Biodynamic wine sounds quite ‘right on’ in our current age with all of our ethical, health and sustainability concerns. It is perhaps quite a topical tasting to be undertaking in the month that some are referring to as ‘Veganuary’ (whether or not the produce of biodynamic agriculture, with its burying of cow horns filled with cow manure, could be described as truly vegan is a debate for another time). Certainly, biodynamic farming does appear to show greater respect for the earth and responsibility for its conservation. But does it, as many of its proponents claim, result in better wine?

Firstly, what is meant by the term ‘biodynamic’? As the name suggests, broadly it is all to do with ‘energising life’. Biodynamic farming is a sustainable, holistic form of agriculture which sees everything in nature and our universe as being interconnected. The principles of biodynamic agriculture try to harness this interconnectivity, nurturing the land and timing farming activities to be in harmony with celestial rhythms. Some describe it as an extreme form of organic farming, but it actually predates organic agriculture by many years. It is based on the theories put forward by Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner almost a century ago. The general idea is that the farm (or vineyard) should be treated as a self-sustaining living organism. This all sounds well and good, but some of the practices employed by biodynamic farming have attracted scepticism in some quarters and accusations of being a bit too ‘far out’, ‘hippy’ or just plain unscientific.

Although it was back in 1924 that Steiner first put forward the theories on which biodynamic agriculture is based, biodynamic winemaking didn’t actually take off in any significant way until the late 1980s. Francois Bouchet was the original biodynamic viticulturalist, having started using its practices on his vineyard in Touraine in 1962. However, it wasn’t until over 25 years later that Bouchet was called upon to aid other French winemakers in converting to biodynamics. Now there are hundreds of certified biodynamic producers all around the world, and many more who observe some of its practices or are in the process of converting.

So, what exactly does biodynamic winemaking entail? It does adhere to all of the principles of organic viticulture and vinification and is stricter than organic wine production in some of its rules and regulations. However, there are some very specific practices that are particular to biodynamics.

A major unique characteristic of biodynamic farming is the application of nine herb and mineral based biodynamic ‘preparations’ to the plants and soil. These nine preparations are numbered from BD #500 to BD #508; three of them are used in field sprays and the other six in compost. The three field spray preparations include horn manure, horn silica and horsetail herb. The six compost preparations are yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian.

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But it’s not just a case of spraying cow manure on the vines. Horn Manure and Horn Silica are prepared by burying cow horns filled with cow manure and ground quartz respectively in the vineyard for six months each (the manure is buried over the winter and the quartz over the summer). After the horns are exhumed, the material must be stirred rhythmically in water, first one way and then the other. When the direction of stirring is changed a vortex is created and the spray is ‘dynamised’ when the ‘formative forces’ in the material are transferred into the water. Horn manure is sprayed on the soil at specific times to stimulate microbial life. The Horn Silica is sprayed on vines at specific times in order to improve their health.

In addition to the use of these nine preparations, biodynamic viticulturalists are also bringing animals, such as sheep and chickens, back into the vineyard to aid its existence as a self-sustaining living organism.

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The other most significant feature of biodynamic winemaking is its timing of winemaking processes to a specific biodynamic calendar which observes the movement of the moon through the various signs of the zodiac. In biodynamics, the plant is broken down into four parts: roots, leaves/shoots, flower and fruit. Each of the four plant parts correspond to the four elements: earth, water, air and fire – each of which has three signs of the zodiac assigned to it. Vineyard processes such as planting, pruning and harvesting are all timed to take place on the days on which the moon is in front of an appropriate astronomical sign. So for example, any vineyard process concerned with roots, would take place when the moon is front in one of the three earth signs (Bull, Virgin, Goat). Work in the cellar, such as bottling is also timed to this calendar. It has even been claimed that the drinking of wine benefits from observance of this calendar. Fruit days are claimed to be the best days on which to drink many wines and benefit from their optimum taste, whilst it is also claimed that on flower days, aromatic white wines might be at their best. You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve checked the biodynamic calendar and whilst Thursday 17th January, unfortunately, isn’t a fruit day, it is a flower day so hopefully some of the whites we taste will be at their aromatic best!

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So does the burying of cow horns filled with manure and a bit of star-gazing, really make for better viticulture and better wine? Lots of established winemakers seem to think so and more and more are turning to biodynamics in their vineyards and wineries. I was lucky enough to meet a few of the makers of wines we’ll be tasting on Thursday when I went down to one of my supplier’s annual tasting events in London on Tuesday. They were very confident about the benefits of biodynamics. I’ll tell you more about their claims on Thursday evening and hopefully we’ll be able to judge for ourselves whether biodynamic winemaking really does allow the terrior to speak for itself and create a purer, more natural product that is both healthier and better tasting!

See you then,
Brigitte. x

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