Let the moon shine
Is biodynamic wine anything to cheer about?
Cow horns buried in the soil, lunar cycles and cosmic rhythms. It all sounds like some sort of ancient ritual. In reality though, these are some of the ingredients that go into producing biodynamic wine.
But let’s start from the very beginning. Biodynamics, which predates organic farming by about two decades, has its roots in a series of lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Through his concept of holistic farming, Steiner wanted to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual worlds. Steiner’s eight lectures, entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, are the main inspiration of biodynamic farming.
Still, Steiner’s concept of holistic farming was anything but new. Since the dawn of time, farmers have found guidance by looking at the signs given by nature and trying to interpret what effects these have on cultivation and growth.
Since biodynamics is a holistic farming method, it also influences viticulture. This approach to viticulture views the vineyard as an ecological whole, incorporating the vines, soil, other flora and fauna that grow in the area, and all the natural elements that surround it. The vineyard is considered in its entirety as a living system and placed within the wider context of lunar and cosmic rhythms.
Therefore, the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides is an anathema to biodynamic practitioners. Instead, they use a series of special preparations – which are applied in accordance with the rhythms of nature – to enhance soil and growth.
Soil health is especially important in biodynamics. Composting helps maintain optimum soil health. Compost heaps at vineyards that practise biodynamics typically contain waste material such as grape seeds, skins and stems and cow manure. Compost is covered with straw and watered at regular intervals in order to encourage microbial activity. Biodynamic practitioners also typically work the soil by manual ploughing.
Timing is also essential and various tasks such as planting, pruning and harvesting are done according to a biodynamic calendar. This calendar divides days into four categories: root, fruit, flower and leaf days. Each calendar day also coincides with one of the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. For instance, biodynamic practitioners water on leaf days, prune on root days, harvest on fruit days and leave the vineyard alone on flower days.
Biodynamics is very similar to organic farming and the two farming methods share a lot of techniques. Moreover, certified biodynamic wines meet the same production standards as organic wines. However, the two methods vary in some ways. One main variance is that biodynamics carries a strong spiritual element. Biodynamic practices link farming to the cosmos and its spiritual forces: this link is strengthened through methods such as sowing and harvesting during particular phases of the moon or positions of the planets. Other methods involve burying cow manure in a cow’s horn in winter, unearthing it in spring, mixing the substance with water and spraying it over the vineyard.
Most probably, wine drinkers are not particularly interested in viticulture or the methods used. What they care about is whether biodynamics actually works. Various anecdotal evidence exists. For instance, the story goes that in 1997, a sales team from UK wine merchants Corney & Barrow visited Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy, France. There, Anne-Claude Leflaive poured them two wines, invited them to a blind tasting and asked them which wine they liked best. What the sales team didn’t know was that the two wines were the same: however, while one was organic, the other was made from vines farmed using biodynamic methods. Out of 13 members of the Corney & Barrow sales team, 12 preferred the biodynamic wine. Soon after, Domaine Leflaive went fully biodynamic.
Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence and in no way can prove that biodynamic wine tastes better than other wine that is produced using other methods. However, biodynamics must be adding something to wine because the number of biodynamic producers is constantly increasing. These include established and high-end wine producers such as Bonterra Vineyards and Benzinger Family Winery in California, Nicolas Joly in the Loire Valley, Louis Roederer in Champagne, and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace.
Moreover, a practice which abhors the use of chemicals to assist soil fertility and pest control and which is based on respect for nature and limited human interference cannot but produce something that tastes good.
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