Savvy winemaking or New Age hokum, Emilie Giraud grabs biodynamic wine by the cow horns.
“A New Age trend in Paris restaurant”, “Heavy metal “, “Biological dynamite“ ?
When I asked my friends what was biodynamics, these were just some of their creative answers. The father of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, brought the imagination to another level when describing his philosophy. He claims that eating potatoes is one of the factors that turned humans materialistic and doesn’t hesitate to compare the bladder of a deer to the cosmos.
You might be inclined to dismiss his theories as the thoughts of a far-fetched lunatic.
However some 500 professional wine producers worldwide have followed his teachings when making wine and have won accolades for doing so.
Steiner was an Austrian scientist and philosopher from the 1920’s known for having set the basis of Anthroposophy, a spiritual-scientific approach which aims to restore harmony the human and the universe.
In 1924, after meeting a group of farmers worried by the development of chemical agriculture, Steiner gave eight lectures calling for a more natural and holistic view of agriculture that would take into consideration the interrelations of the natural cycles of plants, animals, humans and planets.
To visualize how his approach is applied to viticulture, and to understand why anyone would take seriously a man that links materialism to a potato diet, I went to visit a pioneer Argentinian biodynamic estate named Alpamanta or “ Love of Earth “ in the local native language.
The Dung Thing
Located in Ugarteche, at 950 absl, the 35 hectares of Alpamanta Estate has a flourishing ecosystem.
Walking in the vineyard, you will see a lot of insects, but also free-roaming animals like sheep, horses and hens. They even have a mobile hen-house to transport the poultry to the different parts of the property. Apart from eating the greens that can damage the vines, the animals help disperse the seeds and generate manure for fertilizer. The estate also boasts an organic herb garden, a home made compost heap and vegetable garden.
One of the principles of biodynamic farming is to consider the vineyard as a self-sufficient organism where fauna and flora are co-existing in a complementary way. A biodynamic vineyard is more like a self-sufficient farm, a closed-loop system in which things that are growing from the soil will eventually go back to nurture it.
With a biodynamic approach, the soil is not an inert material. It is an organic part, the micro-organisms of which are the key to help the crop synthesize the elements it needs to grow. Supposedly, disease and pests only appear when the microbiology of the vineyard is unbalanced.
Human intervention should remain minimal. It focuses instead on vitalizing the soils and make the vine more resistant by generating greater concentration of good micro-organisms through the application of preventive homeopathic-like “ biodynamic preparations”.
In Alpamanta, those preparations are kept inside half cut barrels in the cellar, including dry plants and glass jars full of minerals, herbs, and some unidentified objects. Opening up each barrel I went from surprise to surprise and even suspected witchcraft.
The first barrel contains some jars mentioning “Preparation 500 “ filled up with a earthy and smelly material. Rocio, the manager, explains to me that it comes from the fermentation of cow dung put inside a cow horn in the soil during winter to concentrate its effect. Twice a year, on a day that is not rainy nor too hot nor to windy, after 4 pm, the resulting preparation will be “dynamized”in the vineyard. To dynamize you must dilute it with rainwater at the temperature of the human body in very small doses. Brewed for one hour it is then sprayed in the vineyard.
According to biodynamic belief, this key preparation favors the microbiological activity, the formation of humus, regulates the acidity of the ground and stimulates the seeding and even the vertical growth of the root system.
Another barrel, another potion. Powdered quartz is buried in a cow horn during the summer season. Dynamized on the plant, it strengthens the effect of the sunlight and supposedly allows for a better relation with the entire cosmos. It helps to balance the vegetative vigor of the plant, favors its internal structure and resistance, averting disease and increasing the intensity of the grape´s aromas.
Steiner created four other preparations to enrich the compost. They are made of petals, nettles and dandelion flowers and fermented into intestine of dead animals.
“These preparations act as the different organs facilitating digestion,” explains Sebastian, the biodynamic consultant of Alpamanta.
The dandelion, for example, whose roots can reach a depth of 2 or 3 meters, demonstrates its great capacity to find resources in the soil. Added to the compost, it will “teach” the vine how to grow its root in the best possible way to absorb nutrients.
The best times for pruning, composting, harvesting, making and adding the biodynamic preparation are determined by strictly following a moon calendar.
Reading the biodynamic calendar of René Piamonte is a little bit like reading the horoscope of the vineyard. It is based on the phases of the moon and their relation to constellations. The days can be, “ Root days, ideal to plough, Leaf day, ideal for irrigation, Flower days, ideal for pruning, and Fruit days, ideal for harvesting. “ The influence of the moon has always been important in farming and its effect on the tide is high school knowledge. As for water, a full moon will apparently help the flow of sap in the plant.
Biodynamic agriculture is a kind of extreme, new age version of organic agriculture.
In the same spirit, the vinification process should be as natural as possible and also connected to cosmic forces. That´s the reason why Alpamanta wines are fermented in egg-shaped concrete tanks. The shape creates a vortex, a kind of energy arch, that allows the lees to stay in suspension with no need to stir, reducing human intervention.
Stricter than the laws of organic agriculture, the wines can only be certified biodynamic if the fermentation was made entirely with the natural yeast of the grape.
A New Leaf
Your rational mind might still not be convinced by this blend of esoteric philosophy and homeopathic treatment, but you might be surprised by a few tangible facts.
Strangely enough when I visited in late Autumn, the manager of Alpamanta pointed out that their vineyard was the only one in the area that still had leaves and had not been so affected by powdery mildew this year. Another winemaker made the same point: “ We don’t exactly know why, but it appears that the biodynamic vineyards suffered way less diseases than others this year”.
Winemakers and wineries following Steiner’s legacy are also quite different from the image of the lunar wizard or outcast hippie we imagine of a person who talks about the cosmic energy of a cow horn fill up with poop. They bear such venerable names as Bianchi, Michelini, Catena and Colomé. Biodynamic wines score as high as 96 pts in Wine Spectator as is the case of Noemia from Patagonia. And one of the most expensive wine in the world, the Romanée Conti is said to be made following biodynamic principles !
Even a cynic must recognize that being involved in such a binding approach reflects a deep interest in the care of the vineyard and for human wellbeing. Putting this system into place requires small-size vineyards and lots of commitment, well- known recipes for great wines. The wines produced by this method are great ambassadors of their terroir, providing the consumer with a unique tasting experience while fighting against the globalization of winemaking and wine tasting.
To contact Alpamanta :
Calle Cobos s/n, Ugarteche, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza – Argentina:
Office : : +54 (0) 261 420 3643
Ventas & Turismo: +54 (9) 261 (15) 346 8398