What is Biodynamic wine?
Part One: Quality, Taste & Terroir
The quality, the taste, the terroir. We explore what biodynamics means…
Put simply, biodynamics is a regenerative form of agriculture, inherently rooted in sustainability and the pursuit of protecting and cultivating the land to produce better quality grapes. Nicolas Joly, France's leading authority on biodynamics and winemaker of one of the most respected wineries in the Loire - Clos de la Coulée de Serrant - which boasts its very own appellation, argues that it is the lost art of agriculture. He says that "it is a question of learning about another relationship to the world and what it is that gives life to it."
As defined in the Oxford English dictionary, biodynamics is "the study of dynamics in living systems". In Latin, 'bio' means 'life'; and 'dynamic' can be defined as great 'energy', 'force', or 'power'. This goes some way in explaining the notion of the vineyard as a natural ecosystem, encouraging biodiversity and acknowledging its interplay of powers - rejecting the idea of a perfectly manicured vineyard and de-weeded soils. Plant and animal diversity is encouraged, each working together to fulfil complementary roles in the web of life in the vineyard. Be that the manure that nurtures the soil or the introduction of sheep who act as gardeners in the winter months. A holistic approach to pests and disease is another key marker in differentiating biodynamics from conventional winemaking.
But firstly, we have to look back before looking forward; it is important to note that biodynamics is not a new concept. Far from classical scientific approaches, it is the oldest 'organic' agricultural movement dating from 1924 - following Rudolf Steiner's attempts to offer a different perspective on farming. At this time, a group of central European farmers are reported to have expressed concern over the industrialisation of agriculture - they noticed that their soils were less healthy, their crops less nourishing, and their own health less certain, according to Monty Waldin, a leading expert in biodynamic winemaking.
The Second World War and the Great Depression went some way in stunting the emerging biodynamic and organic agricultural movement when developments in bomb technology, which used chemical substances, found a secondary market - as effective pest control, chemical fertilisers and weedkillers. Sadly for us, this has resulted in many more years of chemically infused food and wine!
Steiner predicted the next bombshell in agriculture, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the consequences of bad farming practices lead to mad cow disease - a result of cows having their horns cut off and being fed bovine meat. This is an important part of the story, as we later explain the significance of the cow horn in the vineyard in part two of this article.
As a result of these bad practices, a resurgence in the interest in biodynamic practices came about.
How does biodynamics impact the quality of the wine in your glass?
The notion of quality is subjective, but first, you need the right information to make that choice.
Laura Di Collobiano of Tenuta Di Valgiano explains that "biodynamics acts as an instrument to achieve soil fertility" and it is this very notion of soil health that enhances the quality of terroir, and subsequently allows biodynamic practitioners to make wines that can express flavours that come exclusively from nature.
"Before tasting good, a wine must be truly genuine... and thus show the subtleties of the place from which it comes!" says Nicolas Joly, which cannot be achieved when chemicals, pesticide, weed killers and harmful fertilisers smother the vines and her soils.
So the question is, do you want a wine that comes from nature?
When discussing the notion of 'quality' in wine you will often hear the word 'balance' - as described by Athénaïs of Château de Béru who says:
"We have been working biodynamically now for more than ten years. Each vintage brought a positive change in the vines, in the texture and life in the soils, the balance of the plants, the way the vines grow, their natural system of defence, through our experience over the years we began to notice the evolution towards a balance that we were looking for. Year after year, the more the soil was balanced, and the plant was growing nicely, the more the grapes that we were picking had a natural balance that they didn't have before. When I talk about natural balance, it's not just about the aroma and how it tastes, it is also about the grapes natural system of defence."
This very idea of a natural balance allows biodynamic winemakers to avoid the use of chemicals and pesticides.
"The equation is simple: the more we respect the balance of nature, the more we improve the quality of the end product. Everything is intrinsically linked."
Franck Pascal, Biodynamic Champagne Producer
"With biodynamics, you become a creator of health, not a fighter of disease, so in general, the plants are much healthier, and even the old vines can live longer."
Do biodynamic wines taste different?
To an untrained palate, it could be difficult to distinguish the difference. There is no such thing as a 'biodynamic flavour', but there are nuances in taste that enhances the flavour and quality of the wines. Revered biodynamic viticulturists such as Domaine Leflaive & Domaine Leroy are not known for their biodynamic taste but are known the world over for the quality of their wines. Impartial critics, such as Jancis Robinson MW, have suggested that there is often a 'vitality' and 'wild-flower' aromas that can indicate that a wine is biodynamic. It can also be because of the lower levels of sulphur used that can give a more aromatic and 'wild' character to the wine.
Athénaïs de Béru tells us that through exposure to other biodynamic producer's wines, that she was compelled to move to biodynamics "because the biodynamic wines that I was tasting had something 'more,' something 'different', with more 'energy' and 'balance'".
Another interesting element in this discovery of taste is the concept of oxidation, which most of us would consider to be the enemy of wine. However many biodynamic winemakers that we work with have reported that the wine of a well-born grape, produced through very healthy agriculture, is improved by oxidation, before suffering from it; meaning that an open bottle will last longer.
What are biodynamic preparations?
As we have touched on, a key biodynamic principle is 'prevention rather than cure', and biodynamic preparations help to achieve this. Top-quality biodynamic compost preparations, known as horn manure ‘500', help to increase the depth of the vines root systems, while stimulating the soils microbial activity and pH balance. Horn silica '501' helps to promote vertical growth and improve the quality and resistance of the leaf surfaces and fruit skins. Other natural, biodynamic field sprays, such as Chamomile, help fight against hydric stress during a heatwave. Acting in the same way that a cup of Chamomile tea may have on humans to help us relax and sleep better. These homoeopathic remedies act like tiny emitters and receptors, which can generate a remarkable microscopic life - creating harmony, balance, and rejuvenating forces, which we can label with the word 'health'.
In part two of this article, we will look at the significance of cow horns, winemaking by the moon, the sun and the stars, the biodynamic calendar, key difference between biodynamic and organic wines and lastly, certification in biodynamics.
Tom D Morgan
Words by Sarah Jones