Right, what the heck is biodynamic wine? A question all wine professionals dread, as the answer invariably evokes a slightly gaunt expression, a half-hearted chuckle, followed by “no, but seriously, what the kumquat is biodynamic wine?” We get it, it sounds like the grapes should be hand-harvested by the Six Million Dollar Man, “for although we can rebuild him, we have the technology, he seems much more interested in making wine than working for a top-secret government agency.”
Yet, biodynamic practices are actually a little stranger than cyborg vineyard workers. It’s a fast expanding and fascinating method of winemaking, based on the work of Rudolf Steiner in 1924. It’s a bit like organic winemaking; restricting herbicide and pesticide use, but they also complete particular viticultural procedures in accordance with lunar cycles and prepare vineyard soils and compost by doing things such as burying manure in cow horns, underground. Sounds kind of weird, right? Thing is, it might actually work…
This is a practice that can be applied to all areas of agriculture, not merely vine growing and was conceived of in Austria almost 100 years ago. It is the concept of interconnectivity, like in Avatar when they make their ponytails tie up. Those who practice biodynamics suggest agricultural results are best when there is balance between the vine, grower, soil and celestial bodies.
The calendar is essentially divided into the classical elements of earth, wind, fire and water (Do you remember the 21st night of September?) This relates to vine growing as all the vineyard tasks, harvesting, planting or pruning for example, are determined by the calendar.
- Fruit Days: Best days for harvesting grapes
- Root Days: Ideal days for pruning
- Flower Days: Leave the vineyard alone on these days
- Leaf Days: Ideal days for watering plants
This calendar can even apply to drinking wine, for example the Oddbins buyers don’t organise tastings on leaf days, supposedly wine shows better on fruit days!
Biodynamic winemakers cannot use chemicals in the vineyard and certain additives are also prohibited in the vinification process. Instead, growers make soil preparations, believing that this boosts biodiversity throughout the vineyard, the preparation substances are numbered 500 to 508.
500: Horn Manure - a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground, in autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.
501: Horn Silica - crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. The mixture is sprayed over the crop during the wet season, in an attempt to prevent fungal diseases.
502: Yarrow Blossom - stuffed into stag bladders, placed in the sun during summer, buried in winter and retrieved in the spring.
503: Chamomile Blossom - stuffed into small intestines from cattle and buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
504: Stinging Nettles – stuffed underground surrounded by peat, retrieved a year later.
505: Oak Bark - chopped into small pieces, placed inside a sheep’s skull, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a damp place.
506: Dandelions - stuffed into the mesentery of a cow and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
507: Valerian – extracted into water.
508: Horsetail – extracted into water.
These substances are typically chosen for their ability to prevent certain fungal diseases and promote biodiversity in soil so that herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers are not necessary, to find out more about soil preparations have a look at the Biodynamic Association’s website.
No doubt you’re thinking this is rather peculiar and surely can’t affect the taste of the wine. We thought the same at first, but the funny thing is, time and time again, in blind tastings when two similar wines have gone head-to-head, the biodynamic wine has been judged to be the better wine. On top of that, biodynamic soils have been tested against non-organic soils and they showed greater disease suppression, a decrease in compaction and added organic material. Whether it’s the cow horns or simply that wine makers are just more involved, biodynamics seem to work.
Domaine Zind Humbrecht – One of the most renowned Alsace producers on the market, this family rum winery can trace its routes back to 1620. They have been fully biodynamic since 1997.
Louis Roederer – If you had got the impression biodynamic winemaking was just for hippies, well check out Roederer. Although not fully biodynamic yet, their top wines such as Cristal are made entirely from biodynamic grapes.
Alexander Gysler – A family run winery, Alex is at the forefront of the German wine revolution, focusing on premium, dry, textural and modern wines. His Kammerton Riesling is our top tip this week –