Practitioners of viticulture around the world are increasingly embracing natural and sustainable farming methods. In short, organic is in. But, there’s organic and then there’s biodynamic. Although the Venn diagram overlaps, biodynamic is its own technique; biodynamic is its own thing. The process shuns fertilizers and pesticides like organic, but then introduces spiritual practices—think animal skulls, brewing teas, and lots of cow manure—to deliver a better grape.
Before diving into this sorcery, let’s take a look at where biodynamic began.
Roots of the practice
The practice of biodynamic cultivation was created in 1924 by Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner observed that the move towards mechanization as well as fertilizer and pesticide use was doing more harm than good when it came to crop quality.
As the Industrial Revolution charged ahead to automate and mechanize agricultural processes, soil quality worsened and the vines’ natural immune system weakened. Soon, the only way to save vines was to increase spraying. The deterioration devolved into a deadly cycle. A previously balanced ecosystem was disappearing at the hands of human intervention.
In response, Steiner devised a collection of biodynamic preparations that held at their core the concept of land as a self-contained, living organism. While also encompassing practices such as crop rotation, composting, and animal and plant diversity, these techniques go one step further than organic farming. Steiner viewed the land as a single being under the influence of lunar and cosmic cycles. He championed a focus on balancing living forces to keep the ecosystem aligned.
Today, Demeter International acts as a a governing body for vintners, issuing the key certifications that regulate biodynamic producers globally. The process is extremely difficult. Before even applying for a certification, most wineries spend at least eight years cleansing the soil and preparing their vineyards.
As of 2018, there are over 616 certified biodynamic wine producers globally. In the U.S., Mendocino County counts the most concentrated biodynamic vineyards in California, while Oregon takes the top spot with 4% of its vineyards certified Demeter.
Let’s take a look into some of the weird and wonderful techniques that are regularly employed to produce biodynamic wine.
Perhaps the most well-known of biodynamic preparations, Preparation 500 involves using fermented cow manure in a cow horn. While this might sound messy and perhaps unnecessary, there’s a science behind it.
The cow manure (packaged in the horn) is first buried in soil over a winter period. When the horn is dug out after the thaw, the manure has transformed into an odorless mass. Then, farmers mix it with rainwater for precisely one hour, before spraying it back onto the vineyard soil before 5pm.
Why it’s used: Cow manure, when used in this way, is key for regulating the alkalinity (pH) of the soil, and stimulates soil microbial activity. The soil vitality increases deep rooting, helping the vines search for minerals and water sources.
Venturing further into the voodoo-like practices of biodynamic farmers, Preparation 505 involves fermenting oak bark in the skull of a domestic animal, usually a goat, bull, sheep or cow. In autumn, oak bark is ground into a powder and packed into the animal skull, which is then buried in a wet environment until spring.
Once the matter is removed from the skull in the spring, it goes through a final aerobic process, after which it can be used sparingly as part of compost preparations.
Why it’s used: The fermented oak bark is high in calcium, which is key to regulating excessive vigor in the canopy. Too much vigor in the canopy results in superfluous shade and insufficient airflow, a recipe for high disease pressure. It also helps increase soil pH.
Resembling a witch’s potion, Preparation 508 is the practice of brewing tea with a high silica-based plant or herb. Horsetail plant (Equisetum) is widely used in this preparation, which is mostly found in swampy areas across Europe. Other options include Sheoak needles in Australia, or the Restios plant in South Africa. The plant needles are first harvested and then sun-dried on racks. The brewing only takes 20 minutes, but requires an extra 24 hours to extract the silica.
Why it’s used: The brew produced with Preparation 508 is used as a foliar spray to remove excess water and prevent fungal disease that rots the grapes. Timely application of this technique is everything: The tea should be used when disease pressure is at its peak, and works best two to three days before a full moon.
The Results? Living, Breathing Vineyards
My first job in the wine industry was at the Demeter certified Tawse Winery in Niagara, Canada. I still remember winemaker Paul Pender sharing his philosophy with visitors before taking them out to experience it firsthand in the vineyards.
Sheep grazed the vineyards throughout most of the season, plucking off vine leaves as a natural replacement to de-leafing machines. Chickens helped to aerate the soil as they walked around. The soil and vineyard were full of life: You could see it, feel it, and even taste it in the wines.
I’ve always been very pragmatic, believing that what you get out of something is a direct result of what you put in. This epistemology seems evident in the care and energy spent on the soil and vineyard of biodynamic wine producers.However, it was in Champagne where I really comprehended the role of the vineyard in its larger ecosystem. In 2012, I met with Eric Rodez, a cult producer of a small Champagne label bearing his name. Seated in his modest living room, he told the story of how his daughter’s illness was cured with the help of aromatherapy and natural medicine. Realizing the powers of homeopathic preparations propelled him to experiment with a similar approach in the vineyard.
Like other producers in Champagne, he had been using conventional farming techniques. However, he noticed that the soil was compact and the leaves were losing their brightness once they flaunted. And so, he embarked on his biodynamic journey.
The changes seemed subtle to Eric in the first few years, difficult to observe while close to the plants on the vineyard itself. Only seven years later, when he was driving towards his vineyard did the he notice the change. From a distance he saw a vivid piece of land that stood out from the rest of the vineyards quilted on the mountainside: his own. At that point, Eric understood that biodynamics and natural preparations were an almost unmatched way of restoring vineyard health.
While some might initially look at the voodoo practices of biodynamic viticulture with a degree of skepticism, this is undeserved. Biodynamic preparations have remained a recognized method to preserve the natural function of beauty and vineyards, along producing with quality wines, for almost 100 years. Here’s to many more!