Biodynamics for Beginners
Biodynamic vineyard at Castagna in Beechworth
Hippy nutters who wash according to the lunar calendar right?
The word ‘biodynamic’ (BD) in relation to wine often conjures connotations of druids picking grapes in the nude, when the moon is at full wax. Whilst BD farming does have some unusual practices without scientific substantiation, a lot of it is fairly logical. With quite a bit of evidence and biological theory behind it, the result is often more successful than modern industrial farming techniques.
So what is it?
Being biodynamic is basically being organic+ (see Organic Wine for Beginners) (although it actually predates organics as a green movement by 20 years). For a vineyard to be considered biodynamic the farmer must follow all of the principles of organic farming plus at least some extra specific philosophies. Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher who in 1924 turned his attentions to farming. The overall concept is of “closed-loop farming” – the idea that the eco-system of the farm should be healthy, productive and diverse enough to sustain itself with only a beneficial impact to the environment if any. The aim is to work dynamically with and for biology, to establish and maintain the healthiest environment possible for the produce and people, both now, and sustainably for the future.
A biodynamic vineyard
Steiner devised 9 specific preparations named 500-508 to help farmers achieve this. They are made from horse manure, quartz and several medicinal plants and are usually stored or prepared in an animal “sheath”. Sheaths can be anything from stomachs to horns. These are all things that would be available in a closed loop European farm as live-stock is essential for fully closed loop farming.
The most well-known preparation is perhaps preparation 500; the burying of a cow horn filled with manure for 6 months over winter so it breaks down before using it as fertiliser. Whilst this technique helps the manure to break down and develop to be perfect for use, burying animal parts filled with shit has cultivated a hippy-cultish stigma that the people who do it are full of the same. This is a shame as its more a means to an end, utilising what is supposed to be within the closed loop of the farm, rather than relying on pagan black magic of animal horns.
A winemaker proudly displaying his preparation 500
A much more controversial and less understood aspect of Biodynamics is that all aspects of vineyard management and wine making should be done according to solar, planetary, stellar and most of all lunar cycles. Everything from ploughing, pruning, picking, and bottling are dictated by shifting celestial cycles. People even swear that wine tastes better on “fruit” days and aromatic varieties such as Riesling or Viognier taste better on “flower days”. I personally have yet to see enough evidence of this having a significant effect and with a scientific background I am sceptical to say the least. That said many respected industry professionals who were equally sceptic now swear by it.
Rudolf Steiner, philosopher and founder of Biodynamics
Biodynamics in Wine and Certification
Getting certified biodynamic is even more strenuous than organic. Demeter is the International certifying body with the strictest standards for this. NASAA (The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia) are an Australian certification body that certify for organic and biodynamic farming. At the time of writing there are only 8 Demeter Certified wine producers in Australia and 10 NASAA. Importantly for wine a key part of the certification is minimal intervention in the winery. This means the only addition allowed is small amount sulphur dioxide, usually about 90% less than in a non-BD wine.
There are many producers operating outside of the official certification that practice some degree of bio-dynamics. Some because they think certification isn’t beneficial to them and is just a lot of money and paperwork for marketing reasons. Some because they farm biodynamically but want the freedom of making additions in the winery. Some want to apply certain principles as and when they feel they need to.
In a nutshell
Whilst there are some kooky parts of BD such as following lunar calendars, most of it is grounded in evidence. Even the stranger aspects seem to get results a lot of the time even if we aren’t sure why.
Much like with organic farming, BD is absolutely no guarantee of quality, far from it. But, like organic farming the thing to keep in mind about BD is that it is a philosophy focusing on producing the healthiest, highest quality grapes possible, with social, economic, and environmental sustainability being just as important.
For more interesting wine stuff, follow us on: