Last month, Jane MacQuitty MW, a respected wine critic who writes for the Times, mentioned biodynamic wines in her weekly column.
My skepticism extends beyond alternative medicine and religion, and in light of recent media stories about any perceived benefits from “organic food” I thought I’d share a bit of info with you, dear readers, on Biodynamic Wine. Many of you may find the world of wine mysterious enough as it. You might question when you hear wines described as tasting like wet dog, old moccasins, or boiled cabbage, and wonder if it was all a big con. Do you find it hard to believe in terroir, the way in which a wine can represent its specific place of origin, with its aroma, flavour, and texture? That’s nothing compared to the woo that is biodynamic farming and wine making.
If the term doesn’t immediately scream horseshit at you, trust me it should! Biodynamic viticulture is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian philosopher and scientist who’s life mission was to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual world… alarm bells ringing yet?
The key to biodynamics is to consider the farm/ vineyard in its entirety as a living system. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. Yes, apparently the moon seems to influence the system heavily. In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right – so synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are avoided. Instead, a series of special preparations (see below) are used to ‘enhance the life of the soil’, and are applied at appropriate times in keeping with the ‘rhythms of nature’. Also, disease is seen not as a problem to be tackled head-on, but rather as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’, – correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself! These preparations are diluted, and then activated or energized by a special stirring process known as dynamization. Sound familiar?
|Biodynamic Preparations||Contents of the preparation||Mode of application|
|500||Cow manure fermented in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil.||Sprayed on the soil typically at a rate of 60 g per hectare in 34 litres of water|
|501||Ground quartz (silica) mixed with rain water and packed in a cow’s horn, buried in spring and then dug up in autumn||Sprayed on the crop plants|
|502||Flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder||Applied to compost along with preparations 503-507. Together these control the breakdown of the manures and compost, helping to make trace elements more available to the plant|
|503||Flower heads of camomile fermented in the soil||Applied to compost|
|504||Stinging nettle tea||Applied to compost, Nettle tea is also sometimes sprayed on weak or low vigour vines|
|505||Oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal||Applied to compost|
|506||Flower heads of dandelion fermented in cow mesentery||Applied to compost|
|507||Juice from valerian flowers||Applied to compost|
|508||Tea prepared from horsetail plant (Equisetum)||Used as a spray to counter fungal diseases|
So to recap… herbal, manure and mineral sprays are used in homeopathic doses to increase the soils fertility and vitalize the vine’s natural resistance to pests and disease. The moon’s position, astronomical cycles and the earth’s seasonal rhythms are also ‘respected’. Basically it’s extreme organic farming, using homeopathic sprays, with a bit of astrology thrown in for good measure! If your alarm bells weren’t going off before, I hope they are now!
When they see the word biodynamic on a bottle, most people have no idea what the term is referring too. Biodynamic literally means life force, according to its Greek roots ‘bio’ and ‘dyn’. It sounds good, but doesn’t tell you anything about the wine, and it’s not indicative of its quality. The arguments against the perceived benefits of making an organic wine are the same as those for organic farming practises generally. For example, the vines still need to be treated with fungicides, but organic fungicides are often much less effective so the vines end up being sprayed much more frequently. Vineyards have an extra hurdle, as you can’t use stock rotation, so they require intense management. You want the vines to survive as long as possible as, given the right conditions, the best grapes usually come from the oldest vines. The oldest vine in the world, which is in Slovenia, is over 400yrs old, and they still bottle wine from the grapes every year. Does any of this matter? Well, yes I think so. Given how far modern farming methods have come it seems completely absurd to be following ideas laid down in 1924.
While conventional agriculture may change in the future to make it more sustainable, this won’t be achieved by burying cow horns full of manure, and hoping it will help to channel life forces from the cosmos. It is disappointing that many top end wine producers are now following these bizarre practices in their vineyards.