All wine is made from grapes and there are many methods of farming them, but there are three main groups. Conventional, organic and biodynamic. Conventional allows all modern tools and chemicals, organic eschews chemical fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides. Biodynamic could be considered as super organic with added mysticism.
Biodynamism is a philosophy proposed in a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), an Austrian scientist and philosopher. In 1924 he delivered eight lectures under the title Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. The core of his belief was that a crop couldn’t be considered on its own, the entire farm was an organism that had to be considered in the light of cosmic influences. When a problem arose, such as sickness in a plant, it shouldn’t be treated in isolation but be recognised as symptoms of a wider malaise and an imbalance in the system. Treat the imbalance and the sickness will go away.
Steiner said that plants were affected by the movement of planets; that some days their influence was exerted on roots and other the foliage. Taking account of these rhythms determines when to plant, when to prune and when to harvest.
He gave recipes for herbal ‘teas’ to use as sprays and preparations from cow dung fermented in cow’s horns that had been buried in each corner of a field for a year.
Does biodynamism work? An increasing number of wine farmers have adopted Steiner’s philosophy. Few mention it on their wine label but major figures such as Chapoutier in the Rhone, Nicholas Joly in the Loire, Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace and Benziger in California farm their wine grapes biodynamically.
Supporters say that that biodynamic wines offer better purity of fruit and express the terroir – the sense of place and individuality – better.
I am open minded. I have tasted great biodynamic wines and some terrible ones. I think that if a farmer is biodynamic then he is of necessity taking greater interest in, and great care of, his vines and should produce better fruit.
But, like religion, there are different sects, different takes on which parts of biodynamism should be followed and which are not important.
There are organisations that certify farms that are biodynamic, Demeter is the largest, and a seal on the label from such a certification agency will give you confidence that a wine has truly been made from biodynamic grapes.
However, the most important thing to me is whether the wine is any good and certification doesn’t tell that. If you find a wine that you like, that has great flavours and seems something special, then check out the winery website. It may well be that it is made from biodynamic grapes.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.