Sunday, 30 May 2010

Biodynamics - a few rambling thoughts

Following on from a big newsletter sent out to my customers and subscribers on Friday, which included news about my new wines from Mas Foulaquier and Domaine de La Marfée, one of my customers emailed me to ask if I could reference any serious evidence for the beneficial practices of biodynamism, especially at harvest time. It took me a while to compose a reply, not least because it was such a tough question to answer, but it did make me think rather deeply about whether there is any real evidence to support what this customer quite rightly referred to as a philosophy. My reply ended up being rather rambling, but I thought it might be interesting to post my thoughts about it here on my blog, if only to see if anyone out there has anything to add.

I'm not a religious man, so I guess I have to "believe" in something(!) Nobody has ever produced a single shred of evidence to prove that "God" exists, but billions of people still choose to believe. Given that I am in the minority, does that make me wrong? Conjecture aside, I do believe that at least some biodynamic principles are plausible, though (since I'm not a scientist or an expert on the philosophy) I couldn't really say which bits. All I can do is offer random thoughts;

The world is a living, breathing thing, and every single living thing on it owes its existence to a big ball of gas 93 million miles away. The tides are governed by a big piece of rock a quarter of a million miles away. The rest of the solar system and the stars beyond may or may not have an influence on our lives (that said, I'm not big on astrology, either). So I guess the universe does, to a greater or lesser extent, have an influence on what happens. What I do know is that we all feel different from one day to the next, for some inexplicable reason. And on some days, it seems like everbody we encounter is having a bad day (or a good one). For instance, on one day, a car journey might be completely uneventful, whilst the next day it seems like everybody who gets behind the wheel is a demon and you just thank your lucky stars(!) that you reach your destination unscathed. So if our own daily lives and our moods are affected by some or other mysterious force, then why not the plants too?

In terms of wine, have you ever noticed how two bottles of the exact same wine, consumed at different times, seem to smell and taste different. One may give us great joy, whilst the other may be merely good. Always assuming that neither of the bottles are corked, oxidised or in any way faulty, how do we explain that? I hear that Tesco always schedule their trade tastings on "fruit" days. If the greatest force in retailing (we won't go into whether that force is good or bad here) plan their tastings based on the biodynamic calendar, then who am I to argue? ;-)

As for the vineyard preparations, I'm not sure I can believe that the burying of cow horns filled with cosmic potions has any great effect, but the biodynamic potions sprayed on the vines is another matter. Until recently, the so-called health experts poured scorn on homeopathy, and yet homeopathic medicine is now freely and openly used in the NHS. So if it works on us, why not on plants and vines?

As for what happens at harvest time, I think every winemaker worth his (or her) salt will harvest at the "optimum" time (i.e. sugar, ph, or whatever other method they go for). Whether or not that happens to be on the appropriate day of the bio calendar, I don't know. I do know that many winemakers choose to rack and/or bottle their wines at certain times of the lunar calendar, so there's nature dictating again.

But as I've said on numerous occasions here on my blog, whatever one thinks about biodynamicism (extreme organics or just plain whacky) it is a philosophy which does tend to go hand-in-hand with a healthy respect for the land and a fastidious approach to winemaking. Even if it is merely extreme organics, then it must be even better (and better for the land, the flora, the fauna and us) than mere organics.

I did say my reply was a bit rambling, and I guess it proves nothing. In fact, there is little evidence (beyond the mere anecdotal) to prove that biodynamism has any scientific basis. But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Granted, not all biodynamic growers make great wine (especially some who also indulge in extreme "natural" winemaking) but a far bigger percentage of them do make great wine than those at the other end of the spectrum who take the "easier" route.

As always, I'd be interested to read what others think.


Bob Rossi said...

Great post, Leon! So you're a philosopher in addition to a wine merchant and a civil servant. I have read a fair bit about biodynamics, and hardly understand it nor have any idea about its validity. But, like you, I feel that a winemaker who is conscientious enough to pay attention to biodynamic (or organic) principles is more likely to do a good job all around. As to your comment about extreme natural winemaking, I bet you'll gets some flack about it (but not from this quarter).

charlie said...

Don't know anything about this either - although I shall be in Nyons next week and will be sure to visit Domaine Viret (bio-dynamic, lunar etc) whose wines I like very much. However a quick Google reveals that a Select Committee has criticised the NHS for offering homeopathy, saying there was no evidence it worked and that Waitrose cannot see any evidence for 'fruit' days.

Graham said...

I'll respond with a few rambling thoughts. Re. biodynamic I can go with some of it such as the moon's influence on vine sap - after all it shifts the oceans. Nettle preparations must be as good a fertiliser gets. There are plenty of things in the history of wine that have no scientific reasoning such as which grapes work best in which soil - people have just tried it and stuck with what works.

I've tasted some big name wines at various price levels and concluded that there's often simply too much manipulation somewhere that's masking or holding back what the ingredients can potentially offer.

I think biodynamic is simply the state of the art elevage for vines. If the proof is in the tasting then wines from Mas Gabriel, Mas Foulaquier, Mas Conscience and Reserve d'O for example all share a cleanness and purity of fruit - a bit like a restored painting. They also leave a clearer head the next morning (but so do bio wines).

Are there any estates with half biodynamic and half bio of the same varieties on the same terroir?

David Bennett- Optometrist and Contact Lens Practitioner said...

An interesing summing up Leon and well written as usual!

Homeopathy is available on he NHs bugs the hell out
of me - see Ben Goldacre in the Grauniad and his book "bad sceince" for further compelling evidence that Homeopathy is all "woo" and snake oil.

Biodynamics...difficult to believe that it really works. Steiner was a bit of a nutter, but then if the practice makes you look after your grapes in a better and more attentive way, making good wine (not necessarily "better" wine) that tastes fabulous, then frankly I'm all for it. But lets not let them dress it all up in pseudosceince.

Peter B said...

"What I do know is that we all feel different from one day to the next, for some inexplicable reason."

Leon, it's explained by whatever you drank the night before!

Anonymous said...

My grandfather and father have been using Biodynamics principles most of their lives but have never heard of biodynamics or Steiner.
I think it’s all about being in tune with nature.
A lot of growers have been working this way,but now there is a need to be labelled to be able to sell the importance of being certified is great.
Francis Boulard a few years ago was running an experiment on biodynamics on one of his plot ,I tasted both Biod and non biod from the barrel at the same stage. the biod sample was purer, and was way better than the regular barrel.
As for proof it’s a difficult one, but I haven’t yet heard of a biod grower that has gone back to conventional methods.

Leon Stolarski said...

Bob - I'm not sure about 'philosopher', but I am certainly a 'thinker'..... on the rare occasions I have the time!

Charlie - enjoy your visit to Viret. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on your return.

Graham - you've hit the nail on the head. The proof of the pudding, and all that.... By the way, when you say "half biodynamic and half bio" do you mean organic (with reference to the word 'bio')?

David - so you've nailed your colours to the mast as a nay-sayer! You need to broaden your mind..... listen to the colours, man! ;-)

Peter - how very dare you?! I'm a very restrained drinker, as you probably well know!

Bernard - "I haven’t yet heard of a biod grower that has gone back to conventional methods." Enough said. And as you suggest, the actual principles of biodynamism are far from new.

AlanM said...

The theory is complete boloney in my opinion BUT it makes a difference. I think you touch on the reasons why Leon, in that the practitioners tend to be the more thoughtful producers who care that little extra for their land and vines. That's not exclusively so of course. It also helps if you're DRC or Leroy and have the finance to put into the vineyard and cellar. So though I'm completely sceptical about the theory it can produce that extra quality

Anonymous said...

I did fork out about $15 to buy Maria & Matthias Thun's 'The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar' to follow a thought Jamie Goode had on how moon phases could possibly affect the taste of wine, bottle by bottle from the same case...I just never got around to do it!
As for Biodynamic farming, I tend to be more with AlanM...what gets me about the new Biodynamic thing is that it is more eco-unfriendly; they don't use pesticides directly under the vines in the dormant season - this causes many, many more tractor passes with french hoes, spading, and mowing...can we say soil compaction and diesel burning? Also the mobile chicken coop thing!!! I don't want chickens eating the beneficial insects on my vineyard floor...I want the benficials to eat my icky bugs.'s all marketing!!!

Leon Stolarski said...

So the consensus - at least from this small but perfectly-formed sample of replies - seems to be that biodynamics is witchcraft! I'm still not so sure (I believe in some aspects of it, but am sceptical about others) but the other conclusion we seem to be drawing is that biodynamic winegrowers tend to make better wines because of their practices/beliefs - which can't be a bad thing, can it?