’s giving you a quality product that is naturally in balance. Our cellar practices are about keeping the wines pure and in perfect harmony. We don’t add any enzymes, settling agents, or any yeast. This gives us wines that truly reflect the beautiful terroir we are so proud of… wine in its purest form.”