Biodynamic wine is produced according to biodynamic principles, which state that agriculture should be conducted in tune with the basic forces of nature, both terrestrial and celestial. They comprise a set of concepts which embrace cosmic rhythms, philosophy, spirituality and metaphysics as much as agricultural disciplines. The theory is complex but the key principle is totally logical: it is senseless to wax lyrical about the geology of an area, the particularity of its soil – its terroir – and what that imparts to the wine, if that soil is then totally transformed by a mixture of chemicals. Healthy soil means healthy vines and biodynamic practices, in our experience, give rise to greater purity and precision in the resulting wines.
Biodynamic disciplines date back to 1924, some twenty years before the organic movement, with their origins in the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Born in Austria in 1861, Rudolf Steiner was a true polymath, his interests going far beyond the realms of agriculture. Steiner's works are informed by the notion that in harnessing the metaphysical, the physical is improved. He espoused the advantages of gaining real understanding of the forces of nature and in exercising a holistic approach to the ecosystem.
In his approach to agriculture, Steiner believed that the health of the soil, plants and animals depends on reconnecting nature with the creative forces of the cosmos. The practical methods he outlined were intended to be adopted by farmers and winemakers alike – with the intention to revitalise the natural forces that are rapidly becoming depleted through modern agricultural techniques.
Firstly there must be a healthy living soil, often enhanced by judicious quantities of biodynamic, naturally-occurring preparations. However, taking what most accept as the ecosystem one step further, Steiner felt that it is also important to recognise the role of the rhythms of light from planets, sun, moon and stars – a greater comprehension of which allows for optimal timing for viticultural activity. The plants and soil will simply respond better, if the farmer is tuned into their needs.
This concept is not as difficult to grasp as one may at first think. After all, we know about lunar cycles, tidal flow and seasonality, so have already accepted certain, very obvious aspects of these life forces without questioning. The trouble is that in order to produce wine biodynamically, acceptance has to be wholesale, with no holds barred. Nicolas Joly, a tireless supporter and Loire winemaker, summed up the importance of this complete acceptance of biodynamics at a Corney & Barrow seminar: "If you poison your mother-in-law just a little... she will still be dead". The piecemeal approach, it appears, is simply not an option.
Even if Steiner's philosophies seem too alternative for some, many producers are embracing his principles having witnessed the results achieved elsewhere.
Is there evidence of the benefits of biodynamic practices?
We are convinced that biodynamic practices benefit wine, having experienced it first hand in comparative tastings. In February 2008, Aubert de Villaine officially announced that from 2007,
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
had become 100% biodynamic.
has been totally biodynamic since 1998, following a long trial period and a series of blind tastings where organic and biodynamic wines were compared. The biodynamic versions of the same wine consistently came out top.
Famous biodynamic disciple/pioneer Nicolas Joly, of Coulée de Serrant, transformed the practices on his own property after he witnessed the results of what modern farming methods could do. A business graduate recently returned to the family estate, Nicolas Joly embraced new technology as a panacea for greater efficiency. He then witnessed the very soil of this historic vineyard gradually dying, under the influence of herbicides – all at his hand. He now tirelessly campaigns, the world over, to spread the philosophy. Jean-Louis Trapet (Domaine Trapet Burgundy and
Domaine Trapet Alsace) and now his cousins Nicolas and David Rossignol-Trapet embarked on the road to biodynamics due to very real health concerns. Peter Sisseck, in the Ribero del Duero in Spain has done likewise.
More and more winemakers are experimenting and gradually adopting what, ultimately, is a life changing way of working. The initial aim may have been the long term sustainability of the land and the health of themselves and their co-workers, but the results have been the delivery of an intense and more honest expression of terroir.
Are there some who don’t agree with biodynamic practices?
It is important to note that for every enthusiast amongst the biodynamicists, there is an equal and opposite reaction from the cynics. The mere suggestion that the vast range of observances and practices constitute a science raises eyebrows. It should be noted that the adoption of biodynamic practices is far from an easy option. The rhythms of earth and space are taxing masters and even very diligent organic farmers are wary of the extreme measures required to conform fully to the disciplines. It is considered by many to be both expensive and nebulous. The debate continues.
Aubert de Villaine
(Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy)