Mystical Organic: Biodynamic Vineyards (May 16, 2014)
One of the last series of lectures that the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner gave in 1924 was to a group of German farmers. They were worried about the effects on their land, livestock and crops resulting from the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Those eight lectures Steiner delivered at a conference in Koberwitz, a year before his death, formed the basis of what we know today as the biodynamic movement. His thesis was that farmers must return to pre-industrial methods to grow their crops and tend their soil. A return to peasant farming, as it were. Farmers, advised Steiner, should adjust their activities to the rhythms of Nature and become aware of the cycles of the moon and planets and their link to the health of all living things on earth. "In Nature," he wrote, "and actually throughout the universe, everything is in mutual interaction with everything else. In this materialistic age of ours, we follow up only on the coarser kinds of interplay..."
The aim of biodynamics, as Steiner expressed it, is to create a healthy soil ecosystem by choosing to use natural compost over chemical products and to plant and harvest by the phases of the moon. Organic farming just shuns chemical products, while biodynamic growing takes a more holistic approach, treating the soil itself as a living organism.
No sector has embraced Steiner's vision more enthusiastically than the wine industry. By 2011 (the latest figures available) some 642,000 acres of wines worldwide were cultivated according to organic farming regulations. While this is a mere 4 per cent of global grape-growing, the increase in organically-managed vineyards since 2004 has been three-fold, which suggest even more growth in the future. The largest vineyard surfaces farmed organically are in Spain, France and Italy. Soon China will join the list.
It is Steiner's concept of composting that makes non-believers roll their eyes. He devised plant-based sprays against infections that are made up of composted material found around the farm. The compost is diluted with water to make a kind of herbal tea. But here's where we enter the realm of voodoo science: the compost's effectiveness is enhanced by the addition of fresh cow manure that has been packed into a cow's horn and buried in the vineyard at the fall equinox and dug up in the spring. The fermented material from the cow's horn is then mixed with water and sprayed over the vineyard. The recipe is one hornful per hectare (2.47 acres). Steiner explained it this way: "by burying the cow horn with the manure in it, we preserve in the horn the etheric and astral forces that the horn was accustomed to reflect when it was on the cow. Because the cow horn is now outwardly surrounded by the Earth, all the Earth's etherizing and astralizing rays stream into its inner cavity." The result is the fermented manure is transformed into "an extremely concentrated, enlivening and fertilizing force." Cue the eye rolling.
The question is, of course, does biodynamics work? Does it make for a more balanced vineyard and for wines that taste better than those that have been produced using chemical products? In February of this year I attended Millésime Bio in Montpellier, France. In three hangar-like halls, 800 biodynamic and organic wineries were showing their products. One of the wineries was Domaine Cazes of Rivesaltes in the Languedoc-Roussillon. The proprietor, Emanuel Cazes, toured me around his vineyard and showed me the constituents of the "tea" he sprays over his vineyard soil – nettles, horsetail and willow leaves which he steeped in boiling water and mixed with the cow dung. Other producers, he told me, use yarrow, chamomile, oak bark, dandelion and valerian – all of which were prescribed by Rudolph Steiner. Cazes says that after fifteen years of practicing biodynamic farming the pH of his wines is lower (pH is the measure of the degree of relative acidity as opposed to the relative alkalinity of any liquid. It's measured from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral and 2 being lemon juice. Wines with a low pH - between 3 and 3.4 - will taste tart and crisp). And as a result of the application of the sprays, the roots of Cazes' vines, he says, are deeper, which means he is able to extract more trace minerals from the soil, making for more complex flavours in his wines.
Certainly, the concept of biodynamics is in sync with our contemporary concern with the environment as well as the romantic notion of a return to a simpler way of farming. But if you put two glasses of wine in front of me – one made without recourse to sulphur products, and one made the "traditional" way – I don't think I could tell the difference. Yet for all its hocus-pocus I would like to think that biodynamic winemaking works. And for producers who want to convert their vineyards to biodynamic, it takes three years to get certification, as long as the wind doesn't carry chemical sprays from your neighbour's farm. From then on it's a leap of faith.