Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Biodynamic Wines: Űber Organic or Vineyard Voodoo?

Whenever the topic of biodynamic winemaking comes up, I can’t help but remember a line from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.” Many consider biodynamics to be a joke, with its cultish origins and literal reliance on manure (packed into a cow’s horn, which must be precisely oriented to “preserve the etheric and astral force that the horn was accustomed to when it was on the cow,” buried over the winter, then sprayed on the vineyards in the spring). Nevertheless, biodynamics has been adopted by wineries worldwide including a few top labels, and some superb wines come from biodynamic vineyards. Is there a kernel of truth germinating beneath the pile of plop?

Biodynamic winemaking's controversial past


If biodynamics were as simple as using natural fertilizers and fostering a healthy ecosystem in the vineyards, and ditched the metaphysics and mysticism, there would be no debate. Its origins predate the organic food trend, dating to the early 20th century. It was founded by Austrian Rudolph Steiner, who created a movement he called anthroposophy, an attempt to synthesize science and spirituality. Critics point to some pretty far fetched notions from Steiner, including the concept of a “seed life force” that ancient Atlanteans used to power levitating cars. He wrote that “the heart does not pump blood” and that there are 12 senses corresponding to the signs of the zodiac. In practice, biodynamics appears to be not unlike a sort of agricultural homeopathy, employing a variety of preparations based on things such as oak bark placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal and buried, or dandelions stuffed into the mesentery of a cow and interred during winter then retrieved in the spring. Notably, Steiner had no experience in farming.
I first learned about biodynamic wines several years ago from Christophe Baron of Cayuse winery near Walla Walla. He was giving a rare tour of his vineyards, going on about the soil being a living thing, and the stones like “little ovens.” (The Cayuse are a Native American tribe whose name was derived from the French word “cailloux”—which means “stones.” Baron picked the site because the pomegranate-sized rocks were reminiscent of the southern Rhone in his native France.) Whether it is the biodynamic philosophy, the terroir, or something else, Cayuse wines have received critical acclaim and are highly sought after. Like Baron, they are unapologetically exuberant; I recall him describing one of his syrahs as being “like sex on a stick,” whatever that means.

Is there any science to biodynamics?


There is one study that applied some actual science to biodynamic winemaking. (1) Using a replicated, long-term, crossover design, a merlot vineyard in northern California was divided randomly into parcels for either biodynamic management or standard organic practices. Over 6 years, there were no differences in soil quality, nutrient analyses of leaf tissue, clusters per vine, yield per vine, or weight of the grapes. Biodynamically treated winegrapes did however have significantly higher Brix (p < 0.05) and marginally higher total phenols and anthocyanins (p < 0.1).
Whether or not the idea of biodynamics and the “seed life force” are little more than mental manure, biodynamic wines have acquired a following. Burgundy’s renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, and California A-listers from Araujo to Quintessa tout their biodynamic credentials. Of course these are not inexpensive wines, and part of their appeal may be the emphasis on sustainability and connection to the earth, however fanciful. Great wines embody a numinous quality that transcends scientific scrutiny, so maybe it is sometimes best not to question but just enjoy. May the seed life force be with you.
“Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary...” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
1. Reeve JR,Carpenter-Boggs L, Reganold JP, York AL, McGourty G, McCloskey LP. Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards. Am. J. Enol. Vitic 2005 December 56 (4); 367-376.