According to the UK’s Meteorological Office, the 1st of March marks the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, even though it can still feel like winter! Also, there is a full moon on the 7th of March over London in the UK and on the 20th of March in the northern hemisphere we have the equinox when the length of daylight matches that of night. It would not be such a stretch of the imagination to believe that these naturally occurring planetary cycles would have an effect on the growth of grape vines, and by extension, the quality of grapes produced by them. After all, natural sunlight promotes photosynthesis and plant growth is influenced when the temperature is at an optimum.
But would it be a stretch of the imagination if one were to claim that the growth of plants, such as grape vines, is influenced by the alignment of stars in the night sky! Not so for so-called ‘biodynamic’ viticulturalists though. It might seem a crazy notion, but in biodynamic viticulture there is a belief that vine roots grow best when, for example, cow dung, matured in bull horn, is sprayed on the soil when the moon is in front of the astrological earth signs Taurus, Virgo or Capricorn! Crazy or not, an increasing number of serious wine producers are adopting this biodynamic method of viticulture.
The father of organic agriculture and organic farming in general is the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who a year before his death in 1924 presented a series of lectures called Agriculture in which he proposed the elimination of agrochemicals and fertilisers in agriculture in favour of naturally composted preparations. Since then, the organic method of agricultural practise has been overwhelmingly adopted worldwide and is well accepted today and flourishes. However, Steiner went further in his philosophical outlook by describing the Earth as a living organism with seasonal rhythms receptive to cosmic cycles, which is essence of biodynamics. He proposed the application of special biodynamic preparations on soils which should coincide with these cosmic cycles and claimed they make beneficial conditions for the growth of agricultural products, such as grapes. These preparations are diluted and then activated or energized by a special stirring process known as ‘dynamization’. As mentioned above, one biodynamic practise involves the fermentation of cow manure in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil. Another practice describes how to ferment the flower heads of camomile in the soil. At this point the sceptics might wade in with howls of derision, but is there any serious justification for these ideas?
Michel Chapoutier, seventh generation head of Maison Chapoutier in the Northern Rhone thinks so (www.chapoutier.com). Chapoutier’s passion is the idea of terroir, the sense of place for growing grapes for making wine, and this concept of terroir fits perfectly with the concept of biodynamics. He claims that biodynamic soils contain many more bacteria than soils treated with artificial chemicals. These organisms, he claims, are essential for the health of the vines and development of the grapes to give a truly individual taste of the resultant wine. In addition, at Chapoutier they only rely on natural yeasts present in the winery to ferment the grape juice into wine, which may also contribute to this individuality too. In this case Chapoutier’s vineyards are treated holistically, as if they were living organisms which needs the tender loving care of the viticulturalist. This same care we would take in our own gardens when tending to our own beloved plants to produce the best flowers or vegetables. It is possible that this focussed attention that is given to the cultivation of biodynamically grown grapes anticipates any complications that might arise in vine growth, for instance, with respect to diseases; any potential problems are dealt with promptly which ultimately improves the quality of the resultant grapes for wine making.
In the Margaret River wine producing region of Western Australia, Cullen’s Estate have been producing wines since 1971 (www.cullenwines.co.au). Originally, they were employing organic methods of viticulture, then moved over to a new biodynamic viticultural regime in 2003, when, after attending a conference on biodynamic agriculture, the proprietor, Vanya Cullen decided that biodynamics would add further to the holistic and natural approach to both their viticultural and winemaking practises. Cullens claim that their success in producing excellent grapes for winemaking is the result of increase in humus in the soil which leads to greater microbial activity and improved aeration and retention of moisture around the roots of the vines. Biodynamic preparations only use naturally occurring organic matter and therefore avoid the potential of the toxic harm of artificial chemicals and sprays often used in other non-biodynamic vineyards. In the winery at Cullen Wines there is an emphasis of allowing nature to do the work, so indigenous wild yeast brings about fermentation and there are no artificial additions of any kind; minimal use of oak and fining is also employed. As they put it: ‘We would like to think that in both the vineyard and winery we are working with nature rather than trying to control it. This gives us the land’s best and purest potential of expression being put into the bottle’.
Is there any scientific justification for the benefit of growing grapes biodynamically? Well, there have only been a few rigorous investigations conducted over the years, so the jury is still out, but one study did conclude that biodynamically grown Merlot grapes gave an ideal vine balance for the production high quality grapes, although the exact mechanism for this was not precisely determined. Tasting panels similarly do not decisively conclude whether wines made from biodynamically grown grapes are significantly better than their non-biodynamic counterparts. The renowned wine scientist, Ronald Jackson, in the latest 2020 edition of ‘Wine Science’ is also sceptical about the benefits of biodynamics with respect to wine grapes, stating that it is highly unlikely that such agricultural practises have any effect on the quality of the grapes produced. As a pure scientist, requiring evidence to justify claims, his opinion is understandable, however, biodynamics is based more on belief, and results based on belief are harder to disprove.