A Case for Biodynamics in The Wine Industry:
“If you’ve been doing something all your life, and been trained in a certain way of thinking, when something comes along and turns that thinking upside down, it’s quite understandable that people aren’t going to jump at these ideas straight away”, says Hamish Mackay, educator in biodynamic agriculture, and director of Biodynamics 2024.
Biodynamics is a complex subject to try and understand. When viewed for the first time, it can seem, at best, avant-garde, and at worst, completely crazy. It is, at once, divisive and unifying, ordered and chaotic, ethereal and practical. But if you take even a small amount of time to understand, as with all things, you will find that biodynamics is nothing more and nothing less than a means for increasing the health and fertility of the soil underneath our feet…
The wine industry has been flying the flag for biodynamics for many decades, especially in places like the Old World (Europe), where biodynamics has been a proven contributer to enhancing individual site characteristics and qualities, otherwise known as ‘terroir‘.
Terroir, is a French term used to describe the elemental composition of a particular site, or place, which includes climate, soil type, topography, all the other plants and animals that grow there, as well as human interactions, and their impact upon that place. The term can be expanded out to include the particular macro-climate of a larger region, as well as the meso-climate of any distinct sub-region, and even the individual parts of a particular site, known as the micro-climate.
This concept of terroir is usually expressed, with regards to wine, as taste. Taste is the single most important aspect of wine, because it is taste that is the key to unlocking all the joys and pleasures that are concealed within the bottle. And irrespective of wine’s practical beginnings, joy and pleasure are the only reason we keep coming back for more.
A Brief History of Biodynamics:
“One of the things about biodynamics”, says Hamish, “is that it makes every farm or vineyard individual, even if they’re in the same region… whereas with chemicals, they homogenise it, which makes everything that they’re growing (on the farm) taste the same”.
Chemical agriculture, otherwise known as conventional agriculture has been used by farmers for not much more than 150 years, from 1840, when Justus von Liebig, a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, downplayed the role of plant humus in plant nutrition, and invented a nitrogen based fertiliser that is applied directly to plant roots in the form of ammonia, which acts as a chemical substitute for a more natural one – ie. animal manure.
Less than 60 years later, farmers in Austria who had disregarded the old ways of agriculture, and adopted von Liebig’s more modern (ie. faster and easier), higher yielding method of agriculture, by spraying their soils with ammonia had begun to notice a distinct lack of apparent healthiness and vitality in the earth underneath their feet.
These concerned Austrian farmers turned to Rudolph Steiner, a mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, and asked him to find a solution to their problems of soil degradation as a result of using chemcial substitutes. In response, Steiner gave a series of eight lectures, and four supplementary lessons, which were published in a book entitled Spiritual Foundations For The Renewal of Agriculture. In it, Steiner turned back toward the old ways of farming and agriculture, and made a series of insightful observations about the living world, and our interactions within it.
Steiner, through observing nature, realised how different climactic conditions and different soils impact the growth of the plant or animal. He understood how the sun and the moon, the planets and the stars influence the growth and form of the plant or animal here on Earth, and was able to draw a link between these seemingly separate entities and imagine them as interconnected. Accepting that soil is alive, and that its vitality supports and affects the quality and health of the plants, which in turn provides us with vital food produce is crucial to understanding biodynamics.
Steiner was able to provide a concept to the perceptions of what we see as the physical make up of plants and animals. He was able to identify beyond the reductionist Newtonian scientific method, and see things as a series of interconnected entities, each with their own specific characteristics, yet crucially reliant upon each other to function as nature intended.
The fundamental principal of biodynamics is that the farm is a living organism. The word biodynamics is a contraction of ‘biological’ (living organisms) and ‘dynamic’ (energy), which implies the relationship between the flow of energy and living things. Biological practices parallel organic principals for improving soil health – correct composting, companion planting, cover cropping, cultivation and integration of other crops and livestock. Dynamic practices are designed to balance, and therefore heal the land.
Healing the land was of main concern for the Austrian farmers and with Steiner’s lectures now providing a careful methodology, and a way back to the old ways of farming, these farmers were able to apply his insights onto their farms and revitalise, and individualise their land once more.
“Each vineyard is unique, with it’s own sense of terroir, of soil, of climate”, says Hamish, “and biodynamics allows the individual grower, or viticulturist to be creative, and to nuance his or her own wines to their own particular personality and site”.
Biodynamics maximises the land’s personality, through increased soil fertility and health, which is reflected in in the end result, that is, the wine tastes of it’s particular appellation or site. Viticulturists that use the biodynamic method recognise that great wine is made in the vineyard, rather than the winery. The role of the winemaker then becomes more of an interpreter, rather than a manipulator – trying to capture a clear snapshot, or picture of everything that happened that year, in the vineyard, which is reflected in the aromas, and overall taste of the wine.
This is not to say that all biodynamically grown wines are automatically great, or better than their conventional counterparts. Far from it – great fruit can still be ruined in the winery – which is why there is the need for a careful interpreter, back in the winery, to ensure that that snapshot of the vineyard, inherent in the fruit, can be properly expressed.
Biodynamics, for the wine industry, provides the firm foundation for good wines to become great. Any notions of transparency, authenticity, provenance or terroir can simply not exist in relation to wines grown with the aid of chemicals. If taste is of vital importance to wine, and taste comes, ultimately from the land, ie. the soil, then it is of vital importance that biodynamics be considered as a method for farming grapes that are used for making wine.
The soil is the soul of the earth, where everything begins and ends. Biodynamics is simply a tool, to be used enthusiastically and encouragingly to help create a live, vital soil, that produces healthy, vital produce.
D// – The Wine Idealist