Wine growers are toasting biodynamic methods
Biodynamic winemaking is having a moment in the sun (and moon) as vintners convert to its eco-friendly - if esoteric - methods. It's thirsty work, says Paul Gallagher
Wine making is a complicated business. The vagaries of the weather, the impact of pests and diseases, the condition of the soil and the threat of sour grapes have no doubt driven many an ill-fated viticulturalist to drink. And in recent years, things have become even trickier, thanks to the growing popularity of biodynamic wine in a world where organic is old hat.
While biodynamic agriculture follows the central tenets of organic production (it excludes the use of chemicals and encourages the use of composts and manures), it adds spiritual and philosophical elements to produce what some experts describe as the "purest" wine possible. The movement's founding father is Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner who, in 1924, set out the nine biodynamic preparations that winegrowers must follow to be considered biodynamic – three are used as sprays, such as horn manure, and six applied to the vineyard via solid compost. He also advocated sowing seeds two days before a full moon because of the forces of growth that he believed poured down from the heavens. There's no record as to whether he'd been hitting the house white when he came up with this notion.
Although it takes three years to convert an entire farm to standard, and the application of cow horn manure and horn silica at least once a year to satisfy inspectors, an increasing number of producers and sellers of a process described as "next-level organic" are cropping up at home and abroad to satisfy growing demand for what has been described as the wine equivalent of unpasteurised cheese.
For a winery or a vineyard to refer to itself as biodynamic it must have achieved certification through Demeter International, named after the Greek goddess of grain and fertility and based in Germany, by adhering to the Demeter Farm Standard for a minimum of three years if it had previously been conventionally farmed, or a minimum of one year if it had been organically farmed. And it gets more complex still. The entire farm, or vineyard, must be certified, not just a portion of land within the farm. Demeter inspectors make annual checks to make sure that makers still qualify and nobody can call their wine biodynamic without their approval.
Château Palmer, a winery in the Margaux appellation of Bordeaux, has just become the latest famous estate to start its three-year journey to achieve full biodynamic status. Other big names to have jumped through Demeter International's hoops already include the Fifth Growth Château Pontet-Canet, Château Climens in Barsac and the Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the world's great wine producers. The English market is now following the French.
Marks & Spencer sells a handful of biodynamic wines ranging in price from £9 to £35, but Waitrose is leading the way, stocking more than 20 on its shelves ahead of an expected summer surge in sales.
Biodynamic prices are generally higher, inevitable perhaps given the process as organic methods produce smaller yields, with just two of Waitrose's biodynamic wines costing less than £10. The most expensive is the £60 Joseph Drouhin 2011 Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Cru Les Folatières, described as "a very classy biodynamic white wine combining rich fruit flavours with an elegant structure and beautiful mineral complexity" that should be eaten with "luxury dishes such as fruits de mer". Jacob's Creek it's not.
Nick Wenman, who runs Albury Organic Vineyard in Surrey, is a specialist in biodynamic wines, describing them as "sort of organics plus with an added holistic approach".
"I like being able to make something that cannot be scientifically explained," he says. "Biodynamic certification also has the tightest controls so you really have to keep on top of your vineyard, even after you have first reached that level, to maintain the quality. You won't find cheap organic products but the methods add to the quality."
Special manure and herb-based preparations are applied to the Albury vineyard each spring "to enhance and stimulate microbiological life in the soil and improve fertility". A solution made from "horn manure" (created by filling cow horns with manure and burying them in the vineyard over winter) is sprayed on the crops and during the growing month horn silica is used which helps ripen the grapes. Albury's compost preparations sound like a herbal-tea afficionado's dream line-up, made up as they are of yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettles, oak bark, dandelion and valerian.
Monty Waldin, an expert in biodynamic wine, recently teamed up with Albury Vineyard to produce Monty's Pet Nat, the UK's first petillant naturel, a sparkling wine style known as ancestral, that translates from French to "mildly, naturally sparkling", and will go on sale this month.
Ulrich Hoffmann, the East Sussex-based wine consultant behind Vivid Wines, says that two of his clients will start producing biodynamic wines this year, but believes it is more difficult to achieve certified status in the UK compared to France and Germany due to the climate. "If you get one really bad year when you lose your crop then you can't do anything because you might lose your certification again. Most people are trying to use the minimum chemicals and pesticides necessary.
"Biodynamic status is very difficult to achieve. It's like living in a house where you only use energy-saving lightbulbs, everything is insulated but it still doesn't classify as an eco-friendly house. You have to do more to get there. It's not easy." He's not wrong. Even experts find it difficult to give the exact definition of biodynamic viticulture. Anne Claude Leflaive, who Raymond Blanc called "the pioneer of biodynamic wine" when she passed away last month from cancer aged 59, was a passionate advocate. Her method was known as the "vortex", in which manure for fertiliser is mixed with water in rhythmic fashion to imbue it with "a life force".
Some poured scorn on her approach, but mad though her methods may have seemed, the Burgundy wines she produced were spectacular. The Domaine Leflaive grands crus and top premiers crus routinely rate 95-100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale and the Chevalier-Montrachet 1995 scored a perfect 100.
Berry Bros and Rudd, Britain's oldest wine merchant, currently stocks 23 wines from certified biodynamic producers and 20 wines defined as "broadly dynamic". Mark Pardoe MW, the firm's wine buying director, stresses that all their wines are chosen on their taste rather than the way that they have been created, but says that he has noticed more people starting to make this type of wine.
"We don't treat [biodynamic wines] as a category – it's more an ancillary element to a wine's identity. The people who want to make the best wine they can, want to grow the healthiest fruit they can. Any elements that are used to force the vine to be stressed, such as chemicals, will not produce the same results. The more treatment you need to make when growing vineyards, the more elements there are that will disturb the equilibrium and purity of the wine.
"The thinking behind biodynamic wines is that each part of the vineyard is completely at ease in its own microcosm – the best quality fruit is the goal because the healthier the fruit is, the best wine you will have."
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