Biodynamics is a new (-ish) buzzword in the wine world. The Austrian radical thinker Rudolf Steiner introduced biodynamics as a sustainable agricultural concept 90 years ago.
Essentially, Steiner argued that soil needs to be re-energised with substances prepared from vegetal, animal and mineral substances; that soil should be worked through ploughing and hoeing as opposed to mechanical means; and that anything added to the soil should be carried out at specific times of the year.
This last belief sits well with people from cultures that observe the Lunar New Year. Indeed flying winemaker Eddie McDougall, who is half-Chinese and something of a biodynamics sceptic, bottles his wines on dates marked auspicious for marriage.
Many vineyard owners are not interested in being certified biodynamic or even organic. This is true especially in “difficult” wine regions such as France’s Burgundy or Bordeaux where a whole crop can be lost without some chemical intervention if rain persists through summer, resulting in fruit rot.
Prestigious 5th growth Bordeaux property Pontet Canet had a set back from achieving biodynamic status due to the dismal 2007 vintage, when owner Alfred Tesseron believed that spraying was critical. The cost of becoming certified can also be prohibitive for a small property.
The owner of Hong Kong importer L’Imperatice, Julien Froger, even says he is against the fashion of organic wines. “We prefer working with producers who simply respect their vineyards and do not need any certification to prove it.”
Is there an affinity between vine growing/wine-making and an interest in biodynamics? Wine, after all, has long associations with religious thought: In traditional European villages, where’s there’s a church, there’s a vineyard.
English-trained winemaker Tersina Shieh, who runs a wine consultancy in Hong Kong, thinks that is now the case. “In the past, farmers – not only winegrowers — were only interested in yield, hence the use of chemicals, synthetic fertilisers, etc. However, the use of chemicals degrades the land and upsets ecosystems. The younger generation of winegrowers are more aware of the long-term negative impact on the land and practise various forms of viticulture to produce quality wine but also with minimum impact on the environment.”
Julien Brocard, second-generation winemaker at Chablis producer Jean-Marc Brocard, says that bio practices don’t treat the “illness” of the soil and resulting diseases of the vines, but find the source of the problem. He looks for equilibrium in the soil, to bring “harmony” to the wine. He even criticises the extent of vineyard plantings in Chablis, which he says causes environmental dis-balance.
Shieh says that using herbs and wild flowers to prevent or cure vineyard diseases and drive away pests is akin to the Chinese drinking herbal medicine. “Chinese doctors will tell you that their medicine helps restore your internal balance but won’t explain how [it works] to you.”
At Josmeyer in France’s Alsace region winemaker Christophe Ehrart, the 11th generation of a family of grape growers, says that when grapes are nurtured according to biodynamic principles there is no need for a winemaker – except at the critical stage of blending.
Ales Kristancic who makes wine at Movia in Slovenia, on the borders of Italy’s Fruili region, takes the practices in a personalized direction. “First understand what the wind and the birds are telling you,” he says. “Understand what nature can offer you.” He creates highly personalise wines, quite outside what we would normally experience.
For his sparkling Movia Puro, the wine is bottled undisgorged, which means a plug of yeast stays in the neck of the bottle. Removing it involves opening the bottle upside down, in cold water, which pushes the yeast plug out but keeps the wine in. This is achieved with an implement designed by Kristancic called a “purista”. This unique device means the bubbles – the finest bead, fast and furious – are created in a second fermentation not through the traditional addition of yeast with sugar, but of pure grape juice.
For his Movia Lunar, he customised barriques that make it possible to leave the wine to ferment, age, and stabilise completely on its own without even pressing the grapes. Only the free-flowing wine from the unpressed grapes is bottled (without filtration) and allowed to refine for three years before release.
Critically, does wine produced from biodynamically grown grapes taste better (or different)? And does that even matter? Says Shieh: “What I believe is that winegrowers practising sustainable, organic or biodynamic (especially the last) methods pay a lot more attention to the vineyard.Therefore it is only logical that their vines and grapes are healthier and more balanced than those in conventional vineyards. So it is not surprising that the wine is of better quality.” Provided, she adds, that the winemaker does not “mess it up”.
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