“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion…It should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity between the two.” – A smart guy who lived a while back
It is difficult to speak of biodynamics without waxing philosophic. Little known to most people, the biodynamic approach to grape growing has become one of the more controversial issues within the wine industry. What began in the early 1990s has developed into a movement whose practitioners include some of the world’s best winemakers, and some of the world’s most unique wines. The skeptics, who are many, see it as an incredible waste of time and money. For some, it is an affront to science and modern thinking.
So what exactly is biodynamics?
The spiritual father of the biodynamic movement is an early 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. He didn’t know anything about wine, but his teachings gave birth to anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy or, some say, spiritual science that attempts to bridge the gap between science, art and religion.
I am far from an expert in anthroposophy, and it made my head hurt trying to figure out what it’s all about. But a couple of the principles it espouses include a “human respect” for the community at large and the belief that every individual has a unique destiny. Aside from biodynamics, the Waldorf school network, which includes close to 2,500 schools worldwide, uses a holistic approach to teaching that is based on these principles.
But what does this have to do with wine?
Biodynamics is often lumped together with organic farming. However, it goes much further. While both rely on organic materials for enriching the soil and shun the use of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, biodynamics embraces a much more holistic vision. What I mean by this is that unlike both chemical and organic agriculture, biodynamics is not just concerned with the nutrients a plant needs to grow.
Those winemakers who practice biodynamics view the health of the vine in a more unified ecological vision. They are not only concerned with the plant, they believe the health of the vine and the ultimate quality of the resulting wine is dependent upon the health of a number of life forces – the soil, the people who work in the vineyard, and all the other plants and animals that are a part of the eco-system. Biodynamics is concerned with the subtle manipulation of these life forces, or energies, and aims to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Now before a bunch of you stop reading and move on to the wine reviews, just open up the left side of your brain and take a leap of faith with me. One, two, three … okay, jump!
Biodynamics shares much with Chinese medicine, both homeopathy and acupuncture, whose basis is the manipulation of these subtle energies (chi), which they believe are within each of us.
On a practical level, this means biodynamic farmers uses homeopathic doses when treating their plants and the soil. One of the more debatable and oft-lampooned “interventions” are compost energizers that are made from plants fermented in animal bladders and bones, and ground-up rocks. Leaf sprays, used for treating and re-enforcing the vines, are made from the juice of ground-up flowers and other natural sources.
Biodynamics is also influenced by astrology. Biodynamic winemakers will add compost, spray their plants, work and weed the soil, and ultimately pick their grapes following a calendar that is loosely based on the position of the moon, the stars and the constellations. As British wine writer and scientist Jamie Goode puts it, “biodynamics sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms.”
Now, without getting into too much more detail, these practices are not haphazard.
Demeter is the world’s most important biodynamic certifying agency, and it is quite a rigourous and expensive process to be certified Demeter.
Many biodynamic winemakers, because of the costs associated with certification or because they don’t feel it necessary to “formalize” their beliefs, refuse to certify, and many don’t even use biodynamics to market their wines.
Despite the attempt to formalize this approach to agriculture, it is an easy target to lampoon. And while the jury is still out on whether its practices work, the list of winemakers espousing this approach is both impressive and growing.
Many of my favourite wines are made biodynamically. In the Loire there is the Coulée de Serrant, Domaine Huet, and Muscadet’s l’Ecu. In Alsace, the list is a “who’s who” of the region’s best producers: Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Weinbach, Kraydenweiss and Ostertag.
The Rhône’s Chapoutier was one of the first to make the transition; Burgundy’s Domaine Leroy, Comte Armand and Leflaive are also adherents. Other high-end producers such as Drouhin and the fabled Romanée Conti also have parts of their vineyards farmed biodynamically. I could go on and on – Clos Jordanne in the Niagara, Pingus in Spain and even Californian radical Randall Graham, better known as Bonny Doon, has sold off a bunch of his labels so he, too, can concentrate on biodynamics. For this list to keep growing, there must be something there.
When I sat down with André Ostertag, an Alsatian winemaker who has been practicing biodynamics for close to 15 years, I asked him what were the “observable” benefits he could attribute to biodynamics. He has a penchant for the poetic, but he spoke of his grapes maturing eight to 10 days earlier than those of his “non-bio-d” neighbours. He spoke of the verticality of the vine, a point mentioned to me by other bio-d winemakers like Noel Pinguet from the Loire’s Domaine Huet and Alsace’s Jean Michel Deiss. This translates to thinner trunks, and leaves that mysteriously grow in a way so they don’t shade one another. But in then end, he spoke of equilibrium and balance, and his plants’ capacity to synthesize the micro elements necessary to healthy, productive growth. He said the wine is just better, more authentic, more representative of the terroir. He was convinced.
But perhaps the real lesson here is that we humanoids still have much to learn about subtle interactions in the natural world.
I believe the real importance of biodynamics lies in a crucial paradigm shift, from humans behaving as masters of the natural world to that of participants. Biodynamic agriculture is about healing and protecting the life forces that sustain the Earth rather than simply consuming its resources. In light of much of the scientific evidence that points to us as being the culprits in climate change, dead or sick water systems and putrid air that gives kids asthma, this shift is essential if we are to confront these problems.
Many of the winemakers I have talked with have mentioned that biodynamic farming has brought about in them a sort of spiritual awakening. I can understand the need to spiritualize human life: It is part of what makes it interesting – a little vacation from the rational.
So within this framework, I am willing to at least stay open to the idea that a vine can benefit from subtle interventions and that it will be at it’s best when its health is considered in a cosmological perspective.
Perhaps this is at the root of a move by some away from pure science toward a more holistic perspective.
And perhaps this is what Einstein was alluding to when he talked of the future cosmic religion, and the unity between the natural and the spiritual.
THIS WEEK’S SUGGESTIONS: BIODYNAMIC SAMPLINGS
While they are good, they are not cheap. One downside of biodynamics is that it is time- and labour-intensive, and yields are usually lower than average. This means that they do tend to cost a bit more.
Bordeaux Côtes de Francs 2003, Château le Puy. France red, $23.30, SAQ # 709469. If you have fond memories of walking into a stable filled with horses when you were a child, this wine will take you back. While there is fruit here, dark plums and other red fruits, its aromatic backbone is, well, something like drinking an espresso in a stable. While for some it may be aromatically challenged, for others like me, it is a very ripe and sexy Right Bank Bordeaux, with a silky texture and ripe, juicy tannins. Who ever said merlot had to be easy? Drink now-2013. Food pairing: Veal chop with wild mushrooms.
Alsace 2004, Domaine Marcel Deiss. France white, $23.05, SAQ # 10516490. Winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss wanted this wine to “be Alsace,” so he put every grape that is grown there into his wine. The result is pure joy, a delicious fruit salad of perfectly ripe peaches, pineapple, red grapes and strawberries – all in rich yet remarkably fresh, slightly sweet syrup. The balance is truly exceptional. Quantities are limited, so if you love Alsace and have yet to experience Deiss, get yourself a bottle. Drink now-2012. Food pairing: Aperitif, semi-strong cheese, Spicey vegetarian meals with some chili.