Cow horns filled with manure, nettles buried to increase ‘soil intelligence’ and tastings guided by the planets make biodynamic farming one of winemaking’s strangest subcultures. Despite this, celebrated producers like Château Margaux are experimenting with it and Louis Roederer, producer of Cristal, now dedicates half of its output to biodynamics. Could the intrepid mystics producing biodynamic wine be on to something?
Biodynamic farming: an introduction
Put simply, biodynamic agriculture is a a spiritual philosophy of farming. With close links to the organic movement, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner invented biodynamics as we know it. In a series of lectures in 1924, Steiner described a farming practice that took cues from the moon and respected the ‘forces’ and ‘energy’ of the earth, its flora and its fauna.
Biodynamic wine makers take their cues from Steiner’s lectures and from Steiner acolyte, Maria Thun’s calendar. The calendar details the appropriate moon phases in which to harvest, prune, bottle and taste wine. This means that they don’t just partake in the organic practice of avoiding chemical herbicides and fertilizers, but go one step further.
Combining it with the mystical additions of specially prepared manure and herbal concoctions supposedly makes for the truest expression of a vine’s terroir in the finished product. Planetary movement apparently influences the silicon in plant matter, somehow affecting growth.
Biodynamics extend to the actual tasting of the wine, too. Using Maria Thun’s calendar, it’s possible to determine whether you should be drinking on certain days. The basic idea is that ‘fruit’ and ‘flower’ days are the best times to be sampling from your prized bottles, while on ‘root’ and ‘leaf’ days you’re better off having a beer.
The doyen of modern biodynamic wine is Nicolas Joly, owner of La Coulée de Serrant in Anjou. Joly, a former Wall Street investment banker, is adamant that biodynamics is responsible for the success of his wines. There’s no arguing with his results: his Savennières has garnered global attention and his output is regularly well-reviewed.
The difference between organic and biodynamic
‘Organic is a methodology, and biodynamic is a philosophy.’ So says Gérard Bertrand, the owner of some of Languedoc-Roussillon’s most successful estates.
In fact, biodynamic farming is a kind of ‘organic plus’ – the two approaches share in their attention to vineyard ecology. Both refrain from using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, instead opting for locally-sourced and natural alternatives. Both are also often lumped under the ‘natural wine’ label, but the biodynamic method requires that its followers pay special attention to the planets and their different phases.
Biodynamic farmers also prepare certain supplements based on natural ‘forces’. For example: nettles are considered a plant with balancing qualities, as they focus on their leaves and core stem structure rather than on flowers. Winemakers bury nettles in disharmonious soil as needed.
Who’s doing it?
Here are few of the big names currently practicing biodynamics:
- La Coulée de Serrant, Savennières, France – the realm of Nicolas Joly, spearhead of the modern biodynamic movement. Joly’s vineyard produces Chenin Blanc grapes and some fantastic Savennières wines.
- Gérard Bertrand Wines, Languedoc-Roussillon, France – several of Bertrand’s nine estates are fully biodynamic in their output, including Clos d’Ora, a Syrah/Grenache/Mourvèdre/Carignan blend that is painstakingly crafted using ‘only horse traction’.
- Louis Roederer, Reims, France – the producers of Cristal, one of champagne’s most well-known cuvées, have been 50 percent biodynamic since 2012 after an 18 year build up. Their 2012 vintage is a few years away, though; they’ve just released the 2008.
- Maison Chapoutier, Rhône Valley, France – all of Chapoutier’s vineyards are biodynamically farmed, making the winery one of the heavyweights in the world of biodynamics. Their Hermitage AOC and Crozes-Hermitage AOC bottles are some of the most sought-after biodynamic wines on the market.
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, France – managed by a Master of Wine, Zind-Humbrecht’s 99 acres are completely biodynamic and range from Gewurztraminers to Pinot Noirs.
- Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley, USA – co-founded by Milijenko Grgich (of the 1976 Paris Tasting fame), Grgich Hills produces one of the most well-reviewed Chardonnays to come out of California, and has been biodynamic since 2006.
- Nikolaihof, Wachau, Austria – Austria’s oldest winery was an early adopter of biodynamics. We loved our visit to Wachau. We’re particularly fond of their 2011 Riesling Baumpress im Weingebirge, which we rated outstanding in 2016.
The verdict: does biodynamic wine work?
It’s not all rosy for Steiner’s followers. With an approach to farming that involves everything from stuffing sheep skulls with oak bark to burying cow horns full of manure, it’s no wonder biodynamics has attracted criticism and confusion.
For many sceptics, biodynamics is a significant load of rubbish. It has been met with derision, and in some cases biodynamic producers have had their appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) stripped from them, labelling themselves ‘vin de table’ instead.
There have been scientific tastings carried out to determine whether there was a significant difference between conventional, organic and biodynamic wine. As one might expect, it’s not yet conclusive. With this said, biodynamic wines are often well-reviewed for their notable minerality, freshness and potential for aging.
Whether they edge out organic wines remains to be seen, but both organic and biodynamic wines do seem to express their terroir better than conventional wines. And this makes sense! As Nicolas Joly argues in his book on biodynamic winemaking, it’s no wonder that the taste of a vine’s surroundings is diminished when herbicides obliterate the very plants and bacteria that make the soil unique.
It’s all in the details
There’s also the fact that some winemakers farming biodynamically choose not to certify with Demeter, the governing body of biodynamic winemaking. This may be due to the negative press that the stranger aspects of biodynamics can sometimes attract, or because estates run the risk of losing their AOC if biodynamic production conflicts with the often strict regional guidelines.
Biodynamic calendars and manure supplements may not make a noticeable difference versus organic production, but they do represent winemakers taking a detailed interest in vineyards and their health. This, in turn, makes for some fantastic wine. We discovered this for ourselves at Nikolaihof in Wachau.
As Ray Isle of Food & Wine says: ‘the intense attention it forces growers to pay in the vineyard can’t be anything but good.’
(hat tip to Winniepix for the second photo)