Deciphering Biodynamic Wine
Biodynamic wines are increasing in both availability and popularity, even though they still comprise a small percentage of global wine production. While there are similarities between organic and biodynamic approaches, mainly the avoidance of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, biodynamic methods go further by employing a holistic approach in the vineyard.
In principle, 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 one example of how this might look in practice, a producer will not weed the vineyard to allow sheep to provide a service by eating the weeds. The sheep will then fertilize the ground, contributing to the estate's compost mixture. The compost is eventually returned to the vineyard to further increase soil fertility. Any number of variations on this process are possible.
The Origins of Biodynamic Farming
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 result of this collaborative, hands-on farming research.
Requirements for Biodynamic Farming
There are a number of different requirements for a producer to become certified biodynamic, such as setting aside a minimum of 10 percent of the growing site 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 an integral part of the certification, with the additional boost mostly coming from composting and soil preparations. There are nine specific compost and field/vineyard preparations required for biodynamic certification, with two vineyard preparations serving as the most visually arresting 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 the 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 is for plant health and is made from quartz that is finely ground into a paste. The preparation is buried in a cow’s horn in the spring and dug up in the autumn. After the horn is retrieved, its contents are diluted in minuscule quantities and sprayed as a fine mist onto growing plants in the morning. When not in use, the mature preparation is stored in a glass jar in a sunny place.
While there is a healthy skepticism within the scientific community about biodynamic farming practices—is burying a cow horn really necessary?—various studies have found positive environmental impacts.
The Biodynamic Calendar
The necessity of the biodynamic calendar remains an outstanding question. Conventional farming has used lunar almanacs for many years to make 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 reflect 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 permitted for fining. Only native or wild yeasts are used in the fermentation process.
The internationally recognized Demeter Association is considered the gold standard for biodynamic certification. Indicated by an orange label, the Demeter certification verifies that the products meet international standards for the biodynamic production and processing of sustainable food.
But How Does it Taste?
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 very reason.
Another consideration is taste. There are producers and consumers who practically evangelize that wines made with biodynamic methods are more expressive of terroir, with a fresher and brighter taste, while others claim there is no difference at all.
While it may not be possible to taste the difference between a biodynamically produced produced and a 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.