As the vine leaves turn golden after a bountiful harvest, hundreds of winemakers across the world bury horns stuffed with manure in the ground to ensure the success of the harvest to come. When winter is over they return to unearth the horns and extract the rich organic material which will be sprayed on the soil at an auspicious moment determined by the movements of the heavens. Welcome to the surreal world of biodynamic winemaking, which proponents claim creates wines far superior to those those made by industrial or even organic wineries.
If you know anything about biodynamic wine, you may well regard it “as an extreme form of organics, with its quasi-religious overtones and possibly even voodoo practices” (1). For others, though, like Monty Waldin of Chateau Monty fame, these apparently eccentric methods have significant advantages over conventional winemaking approaches:
“For advocates like me, however, biodynamics offers effective, creative, enjoyable, stimulating and sustainable solutions to common problems experienced by contemporary winegrowers, such as reduced soil fertility, vines’ diminishing resistance to pests and diseases, and grapes which, despite being increasingly complicated to ferment, risk producing ever more banal wines largely devoid of individuality and interest.” (2)
Monty’s eyes were first opened the strange world of biodynamic wine as a teenager in the 1980s when he worked at a Bordeaux château. The unnecessary use of chemical sprays and treatments in the vineyard and winery convinced Monty that there must be a better way to make wine. Since then he’s become a highly-visible advocate for biodynamic wines, writing numerous books on the topic and appearing on his own TV show which followed his efforts to make biodynamic wine in Roussillon, south-western France.
The statistics show Monty may well be onto something. In 2015 organic and biodynamic vineyards comprised 6% of the global total, up from 0.5% in 1999. Incredibly, over in New Zealand, ambitious targets have been set to see 20% of the nation’s vineyards certified as organic by 2020. Over in Burgundy the prestigious Domaine Leroy and Domaine Leflaive, along with the producer of the most expensive wines in the world, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are all using biodynamic practices in at least some of their vineyards.
In order to try to get my head around this rising trend, I’ve been looking at Monty’s latest book, Biodynamic Wine. Part DIY-guide, part call to arms, the book attempts to lay out the basic principles behind biodynamic wines in a way that makes sense to the curious wine enthusiast. Keen to contrast biodynamics with modern, industrial farming, he touches on the risks of current conventional farming practices:
“A pertinent example of this very risk is the ‘terminator’ or ‘suicide’ seed technology developed in the United States whereby second-generation seeds are either sterile or need to be coated with a commercially patented compound to become capable of reproduction. Farmers must therefore either pay for new seeds each season or pay to activate saved seeds. Farmers who find patented genes have migrated into their own seeds are at risk too of being threatened by the patent holder for theft of patented property. This is like being sued for the theft of paraffin and matches by the stranger who just used them randomly to set fire to your house. So rather than face up to a multinational, farmers find it easier to switch to patented seeds, meaning the seed company has a client for life.” (3)
In stark contrast, Monty argues, biodynamic farming allows farmers independence and ensures genetic diversity thanks to their ability to conserve seeds and rely on wind-borne pollination. It’s convincing stuff, as are Monty’s claims that “biodynamics remains the best tool with which to make terroir-driven wine of the highest quality while enhancing rather than depleting the vineyard it came from” (4).
Monty them moves on to a very thorough explanation of the various “biodynamic preparations”, plant teas and composts used in such vineyards. This is the hard sell of biodynamic wine, and to his credit, Monty does a great job of explaining how each of these bizarre-sounding concoctions works. He talks us through such delights as chamomile sausages, made with chamomile flowers and cow intestines, red deer stags’ bladders filled with yarrow, and animal skulls packed with oak bark. These organic materials are left to mature in the ground or in the sun and then applied to vineyards in homeopathic quantities. Of course, to the rational, scientific-minded critics these practices might be hard to accept, but it is clear that all are aimed at providing the vines with specific nutrients to assist with the creation of healthy, balanced wine grapes.
For me, the real issues begin when he starts to examine the idea of “celestial rhythms”. Especially hard to swallow is the idea that wines will taste different depending on which constellation the moon is in and whether the moon is ascending or descending;
“…the ascending moon should make wine aromas more pronounced as they ‘ascend’ or are pulled upwards out of the bottle or glass.” (5)
Monty does take the time to admit “I find my appreciation of a wine is augmented more by good company and good food than by a good moon or favourable set of stars.” (6) This is offset, though, by his lengthy exposition on the influence of the lunar cycle, planets and constellations on the vineyard which reads like pure lore.
Having tasted biodynamic wines myself, I have to agree with Monty that undoubtedly he is onto something. They can taste astoundingly good. I am confident that his book will prove invaluable to those who wish to understand and critically evaluate biodynamic practices. If you have even the slightest interest in great wines, I challenge you to read the book and make up your own mind!
(1) Monty Waldin, Biodynamic Wine, p. ix
(3) Ibid. p. 9
(4) Ibid. p. xvi
(5) Ibid. p. 185
(6) Ibid. p. 186