Biodynamic Wine? What’s that?

The short answer is “organic plus”.
The longer answer is that it is made not just according to a set of set of practices but it reflects the holistic philosophy outlined in a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s.

What is the philosophy behind biodynamic practices?
How is it different from organic or conventional ones?
Way ahead of his time, Steiner articulated the aim of increasing vitality in an interconnected world where every action has ripple affects in the broader system. He saw the dangers of long term depletion of the soil and outlined biodynamic farming as a way to generate vitality not just in the plants but in the land, the animals, the people who work the vineyard, the ultimate consumers, etc.

A corollary of this concept is the importance of balance. According to Steiner, every small, living organism of the farm would be in balance (each grape vine for example), then, the farm would be in balance as a living organism itself, and, all of these elements would be in balance with the whole Planet and the Cosmos.

Organic vintners cannot use industrial nitrogen fertilizers, chemical herbicides and insecticides, or additives in the cellar, among other things. But biodynamic philosophy goes further discouraging practices like: monoculture (planting just vineyards), taking advantage of laborers, forcing fast fermentation, adding flavors/aromas with commercial yeasts and so on.

What specifically are some of the practices?
The French film, Wine, The Green Revolution details the kinds of practices that biodynamic vintners use to support this philosophy.

At the very heart of biodynamics is the creation of healthy soil. One aspect of that is making and applying “the 500” (see photo at the top of this post) The name for this special humus comes the fact that there are about 500,000 micro organisms per gram it. To make it, bury a cow horn filled with manure underground from fall to spring. Then, mix it with water that has been opened by “dynamization” (spinning it in one direction then the other). Finally, spray it directly on the soil in the vineyard.

You can use this kind of backpack sprayer and simply apply by hand from a bucket.

The effect of “the 500” is to de-compact and enrich the soil. Tiny micro organisms go to work first and later come earthworms that act like bulldozers, opening the soil, making it easier for the roots to go deep for water and minerals (no need for irrigation and more flavor in the grapes). The roots and the plant get healthier and stronger. Here’s a small volunteer plant from a vineyard that shows how soft the soil is and how it clings gently to the roots of the plant.

Biodynamic soil is rich and crumbly like this.

Some other important biodynamic treatments are silica (finely ground quartz that has been buried for the summer months in a cow form, put in dynamized water and sprayed like “the 500”) and herbal teas. The objective is to use as little as possible of the mineral treatments (sulpher and copper) permitted in organic farming to stop mildew, mold and pests.

Biodynamic vintners rely instead on treatments aimed at increasing the long term health and immune systems of the vines. The concept is similar to homeopathic treatments for humans in aiming to improve the overall health and resistance of the organism rather than focusing on stopping the symptoms.

Another example of a biodynamic practice is timing vineyards practices to lunar and cosmic energy. Maria Thun developed a Biodynamic Calendar (earlier post) that lets the vintner know what kind of a day it is: fruit, flower, root or leaf. Root days are best for planting, fruit days for harvesting etc.

What are the benefits of biodynamic methods?
-Strengthen rather than deplete the land and the ecosystem
-Create vitality and health for the consumer

What specific effects do biodynamics have on the wine?
-Allow a more complete expression of the terroir
-Give the wine more “personality”
The wine has more to tell you, a much richer tale of place and people.Elisabetta Foradori talked to me a lot about that when I visited her this fall. Biodynamic wine has a lot of character, and its taste may also change depending on where you drink it and when.

What about certification?
Demeter International certifies biodynamic producers of all products, including wine. Foradori, for example, is certified. Other vintners I’ve visited and written about follow the biodynamic philosophy and use biodynamic practices in part or altogether but aren’t currently certified. (Arianna Occhipinti, COS, Casa Wallace, Porta Del Vento, Bruna, Biondi, I Vigneri, Ronco Severo) Certification whether organic or biodynamic is expensive. (How ironic that governments give conventional production incentives). It’s also inherently difficult to codify and certify something that is lived holistically and is not a simple checklist of practices or processes.

Biodynamic wineries are part of organizations like Nicholas Joly’s Return to Terroir organization, ViniVeri, and VinNatur.

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