Biodynamic farming is not a new concept, indeed it’s almost a century since the Austrian scientist-cum-philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, first delivered his lectures outlining his beliefs, giving birth to biodynamic viticulture.
Viewed as a spiritual form of organic viticulture, biodynamic winemaking is a subject that continues to polarise the professional wine community, taking its fair share of raised eyebrows and mockery despite the fact that the scientific foundations are sound.
Sure, there are some questionable philosophical theories behind Steiner’s methodology, but then the same applies with any form of religion, and its followers have the freedom to decide which aspects are important to them and those that are not. It’s no different for biodynamic producers.
So, what’s changed and why are more producers adopting biodynamics?
The basics of biodynamics
Well firstly, we need to understand what defines biodynamic winemaking. Just as organic viticulture begins with soil health, so too does biodynamic viticulture and both practices eschew the use of artificial substances; fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. However, while organic farming focuses heavily on treatment, biodynamics takes a more preventative approach and considers the entire estate as a living entity, not just a collection of individual vineyards. It’s about ensuring you put back whatever you take out at every step of the way.
The soil provides the vine with all the food and nourishment it needs to grow healthily, just as the right, vitamin-rich food supports a strong and balanced start in life for humans and other creatures. Soil that’s deficient in nutrients means that vines essentially go without and the end result is the same as for a child that’s deficient in vitamins. The immune-system is weakened against malaise and viruses.
All biodynamic growers share the same philosophy as organic growers when it comes to encouraging biodiversity in and around their vineyards which is to be applauded. With the growing ecological crisis, exacerbated by high-intensity farming, more and more producers are feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘do the right thing’, and are switching to organic and/or biodynamic viticulture.
Biodynamic winemakers are restricted to just nine ‘natural’ treatments and preparations to use to promote soil health and prevent disease or ailments in the vineyard. These are all derived from plants and minerals. They’ll either be applied through natural compost and added to the soil, or diluted with water and sprayed onto the vines. So far, so good.
In addition to the limit on treatments, there’s a restriction on the amount of sulphur that can be used throughout the winemaking process too. Sulphur is a natural preservative that prevents spoilage and is used liberally in conventional winemaking, albeit not to the same extent as in the production of dried fruit for example. But like anything in large doses, it can have negative effects to consumers with allergies or particular sensitivities.
Where the eyebrows start to twitch are when growers work in tandem with the lunar cycles and insist that their wines be drunk on specific days in order to get the best from them. Or they refuse to use any manmade intervention in the vineyards or winery and that includes electricity and mechanical machinery.
The overarching theme is that it’s about maintaining a natural balance by not excluding any organism, whether desirable or undesirable, and allowing nature and the earth’s natural forces to self-sustain the living environment.
A taste of biodynamics
Here are three great examples of producers that work biodynamically as well as organically.
Brothers Sylvain and Didier Defaix started introducing biodynamic influences to their family domain (Bernard Defaix) after they converted to organic farming and gained certification outright in 2012. Experimenting with the natural preparations and enrichment of compost, they’ve seen immeasurable improvement in the fertility of their vineyards’ soil and the subsequent quality of their wines.
Their Chablis Bernard Defaix is fermented with natural yeasts and then the lees are stirred regularly for six months before a period of settling and bottling. Fresh and persistent with a well-defined texture, this is a clear cut above many other more established and conventionally farmed domains in the region.
As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that some of Burgundy’s most famous producers have embraced biodynamics too including Domaine Leflaive in Puligny, Domaine Leroy in Vosne-Romanée and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti also in Vosne-Romanée.
The stunning Iona estate in the coastal Elgin region of South Africa is owned and managed organically and biodynamically by the Gunn family. They use a flock of geese as natural pest control and pay particular attention to soil health. They also promote natural fermentation exclusively in stainless steel tanks, with the exception of their Iona Monopole Chardonnay that ferments in 300 litre French oak barrels (only 28% new), after whole bunch pressing. It stays in barrel for 11 months before being transferred to tank where it’s blended prior to bottling.
Due to the considerably cooler climate here versus most of the rest of the Cape, the growing season is slower and much longer, up to 2 months longer in fact, which results in a style of Chardonnay that’s more akin to the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy than South Africa.
Bordeaux has been slower to embrace biodynamics historically, but there’s now an increasing number of châteaux following in the footsteps of Pontet-Canet in Pauillac, who led the way in 2010.
Cross the Gironde estuary to the heart of the Côtes de Bourg and you’ll find Château Les Graves de Viaud. This modest 15 hectare property followed its pursuit to convert to organic and biodynamic viticulture, just after Pontet-Canet, under its new owners. The Betschart family have been recognised for their efforts with countless awards since they took over and made the full conversion.
The Château Les Graves de Viaud ‘Les Cadets’ is made from younger vines and is vinified in both tank and sandstone amphora with weekly lees stirring for a year. With no added sulphur, the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are co-fermented (together at the same time) before being added to Cabernet Franc. This is vibrant and juicy with well-knit tannins and a lovely energy that carries right through to a luscious finish.
Whatever your thoughts about biodynamic wines, there are clear benefits not only to the consumer, in terms of cleaner winemaking, but also to the ecology and the environment from where the wines are produced and that’s got to be something worth celebrating.