Deciphering Biodynamic Wine
Although still only a small percentage of global wine production, biodynamic wines are increasing in both availability and popularity. While there are some similarities between organic and biodynamic approaches, mainly avoidance of the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, biodynamic methods go further by employing a holistic approach in the vineyard.
Ideally, this means no or minimal external inputs are introduced, with each part of the vineyard supporting and contributing to the other parts, creating a closed loop ecosystem. In practice, this could mean that a producer doesn’t remove weeds in the vineyard, which allows sheep to provide a service by eating the weeds. In the process, the sheep fertilize the ground and also contribute to compost, which is returned to the vineyard to further increase soil fertility. Any number of variations are possible.
The origins of biodynamics stem from a group of farmers who in the 1920s, sought advice about how to counter the negative effects of synthetic fertilizers on their soil. They turned to Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and social reformer, who believed that a harmonious approach to agriculture, based on the lunar calendar and astrological influences, would help support plants and animals, while also creating sustainable, nutrient-dense food.
Steiner suggested a set of practices and principles, and urged his followers to put his ideas to the test. They did, and the biodynamic approaches that are used today are the results of this collaborative, hands-on farming research.
There are a number of different requirements for a producer to become certified biodynamic, including reserving a minimum of 10 percent of their land serve as a biodiversity reserve, in support of wildlife and endangered habitats. Water conservation is also big part of biodynamic practices, and efficient irrigation systems and crop canopies can all make an enormous difference.
Generating as much fertility as possible on the growing site to sustain plant growth is also required. An additional boost comes from composting and soil preparations. There are nine specific compost and field/vineyard preparations are required for biodynamic certification, and the two vineyard preparations are also the most arresting visually for the casual observer – the cow horn manure preparation (preparation 500) and the horn silica preparation (preparation 501).
The horn manure preparation is made from the fresh manure of pasture-fed cows collected in autumn. The manure is placed in a cow’s horn and buried for six months. When dug-up again, the horn’s contents have transformed from smelly lumps into a peaty brown-black crumble that is spread throughout the vineyard to encourage microbial activity in the soil.
The horn silica preparation for plant health is made from finely-ground quartz ground into a paste, buried in a cow’s horn in the spring, and dug up in the autumn. The horn’s contents are then stored in a glass jar in a sunny place, diluted in minuscule quantities, and sprayed as a fine mist onto growing plants in the morning.
While there remains a healthy skepticism within the scientific community about the practices of biodynamic farming – is burying a cow horn really necessary? – various studies have found positive environmental impacts from the practices.
The necessity of the biodynamic calendar remains one of the outstanding questions. Conventional farming has used lunar almanacs for many years for long-range weather predictions (see the Farmers’ Almanac), and the biodynamic approach uses a similar concept.
Developed by German farmer Maria Thun, who was inspired by Steiner, the biodynamic calendar is divided into four kinds of days based on constellation and planetary alignments – root days, flower days, fruit days, and leaf days – that are reflective of the Earth’s four classical elements. Each of these types of days has certain associated tasks: fruit days are meant for harvesting, leaf days for watering, root days for pruning, and on flower days, the vineyard is left alone.
In the cellar, certified biodynamic wine cannot contain any additives, except for minuscule amounts of sulfur. If deemed necessary by the producer, bentonite clay and organic or biodynamic egg whites or milk are also permitted for fining. Only native or wild yeasts are used in the fermentation process.
The international recognized Demeter Association is considered the gold standard for obtaining a biodynamic certification. Denoted by an orange label, the Demeter certification verifies that biodynamic products meet international standards in the production and processing of sustainable food.
While there are many positives associated with biodynamic wines, the practices are by no means an easy undertaking. In the words of wine critic Jancis Robinson: “These methods are very expensive in the short term, each vine requiring far more care and labor than in any mechanized vineyard.” An enormous amount of resources and additional work is required for a producer to convert to biodynamic, and the certification process adds yet another layer of time and costs. Many producers are practicing biodynamic, without certification, for this reason.
Another consideration is taste. There are producers and consumers who practically evangelize that wines made with biodynamic methods are more expressive of terroir, and taste fresher and brighter. Others are skeptical that the resulting wines taste any different at all. While it may not be possible to taste the difference between a biodynamically produced and conventionally produced wine in a blind taste test, the combination of lack of pesticides, conscientious farming practices, and talented winemaking likely leads to more consistent and higher quality wines. Additionally, more thoughtful agricultural practices benefit the sustainability of the industry as a whole, as well as the health of our environment.