A fine new book about biodynamic wine helps explain a long-misunderstood subject. For publication in the week of 8 August 2016.
A vineyard’s unique selling point is its terroir, that indefinable sense of place conveyed by the soil, location and climate. Biodynamics helps accentuate this sense of place. But biodynamic approaches are under appreciated, and in some cases shrouded in confusion.
Biodynamic Wine (Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library), Monty Waldin’s latest book, helps clarify our understanding and explains the theory behind this form of winemaking. It is comprehensive, elegantly written and easy to understand.
“Biodynamics gives wine a unique sense of individuality,” Waldin said during a Skype interview. “The fewer external elements you bring into your vineyard, the more you have a chance to represent your terroir. Biodynamics produces healthier soil with more disease resistance, and deeper rooting plants. Terroir is about the micro-biology of the soil as much as it’s about climate and location.
“Soil is held together by micro-organisms and if you distort or kill them [with pesticides] you lose the influence of terroir, that ‘somewhere-ness’ that makes a wine stand out.” Winemakers also run the risk that pesticides in the soil – they are effectively poisons – will affect vineyard staff. “Two years ago for the first time the French government gave the cause of death of a vineyard worker as vineyard chemicals.”
Some of the world’s most famous wine estates such as Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy are biodynamic. Why would they risk their reputation by embracing biodynamics, Waldin asked. “Biodynamic wines have better acidity, [are] more digestible and easier to drink because of lower alcohol, [and are] more refreshing. Ultimately people feel enlivened by them and continue to pay high prices.”
The term biodynamic comes from the Greek words: “bios” (life) and “dynamos” (energy). It is a holistic approach to agriculture that treats the vineyard as a living organism, and interacts with the environment to build healthy soil.
The theory is based on eight lectures Dr Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist, gave in 1924. He said the health of soil, plants and animals depends on reconnecting nature with the creative forces of the cosmos. Advocates believe a combination of earthly and cosmic energies produces healthy and balanced plants. Biodynamic methods produce a living soil aligned with cosmic rhythms, particularly those of the sun and moon.
One of the most interesting parts of Waldin’s book is the segment on wine tasting by the moon. “When asked to organise wine tastings, I favour wines from vines with at least seven years’ biodynamics on their CV so the full biodynamic effect has been felt strongly by both vines and winemaker.” He also uncorks the bottle or decants the wine 12 to 48 hours in advance. “Biodynamic wines often need a little extra time to breathe or loosen up, coming from especially strong-rooted vines producing balanced grapes which are fermented with minimal intervention.”
It is impossible to know what percentage of vineyards around the world are biodynamic. James Halliday, the doyen of Australia’s wine writers, has noted that around the world “more and more winemakers are moving to [become] biodynamic”. The certification process takes about three years.
Earlier this year Halliday selected his five outstanding Australian wines. One of them was the 2013 Stefano Lubiana Settebello single block Pinot Noir. Lubiana is a fiercely independent winemaker from Tasmania whose questioning of mainstream practices led him to adopt organic principals in 2001. His 23-hectare vineyard was certified biodynamic in March 2013.
Lubiana said he concentrates on feeding the soil rather than the vines. “If you work to get your soils into a really healthy state in terms of structure and organic matter, then your vines will be able to access everything they need for good nutrition.” Winter plays an important role in that process. “It’s the time of the year when everything above ground stops, but below ground the soil comes alive. It’s during winter that we concentrate on feeding all of the fungi and the microbe populations that live underground.”
In the Marche area of Italy, near the Adriatic coast, locals estimate that perhaps 40 per cent of vineyards have embraced organic or biodynamic forms of viticulture. One of the rising stars is Riccardo Baldi, who created his first vintage in 2009. His seven hectares are biodynamic. All his wines have an energy that makes them stand out.
Felton Road is one of New Zealand’s most famous vineyards. Their 32 hectares are all managed biodynamically. Cover crops play a major role in protecting and feeding the soil. They enhance the availability of nutrients, reduce weed pressure and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Owner Nigel Greening noted: “Bio-dynamics gets some weird press …. [but] it’s simply a process of trying to understand how the land works, how fruit grows, and how that fruit turns itself into great wine.”
Tom Lubbe is the winemaker at Domaine Matassa in France. He says he is not a “biodynamic purist” but lately has placed more effort into perfecting fungus-rich aerated compost teas. “In the past five years I’ve been working with semi-permanent cover crops using mixtures of plants which I plough in every three years and re-sow. This has undoubtedly been the biggest step forward in our viticultural work.”
Domaine Arlaud in Burgundy has been organic since 2007 and received biodynamic certification in 2010. Caprine Artaud noted that an organic approach changes the vines, but biodynamics changes both vine and wine. “Biodynamics makes you more aware of the subtlety of flavours and fruit.”
Seña by Viña Errázuriz is probably the best-known biodynamic vineyard in Chile, with about 1,500 hectares of vines. In his 2015 report on Chilean wines for Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, Luis Gutiérrez gave the 2013 Seña 96 points out of 100, putting it at the top of his ranking. The American critic James Suckling awarded the wine 99 points, the highest score yet for a Chilean wine in global competition.
Waldin’s book has good company but needs a wider audience.