The biodynamic movement is making true believers of winemakers all over the world.
In 1924, the Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner gave eight lectures at Koberwitz, a private estate in Germany. During these small gatherings, he unwittingly created the foundations of biodynamic farming, an ideology that is, 80 years later, becoming more and more common a practice in vineyards around the world.
What does “biodynamic” mean? The crux of the method is the premise that a farm—or a vineyard—is a living, closed and self-sustaining ecosystem. This is an easy enough premise to accept, particularly for winemakers and enologists who think terroir the most essential ingredient of a great wine. (It’s no surprise, is it, that French winemakers are leading the biodynamism pack?)
But there’s more to biodynamism than terroir: The reason that the practice has had its share of naysayers is that Steiner also firmly believed that the health of the vine, and how it interacts with the soil, is directly connected the lunar cycle and astrological calendar. Treatments and preparations, as laid down by Steiner, are applied at specific times of the year, because every action in the vineyard (or so biodynamic practitioners believe) has its proper season. Until recently, biodynamics was considered a fringe activity pursued by crazy moon gazers. In some ways, that stereotype still exists, because the relationship between lunar cycles, soil and seasons is still a mysterious, misunderstood one. What winemakers the world over are now understanding is that it is also grounded in fact.
A look at a list of biodynamic wine producers reads like a who’s who of the good and great: Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Domaine Trapet and Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy; in Alsace, Domaine Marcel Deiss, Domaine Weinbach, and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. In the Rhône, Chapoutier. In the Loire, Domaine de la Coulée de Serrant and Domaine Huët. And that’s a just a few from France. All over the world, top growers, from Benziger and Sinskey in California, to Cullen in Australia and Alvaro Palacios in Spain, are driven by the hard-nosed belief that biodynamics is better for the soil, the environment, the vines and the wines.
“The practical side of biodynamics is what interests me,” says Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. “The preparations and the ideas may have come out of a philosophy, but I use them because they work. And that’s true of 99 percent of the people who work in biodynamics. They are practical. It is no longer just a sect.”
For Humbrecht, even the mystical aspects make some sense. “A lot of people who work in biodynamics say that plants communicate and are sensitive to what’s going on in other parts of the vineyard,” he explains. “Twenty years ago, people thought that was ridiculous, but now it has been definitely proved.”
“The vine is one of the few fruit trees strictly linked to the season,” says Nicolas Joly, a Loire Valley winemaker. “In biodynamics, we are connecting the vine to the frequencies that bring it life.”
Joly, who owns Coulée de Serrant, is sometimes described as the archpriest of biodynamics. He travels the world, writes articles and books, and conducts tastings to prove the benefits and virtues of biodynamics. He says that respecting terroir necessarily means that you cannot use chemicals to treat vines and soil. “The soil has to be alive,” he says. “With chemicals, you take life from the soil and make it barren.”
In Napa, Rob Sinskey, of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, also understands the benefit of a “hands-off” attitude in the vineyard. Like many other converts to biodynamics, he had been shocked to see the precautions vineyard workers have to take if they spray chemicals, (they must don white chemical-proof overalls and face masks), and sickened that these chemicals were being sprayed on grapes that would become wine, and be drunk. Sinskey admits that he “used to think that a clean vineyard was beautiful. But now I prefer to see a cover crop, insects buzzing, birds flying. That to me shows health and beauty.”
One thing all biodynamic practitioners do agree on is the effect that biodynamics has on the health of the vineyard and the vine, and the fruit that comes from those vines. Steve Beckmen, of Beckmen Vineyards in Santa Barbara, says that he was astonished to see how immediate was the effect on the color of the vines and the greenness of the leaves. Otto Rettenmaier of Chateau la Tour Figeac in Saint-Emilion, France, has been impressed by how being biodynamic has meant “we have to replant vines less because they are healthier.”
Aubert de Villaine, who manages Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the greatest estate in Burgundy, says that “vines are more resistant to disease” when sprayed with biodynamic treatments. Lalou Bize-Leroy, of Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, is one of the most vociferous advocates of biodynamics. She believes that her highly rated wines are the best proof that the system works.
And then there are the wines themselves. Producers say that they see the difference in the intensity of the fruit tastes as the grapes arrive in the winery. Having tasted nearly 200 biodynamic wines for this article, I can say that that intensity, that purity of fruit taste is translated into the bottle. Of course, many of the wines I tasted would have been great whatever method of viticulture was used. But their integrity, their elegance and their sense of place, came from biodynamics.
So why isn’t every grapegrower converting to biodynamics? It is harder to run large vineyards biodynamically because treatments have to be done at specific times of the year. Yet Michel Chapoutier manages a vineyard of 800 acres in the Rhône Valley all strictly on biodynamic lines. It is a question of organization, not size, he believes.
Cost is another major obstacle. Otto Rettenmaier reckons it costs between 15 to 20 percent more to farm biodynamically. Yields are also lower, further increasing the cost to the grower. That seems to mean that only those growers who can get high prices for their wines can be fully committed to biodynamics. And, as yet, few biodynamic producers are into large-scale wine production. That should change, as treatments become cheaper and consumer awareness of biodynamic wines increases.
At this stage, most wine drinkers are still relatively unaware of biodynamics. And producers are not doing much to raise awareness. Most of the top French wines produced biodynamically do not mention that fact on their labels. They believe, as does Otto Rettenmaier, that “most of the people who are buying our wine are not interested in biodynamics yet. The most important thing for them is that the wine is good.”
As our awareness of the damage modern agriculture can do to the environment increases, so will our interest in wines made in ways which respect nature, and do not fight against it. If Rob Sinskey can say that one of the pleasures he gets from biodynamic viticulture is that his daughter can eat the grapes in the vineyard safely, then isn’t this the way forward?
What is biodynamics, and how does it differ from organic farming?
Top Biodynamic producers
There are now hundreds of biodynamic producers around the world, and the list is growing. Many producers don’t even bother to label themselves as biodynamic, which makes it even harder to compile any definitive list. This is a selection of top producers who follow biodynamic practices:
Cullen, Jasper Hill
Benziger, Robert Sinskey, Frey, Beckmen
Alsace: Domaine Marcel Deiss, Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss, Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht
Burgundy: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine A et P Villaine, Domaine des Comtes Lafon Bordeaux: Château la Tour Figeac
Champagne: Larmandier-Bernier, Jacques Selosse
Loire: Coulée de Serrant, Domaine Hüet l’Echansonne
Rhône and the south: Chapoutier, Domaine Viret, Domaine de Trévallon, Domaine Cazes
The Millton Vineyards
Dominio de Pingus, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Telmo Rodriguez, Albet I Noya
Biodynamics is an agricultural system with its roots in a philosophy. The practice has much in common with organic farming. Where it differs is in its special preparations, and in the timing of their applications. It is organics applied to the cosmos.
While much of biodynamics is just plain common sense, there are elements about it that spook skeptics. Biodynamic producers believe that, to be most effective, they need to follow the phases of the moon in the way they work the vineyard. A waxing moon affects the vitality, smell and color of the plant bringing the sap upwards to the sun, while a waning moon influences the internal liquids of the vine as the sap descends. When the moon is in the fourth quarter, the biodynamic vineyard should be allowed to rest until the moon starts to rise again. Compare this sequence with the effects of the moon on the tides, and it begins to make sense.
According to Demeter, the world’s largest biodynamic organization, certain practices differ between biodynamic and organic farming. Biodynamics includes:
* Maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem; an expectation that the farmer supports a broad ecological perspective that includes not only the earth, but the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part.
* Nutrient self-sufficiency, and soil husbandry; use of the biodynamic preparations to build soil health through enlivened compost, and to stimulate plant health.
* Problem solving within the farm organism.
* Prohibition of the use of genetically engineered plant materials and organisms. In May 2002, a 20-year Swiss study, led by Paul Mäder of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, compared conventional, organic and biodynamic systems and found the biodynamic yielded the highest quality soil and crops. A 1993 study of New Zealand vineyards reached a similiar conclusion.
But when controversial philosophies are embraced, there is always dissension. In biodynamics, the dissenters are the two organizations that are supposed to give certification to biodynamic producers: Two French companies, Demeter and Biodivin. Some winemakers and grapegrowers think that Demeter is not strict enough, because it also certifies other agricultural products; Biodivin, on the other hand, concentrates on grapegrowing and wine.
In the United States, the biodynamic problem is further compounded by the fact that Demeter has registered the word “biodynamic” as a trademark. That means that unless a grower registers with Demeter, he cannot describe his vineyard as biodynamic, only as organic, even if he follows every biodynamic practice. — R.V.
Otto Rettenmaier: Bordeaux with fresh eyes
Maybe it is fitting that the most prominent biodynamic estate in Bordeaux is run by a relative newcomer. “I was able to look at Bordeaux viticulture with fresh eyes,” says 42-year-old Otto Rettenmaier. His family, industrialists from Heilbronn in Germany, are owners of Château la Tour Figeac in Saint-Emilion, a 36-acre jewel between Château Cheval Blanc and Château Figeac.
Rettenmaier arrived in Saint-Emilion in 1994, sent by the family to reorganize the management of the property, which it has owned since 1973. He fell in love with the estate, saw its potential and decided to stay.
“Our viticulture was the same as everybody else’s in Saint-Emilion, but I got the feeling that it wasn’t natural. I asked myself why were we using all these poisons, why we had to put on so much protective clothing when we sprayed. Besides, we were having problems with the soil, so we decided to go organic and then to become biodynamic.” He works with consultant Stephane Derenoncourt, and with Christine Derenoncourt, La Tour Figeac’s technical director.
“Our first biodynamic vintage was 1998. We are not following all the rules, so we can’t be certified, but what is important is that we are restoring the proper balance of the vineyard. The quality of the soil increased dramatically in the first year.”
Rettenmaier, conscious of the huge weight of tradition in Bordeaux, says that “one of the biggest problems in converting to biodynamics is the human factor. You have to convince people to believe in it, and work systematically and professionally. And then our staff had to defend themselves against skeptical colleagues from other properties.”
Of course the progress of the wines, which get better every year, has helped to convince skeptics. Harmony and purity are the hallmarks of the estate wine, Château la Tour Figeac and the second wine, L’Esquisse de La Tour Figeac. They have a beautiful balance between black fruits, spices and tannins as elegant as any in Saint-Emilion.
Now he believes his example is likely to be followed by more of the classed-growth estates. “The trouble now is not the unwillingness of people to convert to biodynamics, but the lack of qualified consultants.”
Vanya Cullen: Biodynamics down under
The Cullens’ vineyards have always been organic. Since Cullen Vineyards’ foundation in 1966, Diana and Kevin Cullen have been pioneers of viticulture in Margaret River, Western Australia, where the warm Indian Ocean meets the cool Southern Ocean.
“My parents were always ready to give anything a go in order to make their wine in an environmentally sensitive way,” says Vanya Cullen. “This was at a time when heavy chemicals were the standard way of treating vineyards in Australia.”
Vanya took over complete control of Cullen Vineyards last year after the death of her mother, Diana. But before that, in 2003, the Cullens decided to go the extra step from organic to biodynamic. “There was a seminar held by the Biodynamic Association of Australia, and that inspired is to take a more holistic approach. We saw it as the combination of working with the soil, the plants and the cosmos.”
Cullen may defer to the cosmos, but hers is a no-nonsense, Australian approach to biodynamics. It is based on observation as much as theory. She offers as proof the use of ground cover weeds, already in place under organic viticulture. “After 18 months of biodynamics, we found that the compost layer was one foot deeper. That meant we did not need to use an undervine weeder as we had in the past. It saved us nearly six weeks of work.”
She is enthusiastic about the effects of biodynamics on the Cullen wines. “We have seen greater brightness of the fruit flavors, pH balance and acidity. And in the winery, we get stronger, cleaner wild yeast fermentations.
“Today, instead of fighting the elements,” Vanya Cullen enthuses, “we are seeking to understand and work with nature.”
Eloi Dürrbach: Hewing wine from rocks
From deep in some of France’s most inhospitable terrain comes one of the country’s greatest wines, born from rock, dynamited to plant the vines. Not far from the ancient ghost town of Les Baux-de-Provence and the stark peaks of Les Alpilles mountains, Eloi Dürrbach fashions Domaine de Trévallon, a mouthful of southern warmth, richness and power that has critics weak at the knees, and wine lovers the world over clamoring for more.
Once a student of architecture, son of the sculptor Rene Dürrbach, and godson of Picasso, Dürrbach abandoned his studies as student revolutions broke out in Paris, in 1968. “I started to question too many things,” he says, “because it was the fashion then.”
Coming back to the family farm in Provence, he planted some vines and produced his first wine in 1973. It was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and that’s the way it has remained ever since. Because the French appellation system permits only Southern French varieties to be grown there, Domaine de Trévallon, without doubt the region’s most sought-after wine, is classified as a mere Vin de Pays, because of the interloper Cabernet. A white—a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Chardonnay—followed in 1991.
“From the start, I believed in biodynamics,” says Dürrbach. “It came out of my student questioning. My neighbors were skeptical, of course, but the answer came in the bottle. The wines are beautiful and you have the extra pleasure of not polluting the terroir.”
What Dürrbach started, others in Les Baux picked up. Today 90 percent of the vineyards in the region are biodynamic. “It is certainly easier to be biodynamic here, with our dry climate,” he says, “but globally more producers will take it up as the problems with chemicals increase.”
Steve Beckmen: the new kid on the bio block
Biodynamics is still new to Steve Beckmen. That is why the effects are so fresh in his mind. “I could see the change in the vineyard immediately,” he says. “We could see how the color of the vines and the green of the leaves changed within the first year, even after the first spraying.”
Beckmen is winemaker at his family’s vineyards in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley. The 365-acre Purisima Mountain Vineyards ranch is the property that Beckmen is converting to biodynamic cultivation. The high elevation, the climate affected by cooling Pacific breezes and fogs and the rare limestone subsoil convinced him that this was the right place to plant Syrah.
It is the older Syrah vines in the Purisima Vineyard that have been converted to biodynamics in the past two years. “We have been converting by 20 blocks at a time, so that now half of Purisima is biodynamic, while the rest is organic.
“We’ve had two harvests now,” he says. “Because we started with the highest quality blocks the quality of the fruit is good, anyway. But there were subtle differences, especially when it came to winemaking. It was really the expression of tannins, the elegance that was the main difference.”
The first wine from the biodynamic blocks, Purisima Mountain Vineyards Syrah Block 6 from the 2003 vintage, is being released this fall. “We may be blind, but I reckon it’s the best Syrah we have ever made.”
There’s no doubt in Beckmen’s mind that biodynamics is the way forward for his family’s vineyards. Practical considerations sometimes do get in the way. “We have been waiting to get a machine which could stir all the preparations for the soil properly,” he says. “I haven’t been able to find one, so I am designing one myself. Stirring by hand is too time consuming.”