There are a just handful of really hot topics in the world of wine right now and one of them concerns an approach to growing grapes that’s known as biodynamics. One way to describe it is as a set of farming practices that takes organic agriculture to another level and adds a metaphysical twist. But what does it take to make a biodynamic wine, and does biodynamic practice result in a measurably better product?
A bit of history. Biodynamics are the brainchild of the Austrian-born philosopher, social theorist and mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s most enduring legacy until now has been the Waldorf School approach to education, but he also dabbled in alternative medicine before developing the principles of biodynamic agriculture (he coined the term). And while much of what Steiner had to say about planetary cycles, life forces, and reincarnation seems bizarre or at the very least unverifiable, these notions don’t seem to have limited his appeal to those who have found in biodynamics a practical alternative to conventional agriculture.
Isn’t biodynamics just old-fashioned farming? Not really. While there are some aspects of biodynamics that have similarities with traditional, preindustrial agriculture or are at least in sympathy with it, biodynamics is the 20th century invention of an urban intellectual who really never spent any time on a farm.
How does it actually work? Biodynamic practice begins with the assumption that you are already farming organically and are committed to working without the aid of industrial fertilizers or chemical herbicides and pesticides. On top of this, biodynamics asks you to make use of a series of nine preparations, some of which are sprayed directly on plants or soil, but most of which are applied to compost. They include stinging nettle tea, flower heads of the yarrow plant fermented in a stag’s bladder, and oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal. These preparations needn’t be made on the farm, but can be purchased. The timing of the applications is considered very important. Many farm activities are scheduled to coincide with phases of the moon.
If it sounds a little like voodoo to you, that’s exactly what many of its critics say. For some (me included) the mystery is less what the sprays consist of than that they are applied in such dilute concentrations that they seem too weak to be effective. In this regard they betray a debt to homeopathy.
Is there a scientific basis for biodynamics? The short answer is no, but this may just because we haven’t yet done the research required to say one way or the other. There have been studies done that appear to show that vines in better condition when maintained biodynamically, although yields may be a bit lower.
What any wine grower can see is that biodynamically farmed soils are generally in better condition than conventionally farmed soils, but whether this is attributable to biodynamics or just to the basic improvement brought about by organic farming and the very conscientious nature of persons who take biodynamics seriously is hard to say.
Clearly, no one trained in scientific method is going to be very happy with the more metaphysical aspects of biodynamics, which posit occult forces and cosmic influences that science just doesn’t recognize.
What does biodynamic wine taste like? Since the preparations aren’t put into wine but are only applied to vines or composts, there’s no reason for biodynamic wine to taste different from conventionally-farmed wine. Although some winemakers who have conducted trials on their own properties claim that wine from their biodynamically farmed plots tastes somewhat different than wine from other plots, it’s not likely to be a dramatic difference unless the conventional plots were being very badly farmed to begin with. Our in-store tastings bear out this impression.
Why, then, do some biodynamic wines taste unusual? Biodynamics regulate practices in the vineyard, but don’t have much to say about how wine is processed in the cellar. However, since this approach is very popular with people who carry their interest in natural winemaking into the wine cellar, it’s often the case that biodynamic wine is also made with little to no sulfur. Low-sulfur wines tend to present rather differently from their conventionally vinified counterparts. This is especially the case with white wines that seem to lose fruit and freshness when subjected to the anti-oxidant properties of sulfur.
Is it only off-the-grid types who practice biodynamics? Absolutely not. The number of biodynamic growers seems to be increasing annually and it has a number of devotees among very notable and successful wine properties in France, Germany, Austria, and the United States—including some corporate-owned properties.
How can I identify a biodynamic wine? You can look for a wine that carries a certification indicator on the label. Demeter is the oldest and largest certifying organization. Founded in 1928, it boasts members in many countries and owns a registered trademark on the term biodynamic. A rival certifying group, called Biodyvin, was created in 1995. As is the case with organic practice, many growers aren’t willing to pay for certification or choose not to conform fully to the requirements.
The best way to get the low-down on any particular wine whose provenance you’re wondering about is come by the shop and ask us.
Stephen Meuse is a wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, and regularly talks wine on local PBS affiliate WGBH with America’s Test Kitchen Radio host Christopher Kimball.