wine features The Vineyard, the Moon, and Diversification: Biodynamics
The Vineyard, the Moon, and Diversification: Biodynamics
August 2009

More and more producers are embracing a practice called biodynamics, which argues that the moon and planets, among other things, play a part in maintaining a healthy vineyard.  Although it would be easy to dismiss this theory as a bunch of hooey, it’s actually difficult to challenge—because by-and-large, the wines are just too darn good.

These winegrowers got the idea from an Austrian polymath named Rudolf Steiner. Born in 1861, he was an extraordinarily diverse and prolific author and thinker, developing the Waldorf Education system (which emphasizes creativity and natural daily rhythms), among other things. He was worried by the emphasis on chemistry and mechanization in the world of agriculture, and in 1924 gave a series of lectures, effectively founding biodynamics.

Biodynamics has gained recent popularity because it is organic and sustainable with an emphasis on learning to think of the vineyard as a living organism. Biodynamic experts like raising animals and other plants in addition to grapes in an effort to mimic the biodiversity of nature or pre-industrial farms.

It’s a holistic approach: those different animals and plants are supposed to work together, in an extremely broad sense. This philosophy accepts that there are connections between these things that we can’t “see” scientifically, but can acknowledge and encourage. A biodynamic producer might opine with Hamlet that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In practice, this means lots of “preparations”—composts or sprays—seasoned with a variety of individual plants, each of which contribute differently to vineyard life. Some biodynamic practices are tangible and often scientific; others have to be taken as a matter of faith. Monty Waldin, in his book, “Biodynamic Wines,” says that nettles, for example, help tune in the soil to the needs of a particular crop (in our case, grapes). And Steiner called nettles, “an infusion of intelligence into the soil,” making the soil more receptive to terrestrial, lunar, and solar forces.

Promoting cover crops between rows of vines—another biodynamic technique, which some non-biodynamic producers have also adopted—seems reasonable: it protects against erosion, and encourages biodiversity and beneficial fauna. Using horses in the vineyard instead of tractors, to avoid compacting the soil, also makes sense; but if your vineyard encountered unwanted pests like rats, rabbits, or slugs, would you take some pelts of said invader, burn them, and scatter the ashes in the vineyard to drive the pest away? For some, that may just be a little too “out there”. 

The means may appear unusual, but the ends are clear: biodynamic winegrowers claim fewer problems with disease, more flavorful wine, and better aging potential, for starters.  The emphasis on soil health suits the pursuit of terroir—the idea that the character of the soil and other aspects in the environment come out in the wine, stamping it with its own individuality.

Biodynamics can also play a part in winemaking decisions. Olivier Humbrecht, a leading biodynamic winemaker in Alsace, explains that he only bottles his wines in summer and winter. In those seasons, the vine is less active, dormant or merely resting in the sunshine.  The completed wine, he feels, is still in touch with the activity in the vineyards; bottling it while the vineyards are feeling lively would mean a less steady wine in the bottle.

France is the leader in biodynamic wines, and home to the movement’s most outspoken supporter, Nicholas Joly in the Loire Valley; his book, Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing & Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is the standard text on the subject for winedrinkers.  His arguments center on allowing terroir to express itself; other producers focus on other advantages, like the long-term health of the vineyard. In the 90s, Alsace took the lead in biodynamic winegrowing, and Burgundy has also seen increasing numbers of converts.

As home to biodynamics’ inventor, it’s only appropriate that Austria also has some important biodynamic producers; the government has even subsidized producers who wanted to make the transition from conventional farming. Many producers in Italy already grow a mix of crops—olives, other fruits and even livestock, in addition to grapes—making a transition to the demands of biodynamics easier.

In the US, some big California names like Araujo, Joseph Phelps, and Benziger have signed on, as have Bergström and Cooper Mountain in Oregon. It remains much more popular in Europe, and some have suggested that the vineyards there need it more because they are so depleted from generations of winegrowing.

An international organization called Demeter certifies vineyards as officially biodynamic, which is a multi-year process. The vineyards have to be gradually weaned of pesticides; quitting “cold turkey” can leave them too weak to recover. Many producers don’t seek certification, or market themselves as biodynamic. Others aren’t taking on biodynamics wholesale, but are picking and choosing techniques that seem most useful to them, again without that official stamp. Whether you find them “certifiable” or not, the wines can be crazy good.