Some consider biodynamic viticulture as this super organic mumbo-jumbo type of farming, others think it’s pure marketing, maybe it’s a religion, or perhaps just an excuse to put a bigger price tag on the bottle. Not much can be said about biodynamic wines that has not been said already. Some love the concept, others just love to hate it.
The biodynamic wine movement has suffered its fair share of prejudice in the past. Now that some of the best wines on the planet are made by using biodynamic practices, the general attitude is shifting. Still, the matter continuously raises some questions. I do not claim to fully understand it. For the longest time, I didn’t want to bother my fuzzy little head with it.
The Biodynamic Association describes it as “a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.” Biodynamic practices have been around since 1920’s when the Austrian philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner gave his “two cents” about agriculture to a bunch of farmers. The farmers took his insights and bada-bing, nearly a century later we're drinking biodynamic wine.
So, what is biodynamics?
In biodynamics, the farm is basically a self-sustaining organism where chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not used. A healthy and diverse ecosystem means good vibes for the vines. Biodynamic farmers use homeopatic sprays and preparations made from fermented manure, herbs and such to harmonize and vitalize the vineyard. Calendars are used to follow moon cycles and planets. There are fruit, root, leaf and flower days, and each of these days indicates if it’s a good day for harvesting, pruning and various other tasks. For example, wine should taste better if you drink it on fruit days. In addition to the agricultural side of biodynamics, there is also a social and economic sustainability twist to the whole thing.
I met up with an Italian wine producer to see if he could teach me, like the little man-child I am, what is biodynamics all about. “I would describe biodynamics as this will, a desire, to go back to a closed organism and recreate biodiversity,” says Clemens Lageder, a wine producer in Alto Adige, in northern Italy.
“We did some experiments in 90’s but it didn’t work. We didn’t have the courage to convert. In 2004 we started when my father decided that we needed to take that step to convert all our vineyards to biodynamic,” he continues. “My grandmother was raised with biodynamics but it’s different to manage your garden biodynamically than 50 hectares of vineyards. When my father joined the company in the 70’s, he always had a dream that one day he would convert to biodynamic.”
Prejudices about biodynamics
People are quick to judge biodynamics, as Mr. Lageder adds “many people think that if you convert your vines to biodynamic you lose crops, the vine will be unhealthy and suffer from diseases. To be honest, it’s not about the plant. It’s about the people who are working in the vineyards. When we started with biodynamics the hardest thing was to motivate our employees. You go and tell them 'everything you have learned from your father, in schools and here in the past 20 years, just forget it'. We tell them no more pesticides, we use compost. We tell them about the manure stuffed cow horns that we put underground, then take them out and spray it in homeopatic doses in the vineyards. We come together at 5 am and dynamize the preparation. Of course, everybody will think you are a complete fool. That was the most difficult thing, to motivate our employees to take this step with us. There were many that decided to leave.”
I probably would have left too. If you focus just on the moon, planets and preparations, it sounds a bit out-there.
“The basement of biodynamics is to go back to a closed organism”, Mr. Lageder continues. “Rudolf Steiner was talking about a closed organism at a time when agriculture was getting industrialized. What happened with that? We lost diversity in the last hundred years. The goal of biodynamics was always to recreate biodiversity. When we talk about viticulture, we see it as something different than the whole rest of agriculture. That’s a big problem because viticulture is a part of agriculture and you should never look at one culture, you should always try to create a certain diversity. For me, this is the main objective of biodynamic agriculture.”
Grasping the whole the idea of biodynamics proves challenging. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m a groupie but it’s hard to argue when you taste some of these wines. I’m not saying all biodynamic wines are great, not at all, but I find myself expecting more from the wine if it’s biodynamic. They say “great wines are made in the vineyards”. In that case, going above and beyond for those precious little grapes should be priority number one.