Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine
The ardent practitioners of biodynamics believe that this farming methodology is the antidote to an environment polluted by chemicals in which soils are nearly devoid of microbial life. But it is more than just this. The biodynamic philosophy sees vineyards and wineries as living organisms. Human beings play a vital role as caretakers, restoring and sustaining a natural equilibrium in harmony with cosmic forces. Indeed, there is an ethical dimension to biodynamics. Demeter International (www.demeter.net) is the principal entity engaged in promoting and certifying biodynamic farming through a network in forty-five countries. The French affiliate explains that their mission is “to nourish the Earth and humankind” and to respect the “living, rhythms and terroir” (www.demeter.fr). Demeter USA proclaims an aspirational if not evangelical vision: “Healing the planet through agriculture” (www.demeter- usa.org). While the word “biodynamic” is widely and freely used, Demeter has sought to establish proprietary control by registering the term in various forms such as Bio-Dynamique® in France and Biodynamic® in the U.S.
The concept of a so-called dynamic approach to farming was advanced by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, in a series of eight lectures delivered in the 1920s in Germany entitled “Spiritual Foundations for a Renewal of Agriculture” (Steiner, 1924). Steiner founded the “spiritual science” of anthroposophy (Diver, 1999). Even in this period – decades before the widespread use of industrial agrochemicals – some farmers were concerned about threats to the well-being of their crops and livestock. Steiner focused on the idea of vitality, a touchstone of biodynamics. He suggests a farm should aspire to “a state of being a self-contained individuality,” but he admits “it cannot be achieved completely.” All needs should be met by and within the farm itself, including the livestock to supply fertilizer or other ingredients. Steiner speaks of the soil as having a soul; it is also a sort of organ comparable to the human diaphragm. He imagines a world turned upside down, and all above-ground elements are actually in the bowels of this agricultural individuality. These features are dependent on the moon and planets. Those closer to Earth influence the exposed plant. He equates below-ground features to the human head and says we must look to the “distant heavens” – Jupiter, Saturn and Mars – to understand their functioning. Further on, he indicates that clay in the soil supports “the upward stream of the cosmic factor.” He further claims that air takes on a degree of vitality when absorbed into the earth. Steiner suggests that “everything is in mutual interaction with everything else” in the Universe, adding that “our intellect has exterminated our instinct.” These are but snippets of Steiner’s thinking and remarkably well-developed thesis. They may serve to explain, however, why certain tenets of biodynamics are, for some, pure genius while, for others, they are a challenge to comprehend and embrace.
To obtain biodynamic certification, a farm or vineyard must first be certified organic. This is an undisputed benefit of biodynamics. As with organic farming, biodynamics utilizes composts and manure, but goes well beyond into a range of homeopathic treatments. Steiner developed a list of preparations identified by the numbers 500 to 508 (Demeter Association, 2017). Some are to be buried in a “raw cow horn” over the winter (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Cow horn filled with biodynamic preparation. Photo: Weingut Fritsch, Austria, www.fritsch.cc.
The table below (Fig. 2) outlines Steiner’s preparations. Numbers 502 through 507 are intended for use on compost while 501 and 508 are to be applied on the plant. These treatments “are utilized in field sprays and compost inoculants applied in minute doses.” Before application, they must be diluted with water (ideally, rainwater) and agitated or “dynamized” to create “chaos.” They enable the “healing” and improved vitality of the earth and result in healthier and more flavorful fruits and vegetables (MABD, 2019).
Figure 2. Biodynamic preparations: number/use, raw material, sheath (if any) and purpose. Compiled by author from sources noted.
For those who like to delve into the technical fine points, it is interesting to compare the winemaking standards of the biodynamic and organic regimes under Demeter and European Union rules (Demeter France, 2018). The fundamental divergence is that, to be certified biodynamic, the entire property must conform to their specifications. Neither system allows chemical herbicides or GMOs. Under biodynamic standards, ascorbic acid and pectolytic enzymes are not permitted, nor are yeasts and bacteria (for the malo-lactic conversion) sourced externally, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Similarly, Demeter’s regulations governing adjustments in the cellar are more stringent than EU organic dictates. For example, they prohibit tartaric acid for acidification and potassium bicarbonate to reduce acidity. Also disallowed are micro- oxygenation, added tannin, and wood chips. To boost alcohol, both regimes permit the addition of sugar, concentrated must or rectified concentrated must. In the biodynamic realm, these sweetening agents must have Demeter or organic certification. Neither accepts reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol. Fining materials such as gelatin and potassium caseinate may be used for organic but not biodynamic wines. Most filtration agents and methods are valid for either approach. Finally, both regimes approve of sulfur dioxide although in Europe the levels for biodynamic wines are lower. The Demeter ceilings for dry wines (maximum 2 g/l of sugar) are 70 mg/l for red wines and 90 mg/l for whites and rosés.
Maria Thun is a name closely associated with biodynamics (The Telegraph, 2012). Born just two years before Steiner presented his thesis, she tested his principles on her farm near Darmstadt, Germany in the 1950s. In 1962, Thun published the first sowing and planting calendar based on the movements of the moon and planets. This was followed in 2010 by “When Wine Tastes Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Tasters,” available as a book and iPhone App, now authored by Maria’s son, Matthias (Thun, 2018). The idea is that the rhythms of the moon and constellations determine when a wine will reveal all its qualities. There are four categories: Fruit and Flower days are considered ideal for tasting whereas Leaf and Root days will inhibit wine from showing at its best. This theory appears to have its appeal, and followers have offered anecdotal confirmation of the calendar’s validity. A recent empirical study in New Zealand, the first of its kind, sought to test whether the classification of days stands up under controlled conditions (Parr et al., 2017). The tasters were professionals with intimate knowledge of Pinot Noir, the focus of the study. Their findings provide “no evidence in support of the notion that how a wine tastes is associated with the lunar cycle.” The authors speculate that reports to the contrary may be “due to expectation effects” and not veritable differences in the wines. This is a common pitfall in the realm of sensory evaluation going well beyond wine.
Many celebrated estates are members of Demeter or Biodyvin, a second biodynamic organization with 148 properties as of 2018 (www.biodyvin.com). There is a degree of overlapping membership. Biodyvin is focused exclusively on wine, unlike Demeter, which also covers foodstuffs, cosmetics and textiles. Biodyvin adherents include celebrated names such as Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaine Zind- Humbrecht in Alsace, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy, and Maison M. Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley. Most of the members, however, are micro-estates which drinkers around the world would not recognize and could not easily find in a local wine shop. The same is true of Demeter, whose membership of wine growers numbers approximately 700 worldwide. Their star French members are, among others, Domaine Leroy, Michel Lafarge, and Marquis d’Angerville in Burgundy along with Marcel Deiss, Weinbach, and Ostertag in Alsace – but also many comparative unknowns. That leads to the central question about biodynamics: Are such wines superior to those made by other methods? Many of the producers cited here were already renowned prior to adopting biodynamics; for example, Domaine Leflaive only became a Biodyvin member in 1998 while Romanée-Conti joined in 2016. Based on this author’s own conversations with the late Anne-Claude Leflaive in the early years of her biodynamic trials, she was convinced the results were truly superior.
A team of academics examined whether California wines with eco- certification taste better (Delmas et al., 2016). They considered wines which were biodynamic, organic and made from organic grapes to be eco- certified. Their conclusion was that this designation resulted in an increase in wine ratings of 0.40 points on average (out of 100). This might be viewed as a negligible gain which does not justify the ten to fifteen percent increase in cost for a winery in the initial three to four years after certification (Weber et al., 2005 cited in Delmas et al., 2016).
While it has been labelled pseudoscience, biodynamics may be more accurately viewed as a holistic, quasi-religious philosophy with carefully detailed rules and protocols. Conforming to a self-sufficient biodynamic way of life requires an intellectual, emotional and physical commitment, placing high demands and costs on the wine grower. Putting aside idiosyncrasies – buried cow horns, intestines and skulls – a biodynamic approach is highly protective of the environment. But the same statement applies to organically cultivated farms and vineyards, does it not, provided they adhere to exacting criteria? In point of fact, organic and biodynamic are two sides of the same coin. Tasting the added benefit of biodynamics in a glass of wine is far from evident. We are left, in the end, with two truths: many biodynamic wines are lauded by critics for their quality, yet so are many of their non-biodynamic peers. Perhaps, its proponents might say, this misses the enhancement of our well-being which cannot be quantified.
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The Telegraph (15 Mar 2012), Maria Thun, www.telegraph.co.uk.
Thun, Matthias (2018), When Wine Tastes Best 2019, Floris Books, Edinburgh, UK.
Weber, EA, Klonsky, KM, and De Moura, RL (2005), Sample Costs to Produce Organic Wine Grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon. University of California Cooperative Extension. GR-NC- 05-10, UC Davis.