The World of Fine Wine
Arguing that biodynamics is well worth the extra costs involved, Olivier Humrecht MW, of Domaine Zind Humbrecht in Alsace, urges the appreciation of fine wine by a broader set of criteria than that which most of us now apply.
Wine lovers around the world hear more and more about biodynamic viticulture. Only a few years ago, pioneering biodynamists were seen as rather strange – bizarre organic growers using funny methods to cultivate their vineyards, including moon cycles, planets and stars. But the opinion of the public has moved from amusement to curiosity, and perhaps even respect, as more and more good vineyards are now being cultivated according to biodynamic concepts. What is biodynamics? Why is it being adopted more widely? Why is it more expensive? And is it all worth it? These are the questions that most people ask.
What is biodynamics?
The principles of biodynamic farming were first set out in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner as he responded to German farmers who saw their land threatened by the abuse of agrochemicals.(1)
These principles can be summarised as follows:
• recognition of the land as an organism in its own right (with the earth as mother, the sun as father);
• the upgrading of the soil and plant life through products of animal, vegetal and mineral origin;
• the application of these products at specific times during the annual cycle (hence ‘dynamic’);(2)
• the working of the soil by ploughing.
As this makes clear, biodynamics is mainly concerned with care of the soil. Cultivated soil is not merely a simple support for vines, but rather a living environment and as much a source of energy for the vine as its above-ground environment. Biodynamists believe that most soils are not structurally unbalanced or lacking in certain elements. The problem is that there isn’t enough life surrounding the roots, making them incapable of finding essential nutrients. These are often locked up in very stable humus/mineral complexes, which can only be unlocked by a rich organic life in the soil.
Biodynamists believe that the quality of a soil is determined not by its chemical composition and structure, but rather by the quality, quantity and variety of the bio-organisms it sustains. They therefore seek to improve the balance and quality of the soil by promoting a large number of different bacteria, fungi, worms and so on. Such biodiversity helps the plant develop healthier, longer, thicker roots, which supply the energy required for the harmonious growth of the leaves and flowers. The exchanges that take place between the roots and the foliage systems enable the soil characteristics to be transferred to the grapes, defining and improving and intensifying their flavour.
In return, the vine – a median organism – creates and nourishes the soil around its roots. A thousand years of viticulture have certainly changed the soil. Vines have completely transformed the structure and life of the soil and, in a very real sense, created their own terroir. (3) In a healthy, lively soil, not compacted by heavy machinery, the mother-rock produces earth under the action of the plants and the life of the soil (some theories even suggest that plants are older than the arable land in which they grow!). In a dead soil, poisoned by the abuse of agrochemicals and asphyxiated by severe compaction, it is the opposite that happens. Crystallisation around organic matter that is not decomposed provokes a retrogradation of the arable land back into crystals and eventually rocks. This is the alarming process of desertification, from which some areas of France are already suffering. Biodynamics – more particularly the use of certain preparations – can bring such soils back to life, sometimes in a spectacular way.
Biodynamists use different products to correct or prevent the imbalances inherent in monoculture. The following are the three most important, and all must go through the ‘dynamisation’ process before being used on the soil or leaves:(4)
• MT (from Maria Thun) – a manure compost that accelerates the decomposition process of the soil;
• P500 (horn manure), which reinforces subterranean life and roots;
• P501 (horn silica), which brings warmth and sun energy to the leaves and fruit.
Other preparations from yarrow blossom, camomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian (P502–P507) are used in biodynamic compost to control the fermentation and increase its potency.
Biodynamics also attaches great importance to the cultivation of the soil, not only as an ecological method to remove weeds (instead of using herbicides), but also in order to favour the installation of life processes by tilling the soil at different times of the year, month or day. Hoeing during the lunar spring will have a different effect than hoeing during the lunar autumn, for example. Working the soil in the morning will give vitality to the vines, while doing so in the afternoon will help keep water in the soil and help the vines resist drought.
If the soil is properly balanced, the plant protects itself against fungal diseases, insects and parasites, rather than attracting them. The farmer helps to keep the plant healthy by using herbal teas, decoctions or homeopathic plant dilutions and, if necessary, natural products such as Bordeaux mixture or sulphur.
Why is it being adopted more widely?
Reasons to go biodynamic are many. They include:
• a certain life philosophy (anthroposophy);
• concern about the future of our soils and ecosystem: are our vineyards able to produce great wines for the next 1,000 years with ‘conventional’ techniques?;
• a desire to discover alternative, more natural solutions to viticultural problems;
• the wish to achieve biodynamic certification.(5)
It has been alleged that some growers convert for cynical marketing reasons. But those who have successfully practised biodynamics for three years across their entire estate (a minimum condition for Demeter or BIODYVIN certification) normally have a higher motivation. The most ardent practitioners of biodynamics do not always advertise the fact, even when they are certified. Ultimately, the final motivation for most growers who persist with biodynamics is the quest for quality in their wines through a living organism, the soil, which is capable of giving to the grapes and the finished wine all the characteristics that define a true terroir. (6)
Unfortunately, biodynamists have little proper scientific validation of their practices. (7) They make most of the preparations themselves (François Bouchet explains how in his book) or buy them very cheaply. (8) So no large companies conduct experiments, and public organisations in France are instead investing in the research and development of clonal material and genetically modified rootstocks and vines.
Biodynamists do have, however, the evidence of their own experience. In the short seven years of biodynamic practice on our estate, we have seen many beneficial effects on the vines. About a decade ago, we decided to produce our own compost, being dissatisfied with commercial organic products (they lack the life that makes composts interesting). We tried for years to produce high-quality compost but experienced great difficulty until we were able to collect only biodynamic manure. We then decided to apply all six biodynamic compost preparations (P502–P507), in order to energise the compost, and saw an even greater improvement. The result was a compost of formidable structure and fresh smell, full of organic life. This experience convinced us to apply all the other biodynamic principles in our vineyards as well. Other wine growers have entered the biodynamic world through similar eye-opening experiences.
Why is it more expensive?
Biodynamists no longer buy agrochemicals, most of which are costly. Unfortunately, not using such products often necessitates a huge increase in manual labour and time. For example, commercial fertilisers are very cheap, and 100 kg of nitrates per hectare is enough to boost a vineyard to an incredible 100 hl/ha production. It will take a few minutes for one person to spread it. It is quite another story for 10 tons of expensive biodynamic compost per hectare, especially where the slope forbids the use of tractors. If most other biodynamic products are cheaper, their numerous and more complicated applications (dynamisations, the short life of the preparations, the calendar restrictions and so on) result in more spraying equipment and a larger labour force.
The biggest additional cost is ploughing. An annual herbicides programme will cost €150–€300 per hectare, and one person will do two applications in one or two hours per hectare. Even on flat land, ploughing the soil with a tractor will need four to six hours per hectare (sometimes more in a warm, humid year). This must be done by a skilled driver, using much more complicated and expensive equipment, and manual hoeing will also be needed. Where the slope is steeper, it becomes more arduous and complicated still, and costs increase exponentially. Using a winch or a horse costs about €50 per hour, and takes one to four days per hectare.
Biodynamists often have a strong quality ideal and adopt other practices that cause costs to escalate further. One of the easiest to understand is the drop in yield and production per vine, often achieved through an increase in the number of vines per hectare. No calculator is needed to understand the cost implications of producing only 35hl/ha from a vineyard planted at 10,000 vines/ha, rather than 70hl/ha from one planted at 3,000 vines/ha.
Lower-density vineyards allow bigger, heavier tractors, that cost half the price of the lighter caterpillar versions that cause far less damage to the soil. In compacted soil, where there is no oxygen and no life, roots often stay close to the surface, unable to penetrate the soil or transmit soil characteristics to the grapes.
A mechanical harvester will do at least as much damage to the soil as to the grapes! The lightest machine will always be heavier than a person, so a lot of biodynamists prefer hand-harvesting. The work is also done better, and the vine always rewards the presence of the grower in his vineyard. Our estate employs 26 permanent staff (far more during harvest), in order to produce an average of 15,000 cases from 40 ha. In cost terms, this represent 6.5 times more labour per hectare than the average in Alsace.
Is it worth it?
Biodynamic farming respects the earth and life in general. It doesn’t generate pollution (no pollution is sustainable!) and doesn’t release toxic products into the air, soil or water table. It is perfectly integrated in a durable agricultural system for the long term.
As well as addressing these environmental and health concerns, wine lovers around the world should seek identity and personality in their wines. Overcropped vineyards, dead soils or vines nourished with mineral salts cannot produce grapes with an authentic or original expression. They will only reveal the chemical characteristic of the products used in their production. Such grapes will need skilled winemakers, who will use lots of make-up to compensate for a complete lack of personality. Oenologists have adopted aromatic cultured yeasts, new oak barrels and all sorts of marvels that only serve to give the same characteristics to all the wines subject to them. Only farming principles that respect life will allow wine growers to express the characteristics of their climate, grape variety and soil in their wines.
A wine is judged on its aromatic complexity, harmony, intensity and personality, as well as its ability to age and give pleasure. But it should also be judged according to other criteria. By drinking a biodynamic wine, we absorb into our bodies all the forces of life that were mobilised to create it. Do we really want to put into our bodies all the destructive forces used in ‘conventional’ farming?
This article originally appeared in Issue 1 - 2004 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Andrew Jefford, and the said Mr Johnson. Find out more at the magazine website : www.finewinemag.com
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(1) Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture: fondements spirituels de la méthode bio-dynamique. Editions Anthroposophiques Romandes, Geneva 1999.
(2) Maria Thun, Calendrier des Semis, Mouvement de Culture Bio-dynamique. An annual calendar charting solar, lunar, planetary and constellar positions, as well as offering detailed recommendations on specific agricultural tasks.
(3) Claude Bourguignon, Laboratoire de microbiologie des sols. www.lams-21.com. Research clearly shows the importance of microorganisms and mycorrhiza (the process by which fungi live in symbiosis with the roots of the vine and allow them to adsorb mineral substances from the soil).
(4) Dynamisation: biodynamic preparations are put in fresh water in a copper, wood or ceramic container. The water is stirred in one direction to create a vortex, then in the other direction to break the vortex and create a chaos, for 20 to 60 minutes. The aim is to impart to the water all the influences from the preparations and the cosmos.
(5) The two certifying organisations are Demeter and BIODYVIN (Syndicat international des vignerons en culture bio-dynamique).
(6) Nicolas Joly, Le Vin du Ciel à la Terre. Edition Sang de la Terre, Paris 1997.
(7) BIODYVIN is funding research into biodynamics by the Enigma laboratory. First results at www.biodyvin.com
(8) François Bouchet, Biodynamie: 50 ans de pratique et d’enseignement de l’agriculture biodynamique: comment l’appliquer à la vigne? Deux Versants, Paris 2003.
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