Organic Wines - Biodynamic Methods
II. The Origins of Organic Winemaking
In our last blog post, we talked about organic winemaking. We took a look at sales for 2022 and sales projections for the current year. Today, we'll discuss the origins of organic agriculture: biodynamics. Before we start, a quick recap of what biodynamics represents in France, Europe and the world. According to the certification association Demeter (link in French), in 2021, there were 651 French wine estates with an official certification (a 20% increase compared to 2020). This translates to 11,609 hectares of biodynamic vineyards. Around 20 coutries in the world have tried and adopted biodynamic methods (although most of them are located in Europe) and there are more than a thousand biodynamic wine estates certified by Demeter in the world. That's it for the statistics. Now, let's find out what biodynamics is all about.
1. The Principles of Biodynamics
Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics - ca. 1905 (source: Wikipedia)
Before there was organic wine, there was biodynamic wine. But, what exactly is biodynamics? We hear more and more people talk about it in the little world of wine, but it's still quite a complex subject to fully to grasp. First of all, you need to know that biodynamic methods are nothing new, as there were actually born during the 1920's. Back then, many winemakers were scared of the looming industrial agriculture and its potential negative effects on nature (chemical fertilizers would become all the rage a few years later, in the 1940's). What if using chemicals destroyed their vineyards? What if they lost their jobs? They just came out of the devastating phylloxera crisis, which ravaged countless wine estates across Europe, and they were still in shock.
Looking for answers and trying to find how to take better care of their vineyards without chemicals, these worried winemakers turned to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In June 1924, the man gave a series of eight conferences in multiple European locations, such as Koberwitz (a Polish locality not far from the city of Wroclaw), in front of farmers and other professionals. Steiner, a famous occultist, gave a lesson simply entitled "Lesson for farmers". During his conferences, he explained that the vineyard had to be seen as a whole, powered by natural forces. In his opinion, winemakers had to completely reject the idea of using chemicals and they should work tirelessly towards improving the quality of their soil.
This series of lessons would later be written in a book called "Organic fertlization". The actual term "biodynamics" only appeared during the 1930's, as part of the "Biological and dynamic agriculture" movement. For Rudolf Steiner, a winemaker was supposed to be nature's ally and could never go against it. The philosophy he fathered, anthroposophy (which literally means "human wisdom" and intends on putting back the human at the center of everything, nature and the cosmos alike), was inspired by many religious concepts. Although anthroposophy is currently criticized by many and relegated to a pseudoscience, the biodynamic methods are still followed by many winemakers around the world.
2. The 10 Biodynamic Preparations
Now, how does biodynamics actually work? How can it be more organic than the classic organic methods? The basic building blocks of biodynamics are the preparations, made with plants, manure, minerals, bones... Most of the time, these ingredients are used together. They're buried underground for weeks or even months, so they can be "dynamized" by the soil's influence. Ultimately, they're dug up, mixed with water and sprayed all over the vineyard or combined with compost. From the outside, the entire process can often look like a sacred ritual.
Although each wine estate can somewhat tweak these operations to create their own versions of the preparations, or even get rid of some of the more esoteric aspects, the basis imagined by Rudolf Steiner a hundred years ago remains the very foundation of current biodynamics. Let's now see in details the many different biodynamic preparations available (numbered 500 to 507 by Steiner and found in Demeter's official guide - link in French), their ingredients and the potential benefits for the vineyard.
a) Spray Preparations
Preparation 500, also known as "Horn Manure" (source: Wikipedia)
Preparation 500, a.k.a. "Horn Manure": This is a simple cow horn stuffed with cow manure. Buried in the soil during the winter, the Preparation 500 is going to ferment during the cold months. Once unearthed, the horn manure is mixed with rain water and then sprayed on grapevines in the evening. This preparation targets the soil of the vineyard and the roots of the plants. Its supposed to improve a vine's growth and help it fight against droughts.
Preparation 500P, a.k.a. "Prepared Horn Manure": The same thing as the aforementioned Preparation 500, with the addition of six plant-based preparations normally used for compost. Invented by the Australian Alex Podolinski, the Preparation 500P should improve the growth of the plants and help their roots reach deeper underground. Sprayed on the grapevines, the Prepared Horse Manure can easily replace the regular Horn Manure. The Preparation 500P is usually used with a hefty dose of valerian mixture.
Preparation 501, a.k.a. "Horn Silica": An essential preparation for the vineyard. Quartz crystal powder mixed with water, stuffed in a cow's horn, and buried in the ground during summer. Once sprayed on the grapevines in late spring and early fall, the Preparation 501 works on the exposed part of the plants, in parallel with the Horn Manure (500). It supposedly improves the aroma and the taste of harvested grapes and helps the grapevine to catch more sunlight. Thanks to the Horn Silice, the vineyard becomes more resistant to illnesses, such as mildew or oidium.
Maria Thun's Barrel Compost, a.k.a. "Cow Pat Pit" or "CPP": There are many versions of this compost, which boosts the microbial activity in soils. The original recipe is as follows: mix 50 liters of pure cow manure with 100 grams of crushed eggshells, 500 grams of basalt powder, 2 grams of each of the three above preparations and a dose of Valerian Preparation (507) to top it off. Let it simmer for 4 weeks, stir and wait 4 additional weeks to obtain the perfect CPP. The resulting juice is then sprayed in the vineyard, directly on the plants.
b) Compost Preparations
Plants used in biodynamic preparations (source: Wikipedia)
Preparation 502, a.k.a. "Yarrow Preparation": a preparation made with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a medicinal plant nicknamed "Carpenter's Weed", after it has spent an entire summer macerating inside a deer bladder. Rich in sulfur, the Preparation 502, mixed with compost or sprayed on the grapevines, is supposed to help potassium flow better in the vine stocks' roots.
Preparation 503, a.k.a. "Camomile Preparation": a preparation made with camomile flowers (Matricaria recutita), which should allegedly regulate the action of nitrogen in the soil as well as increase the positive effects of calcium deep within the plants. The dried camomile flowers are stuffed in a cow intestine, which is then buried in the ground in late September. Once dug up, sometime during the fall, the Preparation 503 is mixed with compost or directly sprayed on the grapevines.
Preparation 504, a.k.a. "Nettle Preparation": a preparation made with nettle (Urtica dioïca), which reinforces the effect of the Preparations 502 and 503. The Preparation 504 helps regulate the action of the nitrogen consumed by plants, thanks to its high levels of sulfur and iron. The nettle leaves are pre-wilted before being stuffed in a clay pot and buried. They can stay underground for an entire year and then dug up and mixed with regular compost.
Preparation 505, a.k.a. "Oak Bark Preparation": a preparation made with oak bark (Quercus robur), rich in calcium to help the plants get stronger and fight against cryptogamic diseases (caused by fungi). The oak bark is ground and the resulting chips are stuffed in a domestic animal's skull. That skull is later buried underground, in the dampest part of the vineyard in late September, before being unearthed around Easter. The resulting mixture is combined with compost and mixed with the soil.
Preparation 506, a.k.a. "Dandelion Preparation": a preparation made with dandelion (Taraxacum dens leonis), which is supposed to regulate the flow of potassium, limestone, silica and nitrogen contained within the soil of the vineyard. The dandelion flowers are dried up and mixed with a dandelion infusion, before they end up inside a bovine mesentery (the thin membrane surrounding the intestine). This mixture is buried in a sunny part of the vineyard, from fall to spring. The Preparation 506 is ultimately dried up and combined with compost.
Preparation 507, a.k.a. "Valerian Preparation": a preparation made with valerian (valeriana officinalis), rich in phosphorous, ideal to stimulate the heat forces and protect the compost during the harsh winter, or in case of heavy frost. This preparation is also supposed to reduce the stress level in plants. The petals of valerian are chopped up and macerated until they melt. The remaining juice gets filtered through a cloth and mixed with pure water, before then being sprayed on the grapevines.
3. Biodynamics as a Method
As we can see, biodynamic preparations need some pretty rigorous planning and execution. Remember that biodynamic methods also enforce much stricter guidelines than regular organic agriculture. This idea of "more organic than organic" may sound like a simple sales pitch but it's not entirely wrong. Two entities are officially in charge of the rules and regulations of biodynamic winemaking in Europe: Biodyvin and Demeter (we'll talk about these two in an upcoming blog post). On paper, in spite of the ritualistic aspect of the practice (since biodynamics is heavily inspired by cosmology and other beliefs), biodynamics offers many benefit to the vineyard.
Actually, biodynamics is not really the issue. Most of the time, anthroposophy gets blamed. It's true that this philosophy (first envisioned by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner) is sometimes linked to anti-scientific theories or even cult-like mentalities. The esoteric aspect of biodynamics, inherited from the anthroposophic idea that humans are at the center of everything, whether it be nature or the cosmos, can logically irritate many who only swear by hard cold facts. In the end, the biodynamic approach to winemaking, with its refusal of chemical products, presents no danger to the consumer. The plant preparations, tisanes and other organic mixtures can only be good for the vineyard and the resulting wine.
After all, a "biody" winemaker first and foremost obeys the rules of regular organic winemaking before adding a more esoteric layer on top of it, through biodynamics. In the end, biodynamics is not really a science nor a simple marketing trick. It's rather a series of guidelines to take better care of one's vineyard and offer the end user a wine that's of a higher quality. As we said, biodynamics is also extremly regulated (just like organic agriculture), since it comes with its owns labels, certified by the European authorities. We'll take a look at these different labels in the next article!
Until next time. Feel free to take a look at our best biodynamic wines, down below.
You can also browse our huge selection of organic wines. We promise you won't be disappointed!