Bio-Curious, Part 1: What is it?


ImageAuthor: Kara Mae Adamo. 

  I’ve been going through my approach on this one for months now, and I think I have finally resigned myself to a solution to my problem. This is mainly because, if I don’t get on with it, this article will never be written and I, conversely, will be forever plagued by its incompleteness.

I do not need more unwritten projects clogging the shelves of my brain.

In order to tackle this, I am going to publish it in three parts. The first one will cover what biodynamic vinification is and what is involved in the process. The second will cover its environmental implications and the controversy surrounding animal-rights. The third and finally article will cover whether or not it works and how it is being received from both the wine and farming communities on a vinification and scientific level.

By combing pages upon pages of editorials and actual studies, however, I have finally compiled enough research to give at least a rudimentary understanding of biodynamic vinification.

Dani, this one is for you. Sorry it’s so late.

Here it goes:

In an age of ever-increasing environmental-awareness and health-consciousness, people are turning more and more towards organic foods. Tired of foods and beverages laden with unpronounceable ingredients injected and sprayed with carcinogen-forming toxins meant to preserve the life-expectancy of our produce, they are choosing to pay that dollar-more for healthier options for their families.

Biodynamics has taken standard organic farming (an already complicated and involved process) to a whole other level. While the benefits of its ecological principles and special attention to detail cannot be denied, however, the process remains somewhat controversial among skeptics, scientists and traditionalist-winemakers.

One problem regarding biodynamics lies in the lack of support it gets from the scientific community. Indeed, even the most staunchly adamant of organics-enthusiasts will admit that the concept is immediately preposterous: modern-day witch-doctor tomfoolery and any hemp-wearing hippy’s wet-dream.

All the same, the process is being utilized more and more throughout the vinification community and has the support of such wineries as  Frog’s Leap in the Napa Valley,Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Château de la Roche-aux-Moines in the Loire, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alcase and Maison Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley.[1] It also has a growing among South African winemakers.

Part 1: So what is it?

According to a 2003 etymology given by Demeter International (the certifying organization that monitors the practice), the word biodynamics derives from the Greek words bios, meaning ‘life,’ and dunamis, meaning ‘force.’ The idea is that, through farming, winemakers are harvesting a ‘life-force.’[2]

 Biodynamics involves a deeper, personal relationship with the land. It is supposed to heighten a winemaker’s ability to anticipate and avoid problems within a vineyard while encouraging conditions that promote higher quality wine. The idea is that everything works together in a cycle—in its own little ecological universe. While this may not be wholly original in concept, it was first developed as an organized practice by a guy named Rudolph Steiner in 1924.[3]

A huge part of Biodynamics involves the use of what are referred to as preparations. These are homeopathic methods used with the intention of improving the inherent health of the vines themselves by strengthening their natural immune systems. There are nine preparations in all and they include a series of homeopathic teas and sprays.

At its core, this is not the place where biodynamics loses its scientific credibility. It does make logical sense. The preparations are meant to promote microbiologic activity and biodiversity of the soil.[4] In a sense, it’s like giving your soil a multivitamin. The healthier and more biologically diverse your soil is, the more character exists in your wine. (Since European wines are often known for their “earthy” characteristics, it should come as no surprise that these affects are considered favorable throughout that end of the wine-world.)

Here is where it gets a little spacey for some of the old-schoolers: preparations can only be used according to the solar, seasonal and lunar calendar.[5] Very Luna Lovegood if you think about it. This idea comes, officially (though certainly not originally,) from Steiner’s belief that, because the moon effects the tides, it must affect the growing phases of planting and harvesting.[6] Some winemakers harvest their plants by hand early in the morning because that is when the plants’ energy levels are the most intense.

Stay with me, though. It gets a little crazier.

First off, there is the horn manure. Known more technically as a “terroir maximizer,” the manure is gathered exclusively from cows that live on-property whose diets exclusively consist of food from that property. During the fall equinox, Biodynamic farmers (of any kind, but for these purposes we are referring to winemakers) gather the cow-dung and stuff it into cow horns (I kid you not). They then bury these poop-horns underground (when the zodiac is right, of course) and age it during the winter until it cures into something called humus.[7] When mother nature says so, they dig up the horns and make the humus into a sort of tea that ends up being sprayed onto the earth.[8] This process is known throughout the biodynamics community as dynamization and the idea is that it “creates a vortex that cosmic energy can be funneled into.”[9]

The humus tea heals the soil. It’s also supposed to help with root growth.

During the summer, the horns are used again. This time, the farmers place quartz crystals (silica) into the horns. These crystals, like the cow manure, are aged underground and then stirred into a new tea. This silica tea is used as a natural preserver, safely increasing the shelf-life of these biodynamic wines. Silica also enhances photosynthesis by creating more infrared light. Photosynthesis is widely acknowledged throughout the wine-world as being a huge component in the intensity of the grape flavors and aromas.

Yarrow is added to the compost pile because it helps naturally break everything down. This keeps the whole system on-schedule zodiac-wise. Then there is chamomile, which stabilizes the nitrogen levels in the compost and helps to stimulate growth.

Nettle is used to stimulate soil health and helps to strengthen a grapevine’s resilience to drought and excessive sun-exposure (which can seriously screw up the wine if your varietal is not overly sun-happy). Oak bark is added because it is rich in calcium. This protects the vines against fungus. Dandelion is used to regulate healthy plant growth. Like Silica, it is also helpful during photosynthesis.

Basically, biodynamic farmers and winemakers see the farm as one whole living organism.[10] When problems occur, they are considered the symptoms of more pressing diseases as in the case of the human body. They are attacked as such with the overall health of the organism being considered. The principles and tactics are meant to bring harmony to the land and to create a certain oneness between it and the cosmos

…which is where it gets such a reputation for witch-doctor craziness…

 But while the ethical and tactical issues surrounding biodynamics may frequently be understandably questioned, one thing is certain: the trend is growing.

[1] Jean K. Reilly, “Moonshine, Part 1: Why are top winemakers burying cow horns filled with manure on the equinox? Because it seems to help make great wine”, Fortune,August 9, 2004. Reprint. Accessed 2012-07-11


One response »

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