Biodynamic Wine: So Crazy, It Just Might Work
“Wine critics are not afraid to cry.” That’s what I told myself a few months ago at the Green Living show in Toronto, a busy fair of environmentally friendly products. I was in the wine showcase, sipping Nicolas Joly’s 2008 Coulée de Serrant, a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley ($109.95). It was the only wine I’ve ever tasted that made me weep for the sheer beauty of it: the nose was a brocade of ginger, beeswax, crème brûlée crust and wet caramelized apple skin. All these notes reappeared lucidly on the palate, where they were braced in a nutty and herbal structure. In terms of texture and complexity, it was a perfect wine.Thomas Bachelder, the erstwhile winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne, was standing beside me. “It’s a wine from a bygone era,” he said. “The kind of slight, stable oxidation used in this is rare today, but there was a time when nearly all wine was made this way.” I still had tears in my eyes. I was thinking about the first time I ate a baked apple at the Farmer’s Market. “This will last forever in your cellar,” he continued cheerfully. “Half-open, it will last a long time in your fridge too.” Game face, I thought to myself before turning towards him. Is this how Proust felt when he nibbled on that Madeleine soaked in a spoonful of tea? Did people keep jabbering at him too?
The most interesting thing about the Coulée de Serrant is that it’s a biodynamic wine made by Nicolas Joly, one of the world’s most influential prophets of this elusive style. If you want to live a green life, or even a good life, it helps to know about biodynamic wine. Many of the top producers in the world are turning to this earth-friendly style of viniculture. The problem is that very few consumers know what this wine really is. The name certainly doesn’t help. It has always reminded me of “Dynamic Tension,” the exercise regime pioneered by Charles Atlas.
As with Anglicanism and Catholicism, biodynamic and organic wine overlap in so many respects that they are often confused by less spiritually developed people. The fundamental orthodoxy is the same for both: no chemical fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides and no genetically modified grapes. The goal is to encourage a self-sustaining ecosystem in the vineyard. “Biodynamics increases the vine’s tolerance for some fungus and some weeds. It’s not just replacing a bad fungicide with a good fungicide,” said Chris Benziger, a partner at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma when we spoke over lunch. This reliance on the purity of the land is a double-edged sword. “Biodynamics bears the naked truth of the vineyard. It gets rid of all the bullshit, all the chemical interference. Without that artificial stuff, a bad vineyard gets worse and a good vineyard gets better … It’s an authenticity machine.”
Biodynamism and organic wine have a similar approach to purity, but they part ways on the thorny issue of sulphur dioxide. Sulphur sounds nasty, but it’s virtually essential as a preservative; without it, wines can become unpredictable or faulty, and they always lack shelf life. Almost all commercial wineries add sulphur, but for a wine to be certified as fully organic, sulphur is taboo. (Lesser designations like “made from organic grapes” are sometimes given to wines that are from organic farms but which have added sulphur.) Sulphur’s noticeable absence is one of the reasons why organic wine often has a bad name. In fact, there are several prestigious wineries (like Château de Beaucastel) that use organic farming practices but don’t advertise this fact because they think it would hurt their brand. Biodynamic wine, on the other hand, has no such problem with its reputation, and many established wineries use it with pride.
Biodynamic wine can be produced using sulphur dioxide, but in all other respects, it goes far beyond the commonsensical minimalism of organic farming. That’s because this process is not just an environmentally friendly winemaking style. It is the brainchild of a German occultist and polymath named Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner believed that the material world is governed by a spiritual world of mystical forces. He taught that any fruit, including grapes, could be supercharged with life-sustaining energies that arise from the earth, the moon and the planets.
These energies can be drawn into growing plants by spraying them with carefully calibrated homeopathic mixtures on astronomically significant days. The use of these “preparations” is what really separates Biodynamism from organic agriculture. The winemaker makes them from herbs, manure or minerals that have been alchemically enhanced by maturing them in the horns and innards of various dead animals. In this sense, it is worth noting that biodynamic wine isn’t really an item on the vegetarian menu.
The theory behind biodynamic wine is a light soufflé composed of astrology, pre-Socratic philosophy and Feng Shui. Molecular chemistry? Cell biology? Botany? All meaningless trifles compared with the importance the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) or the Zodiac. Steiner’s method bears an uncanny resemblance to voodoo, or what anthropologists call sympathetic magic — for example, if you want your vines to bear ripe fruit, you use herbs with a “fiery” nature and apply them on days when the sun is astrologically dominant. Or, if you want to discourage ladybugs from attacking your vineyard, simply burn a ladybug and sprinkle its ashes over your property. It will not surprise you to learn that Herr Steiner got his ideas via clairvoyance and not by actually working on a farm or researching in a lab.
Biodynamics is a rebuke to common sense, even on its own terms. For example, Nicolas Joly’s book Biodynamics Demystified speaks about the powerful influence of the planets on the vineyard: “The solar system is composed, as we know, of the five planets, the moon, our satellite and the sun … Each planet plays a very precise role in relation to plants, their growth and maturation.” Although astronomy isn’t my forte, I’m fairly certain that the solar system in fact has eight planets, give or take a few (Pluto recently being decertified from Grand Cru status.) I suppose the outer planets get ignored because they were invisible to the Sumerians or whoever it was who first padded out the Life section in the newspaper with a set of horoscopes. But if Saturn has the power to make my Pinot more tannic, why not Neptune or Uranus?
When I expressed my scepticism to Randal Grahm, the biodynamic winemaker at Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, he gave me a thoughtful response. “I cannot disagree with you about the relative difficulty, if not impossibility, of scientifically verifying Steiner’s theories, only to suggest that science is but one somewhat mechanistic language for describing reality, and there might well be alternative ways. I am agnostic to the question as to whether Steiner was a genius/clairvoyant or a charlatan. In a quantum universe, he might well be both … The ultimate question is: Do they enable one to grow better produce or make better wine? Certainly, that has been well-demonstrated many times.”
This is the rub. The more one investigates biodynamics, the sillier it seems. But it is hard to argue with results, and the practices get splendid results: Nicolas Joly in the Loire, Benziger Family Estate in California, Nikolaihof in Austria, Ostertag in Alsace and Le Clos Jordanne in Canada, just to name a few.
“What part of it works? I don’t know. But it works,” says Bill Redelmeier, whose Southbrook Winery has recently started releasing biodynamic certified wine from Niagara. Redelmeier’s theory appears to be that biodynamism affects the microorganisms involved in the winemaking process. “My ‘aha!’ moment came in 2008 when I realized that good juice leads to a good ferment. Biodynamics makes it healthy for the grapes and healthy for the yeast.” He told me of the first time he stood over a vat of fermenting must from his affected grapes: it smelled better and cleaner than it ever had before.
The problem is there’s no science to back up Redelmeir’s hypothesis. There is plenty of evidence that organic agriculture can demonstrably benefit the grape, but there’s been little peer-reviewed research examining how, exactly, biodynamics differs from organics. One study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (2005) compared an organic vineyard and a biodynamic one. The data for this study shows that the soil, leaves, grapes, phenolics and brix were essentially identical in both.
The complete lack of any scientific evidence for biodynamics infuriates its sceptical critics, but I think they’re approaching the question from the wrong end.
“Rudolf Steiner may have been playing a trick on us all,” Bob Swain said to me sotto voce when I met him on Earth Day to sample some of his wine. He’s the winemaker at Paul Dolan Vineyards in Mendocino. Swain told me that biodynamic agriculture requires the winemaker to be especially detail-oriented and aware of his plants, and this obsessive ethic is probably the most important thing it brings to a winery. Swain is exactly right. Personally, I think this process is hogwash. However, whether or not Steiner’s mysticism has any impact on the grapes is not important — the real question is what effect it has on the men and women making the wine.
Biodynamics attracts winemakers who already have a deep inclination to creativity; André Ostertag and Randall Grahm, both authors, leap to mind. And once such people begin using biodynamism, it encourages them to be even more artistic and intuitive in their approach to farming. “If it is done properly, the practices themselves … strongly seem to encourage a sense of intuition, and more importantly, a greater facility of observation,” Grahm told me. “One is more deeply linked with one’s land.” The elaborate rituals force a winemaker to be alive at all times to what his land, vines and wine are trying to tell him.
One final benefit of biodynamism is that it encourages a minimalistic approach to winemaking. The goal is to let terroir show through, with a minimum of ham-handed interference in the cellar. “One has the opportunity to produce wines in a much less affected, interventionist manner,” Grahm says. “There’s a lesser need for acidulation, alcohol removal, addition of yeast nutrients, and indeed, addition of cultured yeast.” Less is more. The vines will take care of themselves — this is the cardinal rule of biodynamics. In this sense, perhaps the most wonderfully beneficial thing in Rudolph Steiner’s magical potions is that they do nothing at all.
94 Paul Dolan Deep Red 2006, Mendocino County, California ($56)
This is a masterpiece composed of 57% Syrah, 31% Petite Sirah and 12% Grenache. It has a penetrating expression of dark fruit, nuanced with nutmeg, charcoal and spice. This is New World Wine at its best: ripe, intense and full of freshness. Drinking well now.
93 Seña 2006, Aconcagua Valley, Chile ($79)
Seña is an utterly delicious Bordeaux blend featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and a sultry dollop of Carmenère. It’s made in a classic and elegant style so that it offers all the concentration typical of Chile without being the least bit heavy. The tannic structure will evolve beautifully into the 2020s.
90 Nikolaihof Hefeabzug Grüner Veltliner 2006, Austria ($27.95)
Austria makes some of the best value whites in Europe, and this is no exception. It offers a clean nose with hints of peapod and melon, followed by breezy and balanced palate. Notes of citrus and grass are particularly charming. This is a wine painted in watercolours.
92 Ostertag Gewürztraminer 2008, Alsace ($29.95)
André Ostertag has crafted an unctuous and rich Gewurztraminer with plenty of aging potential. If you like your wines fleshy and full of personality, this is for you. It warbles with ripe tropical fruit, jasmine and musk. A fragrant delight.