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Friday, December 9, 2011

A mere marketing tool or a fundamental transformation of viticultural practices? - My take on biodynamics.

This article will deal with a practice based in a very abstract concept. However, as Clive Coates MW said in his book - The Wines of Burgundy - “Sometimes the extremes of biodynamism sounds like black magic. But the point is: it works. We should learn not to scoff.”. Well,  I’m a believer that is is important to go back to the roots (whenever possible) when talking about a subject as complex as biodynamics. Here is some background on where it all started: The Austrian (born in Kraljevec, in what is now is Slovenia in 1861) Rudolf Steiner published in 1894 “The Philosophy of Freedom” which became the basis of his own theory of spiritual science – Anthroposophy – and its practical results cover many fields, of which Biodynamics is one. The movement itself has its origins on a series of discussions and lectures named “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture”. He said in 1924 “We shall never understand plant life unless we bear in mind that everything which happens on the earth is but a reflection of what is taking place in the cosmos”.

A lot that is related to biodynamics happens in the vineyard and a major drawback for conventional vineyards (according to biodynamic advocates) is that, in the long term, they are not sustainable environmentally (or even economically). On one hand, there’s a high cost – again, both environmental and economical - involved with the use of the chemicals and the producer is caught in a vicious circle. The more fertilizers and pesticides are used, the higher the need for them. On the other hand, getting balance within the soil and sustaining its humus content and microbiological life, will be cost efficient and provide long-term sustainability for any given vineyard. Cover crops are a considerable part of this, improving soil structure, protecting it from erosion and creating competition for the vines. The other big component being the application of composts, organic wastes and manure, to the soil. However, there’s a clear distinction here between your “regular organic compost” and the ones that were made biodynamic by processes in which they are energized and become one of the nine compost preparations (500, 501, 502, 503, 504, 505, 506, 507, and 508). The animal manure most used in compost for Biodynamic vineyards is cow, to which homeopathic quantities (one cubic centimeter per two to ten cubic meters of solid compost) of Biodynamic preparation (yarrow, dandelion, oak bark, chamomile, and nettle) is added. The scientific community challenges how much these miniscule quantities will alter the qualities of the soil of a vineyard (in comparison to the ones that were treated simply organically) and, apparently, there’s no easy answer to this debate, but Biodynamic followers will say (and try to prove) that their vineyards have better physical properties and more biological life than the ones that are not.

Is biodynamics only “organics plus metaphysics” as it’s been said many times? Well, one could argue that the different positions and alignments (sun, moon, and stars) can be either favorable or unfavorable for vineyard work, so a lot of planning needs to be done according to the cosmic rhythms. Also, all plants, including vines, have their internal clocks. The sun and the moon cycles have been used for millennia in agriculture and Biodynamism is only making sure that the understanding of these cycles is maximized. “Just finding the harmony between the vine and the universe” as Vasco Croft of the Afros Project (a producer in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal) would say if inquired “why” for a specific practice. Following these cycles makes sense (even to the less credulous), but certain things, like why biodynamic preparations have to be stirred by only one person, otherwise the energy contained there is destroyed... is the kind of “black magic” that is so hard to be understood by many. That brings the question: Would some very famous biodynamic producers deliver the same type of quality – in the glass of wine – if they were to produce grapes "simply" organically or, for arguments sake, can one say that the “magic” in the vineyard really makes a difference in the final product? Some may have good reason to say that it does. Producers like Clos de la Coulee de Serrant, Bonny Doon, Zind-Humbrecht, Alvaro Palacios and Alois Lageder (to mention just a few) are perfect examples that great wines can be made with biodynamics. Not to mention that a walk in their vineyards is a much more pleasant experience than a visit to one that is heavily using pesticides and the soil of the rows between the vines looks totally dead.

One of the biggest arguments for Biodynamic producers is that, since wines are becoming all the same with modern technologies (both at the vineyard and at the winery), there’s a need for “uniqueness”. In other words, there’s a call for wines that show the place where they were produced. Growing grapes and making wines following the biodynamic rules allows, in essence, a wine to show its birth certificate, its terroir. The use of commercial yeasts is probably one of the winemaking practices most disliked by biodynamic advocates. According to them, its use masks the soil type and the climatic conditions, making it very difficult to tell the origin of the wine and even vintage variations. Therefore, the only truthful way of fermenting the must is with natural yeasts, the ones that come with the grapes from the vineyard. Biodynamic (or organic) practices in the vineyard will also affect the quantity and variety of these yeasts and the wines that are made using natural yeasts will show (even in blind tastings) a more complex character than if made otherwise. Of course, in the process of trying to be unique, there are several biodynamic producers making incredibly bad wine (and by “bad”, I mean faulty) and, for me, the first obligation of a wine is to be good (Nicolas Joly said "the first obligation of a wine is to be true").

Besides the production of some funky and/or faulty wines, there is another huge problem with biodymamics (or organics for this matter). Being against the use of fertilizers and pesticides, they put themselves in a sort of “being wrong by being right” kind of situation. Jamie Goode explains brilliantly in his book “Natural Wine – Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking” the “Malthusian precipice”: Mass starvation has been avoided mainly because we have increased drastically our efficiency in agriculture. Well, biodynamic producers are fervently against these practices and I’m not truly sure if these people (organic/biodynamic producers) have realized the dangers of totally eliminating fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture in general. Jamie adds: “The low yields of organics would also necessitate the cultivation of larger areas of land, which would conflict with conservation attempts. Nothing is as straight forward as it first seems. Organics on a large scale would be not just an expensive luxury but also, to a degree, an immoral one.”

Another moral problem (nothing compared to the mass starvation mentioned above, but still worth mentioning) arises when people question the motives behind a producer becoming biodynamic, and then, ethics become part of the equation. It’s a fact that biodynamics is not “pure faith” in every single case. Biodynamic wines are consumed for the perception that they are beneficial for the health, because one believes they impact less the environment, or simply because they are “cool”. What it means is that the sales of a product can be considerably increased if it is branded as biodynamic. The result? Some people with no spiritual or religious inclinations will come up with stories involving the stars, the sun, and the moon... and even if they do exactly as they should as far as the rules apply, they are in it only for the money, aren’t they? Beware of producers who claim to be making their wines biodynamically because they “have faith”, when they display a lifestyle totally incompatible with Steiner’s mindset. Most Biodynamic producers believe in what they do (or so I hope), but there’s certainly a number of wineries out there who are just surfing the wave of production of natural products because it’s a good marketing strategy. Period.

With all these things being said, and instead of presenting a conclusion, I would like to leave you with a few more questions:

  • Is it safe to say that biodynamic practices are a fundamental transformation of viticultural practices and not a mere marketing tool?
  • Are biodynamics like homeopathic medicine? It works for the “easy” non life-threatening diseases (like a cold), but pretty much have no effect against a more serious one (like a cancer)? In other words, are we just talking about a placebo effect here?
  • Is there a way to confirm that biodynamic practices are better than (“simply”) being organic?
  • I don’t hear people ("wine people" I say) asking if the wheat for the bread they are eating was grown organically... But, so many times, I have heard the question about the grapes used in the wine they are drinking. Why does it have to be so different with wine?
  • Are these practices as good for us (as human race - philosophically speaking) as people claim they are?
Your feedback will be much appreciated. With your help I hope I can write a conclusion to this paper...


Luiz A. G. Alberto
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