vine growing

monty waldin

 

 

 

The following definitions for our site have been kindly provided by Monty Waldin. He's written the definitive book on Biodynamic wines (Biodynamic Wine-Growing: Theory & Practice). Which comes both in print and through Kindle

 

For news of Monty's latest colour book, Monty Waldin's Best Biodynamic Wines, a selection of Monty's best biodynamic wines worldwide, please see this video. This book is available for purchase through Amazon.

What is Biodynamics

Biodynamics is the oldest so-called green agriculture movement. It was devised by Rudolf Steiner of Steiner-Waldorf school fame in 1924, twenty years before the organic agriculture movement began. Steiner first described biodynamics in a course called Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, or Agriculture for short. A hundred-strong group of farmers, vetinarians and others whose livelihoods depended on the land attended, because it was they who’d asked Steiner to help stop a decline in the health of their soils, crops and livestock.

Steiner said the real problem was recent industrial advances like man-made fertilizers and the replacement of farm animals by machines. It was as if farmers had lost contact with their farms, that rather than improving things technology was getting in the way, making farmer harder than it need be.

Steiner said that as farms, farm animals and the food farmers produced became weaker and more disease-prone, inevitably society as a whole was become weaker too, not just in body but in mind or spirit too. In short, what Steiner was saying we are what we eat, so if humans want to survive and prosper it makes sense to keep our farms and food healthy, not de-nature or poison them with quick-fix technologies we may live to regret.

Steiner said science and technology were good things, but that said a change in the mindset which held science and technology alone had all the answers was needed.

To get ourselves back in good physical and mental shape we needed to produce and eat food which was more vital, more forceful. That meant making our soils, crops and animals more vital and forceful too. In his Agriculture course Steiner devised a Biodynamic roadmap for this change and which has three main pillars:

  1. Steiner explained that unhealthy crops were a natural result of farming becoming more mechanised and monocultural as farms specialised in just a single crop. He said farms should be more polycultural, growing a mix of several types of field crops, fruits and livestock with enough wild habitat for a natural balance. With the right balance of crop plants and animals (livestock), all green waste and animal manure could be recycled as compost. Putting this home-made compost back on the soil made environmental and economic sense, and would keep the farm and its crops healthy, balanced and vital. The result, said Steiner, would be each farm becoming its own self-sufficient, self-sustaining living organism.
  2. Biodynamic farmers should think of their farms as part of a much larger eco-system, as part of the wider universe, said Steiner. Timing tasks like vine pruning, soil tilling, grape harvesting, and even bottling wine according to lunar and other celestial cycles would produce crops more in tune with both their surroundings and the celestial forces that shape them.
  3. Finally Steiner suggested biodynamic farmers keep their crops vital, healthy and well formed by imbuing them with what he called natural “life forces”. For this Steiner suggested farmers use nine preparations unique to biodynamics. These are based on cow manure, the mineral silica (quartz), and seven medicinal plants: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian and common horsetail (Equisetum arvense).

The methods used to make some of the preparations may seem strange initially but are neither hi-tech, expensive, costly environmentally nor potentially harmful. Anyone, even children can (and do) make these preparations. The biodynamic preparations are not patented so they can never realistically be made purely for profit; and they seem to get good results, both for farms and for farmers. This may be why Agri-Business which relies on selling products to farmers sees Biodynamics not just as Muck and Magic, but a real threat to their sales because it is so geared to making farmers self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-sustaining. Greater detail on how the biodynamic preparations are made and used appears below.

How is Biodynamics different from Organic or Sustainable

There are roughly four ways to farm wine of any kind of food crop. The most common (90% of all wine) is conventional wine-growing. This makes use of man-made or so-called “synthetic chemical” treatments: pesticides and fungicides to deal with the bugs that can destroy vines, herbicides to control weeds, water-soluble chemical fertilizers to boost grape yields, and so on.

 

Sustainable wine-growing or Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an increasingly popular form of light-touch conventional wine-growing. So for example rather than spraying the whole vineyard with a pesticide, checks are made and only those few vine rows likely to be attacked by the pest are sprayed instead. This saves money, and reduces enviromental waste but without necessarily eliminating the synthetic sprays altogether.

 

Organic wine-growing goes one step further than sustainable by eliminating the man-made pesticides, weedkillers and fertilizers altogether. To claim organic status, farmers submit to independent checks called organic certification. Organic vineyards tend to use more manual (rather than mechanised) labour and produce 5-20% less grapes than conventional ones. This increases the costs of a bottle but organic growers say it is worth it. With lower yields the vines are healthier, less prone to disease, the wines are less likely to contain undesirable residues and the wines have more flavour and age in bottle better. Around 1 in 20 vineyards worldwide is now officially organic, but numbers are rising rapidly especially in France (Alsace, Burgundy, Languedoc, Provence, Roussillon), Oregon, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and California. Pretty much everywhere on Planet Wine in fact.

 

Biodynamics is like organics - all biodynamic vineyards must comply with the international rules laid down for organics - but biodynamic growers must do three extra things compared to their organic counterparts. They must aim for self-sufficiency, try to work to celestial cycles, and use six biodynamic preparations in their compost piles and the three biodynamic sprays on their crops.

Wine, food, cloth and other farm-derived products wanting to be officially considered Biodynamic are certified by an international, non-profit body called Demeter. The name refers to the Greek goddess of the fruits of the earth.

In France there is wine-grower only biodynamic group called the Syndicat International des Vignerons en Biodinamie (www.biodyvin.com). Its logo is ‘Biodyvin’.

In Australia, vineyards and farms can be certified biodynamic by either Demeter Australia or by government-appointed agencies.

What are the nine Biodynamic preparations & what is the desired outcome from using them?

Steiner said using his nine biodynamic preparations would produce heathier, longer-lasting and more vital crops with an inner capacity to resist all that nature could throw at them. As a young man Steiner studied many things, including science and how plants grew. He said plants are shaped not just by minerals, tangible molecules like oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon and so on coming from the soil, the rain or the air, but by forces. Vines put down deep root systems as if the gravity forces were dragging them downwards, whilst they also grow upwards being pulled light and heat forces of the sun. Even though we can’t see these forces Steiner said, we ignore them at our peril. We have to help plants tap into to these forces because it is in their nature to do this.

For vineyards the aim is the vines produce grapes with two things

  1. a real and unique sense of place or terroir character which comes from the vine roots underground (gravity)
  2. clear, ripe fruit flavours from the grape (Cabernet tastes of blackcurrants, Chardonnay of melon and so on).which come from the intangible heat and light of the sun

In other words, wine with that ideal combination of both fruit and terroir flavours. Steiner said the best way to get those forces and thus flavours flowing in the vineyard and grapes was to use his nine biodynamic preparations.

The Six Compost Preparations

Steiner said to put six of his nine preparations in when making piles of compost, piles of compost being the way all green waste produced on the vineyard gets recycled back there.

Turning a waste stream into a cycle of fertility was one thing, said Steiner, but biodynamic compost must bring a more potent form of fertility back to the earth if soils, crops, our food and us were going not just to survive but thrive.

Steiner said to add the flowers or leaves/stems of six medicinal plants called yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian to the compost. He also said four of these six plants be “prepared” in a special way by first being sheathed in the sense organs of animals like deer and cows.

Why? Let’s take the chamomile preparation as an example.

Chamomile was once used to stop meat going rancid, and to Steiner this meant Chamomile had a real “life force”, a kiss of life force if you like. This could be useful to vines in need of a pick-me-up.

To make the biodynamic chamomile compost preparation though the chamomile flowers are stuffed in a cow intestine to make chamomile sausages. The sausages are hung in a tree to get some air and sun light and then are buried in the earth. If this sounds wacko they to remember the cow’s intestine is where huge amounts of dead matter (meadow grass) get transformed into highly fertile, life-giving manure.

Steiner said that putting something that slows down the forces of decomposition in meat (chamomile) into something (cow intestine) that engenders fertility out of dead stuff would produce something (the chamomile compost preparation) that would bring a life-giving, life enhancing force to the compost, the farm, the crops and us who eat those crops.

Steiner said that it was important when making the preparations to expose them to the four elements – burying them (earth), hanging them in trees (heat/light), soaking them in streams (water) and to do this over the four seasons.

As for the animal organs, Steiner said both wild animals and plants shared a highly attuned sense of perception to the seasons and celestial cycles, one that we humans lost with our 24 hour culture, but which we need to regain to get us out of mess we’re in.

Only the plant material, not the animal sheaths (which disintegrate during time in the air/earth/water, or are discarded) is then put into the compost pile, and only in homeopathic-like quantities, the equivalent of a small handful in each compost pile.

Steiner admitted it was a bit freaky using the animal organs (even though in the 1920s people were far less squeamish about that sort of thing than we are now) but he said if you take the animal element out of the farm soon you’ll have no farm left. Without animals there can be no cycle of fertility.

Ultimately, said Steiner, the biodynamic preparations would tune the farm, the crops and the farmer fully into the local surroundings: to the soil, to local weather conditions, and to celestial cycles.

Three Biodynamic Spray Preparations

The other three biodynamic preparations are used as sprays.

Steiner felt cow manure was immensely fertile: cows can eat from just one meadow but her digested grass or manure could keep two meadows fertile. He said her manure was so special because the digestive energy the cow released when eating her grass was not lost but stayed in her stomach because the horns on her head stopped this energy leaving her body. This is why biodynamics is the only farming system which prohibits the de-horning of cows. When you walk into a cow field the cows lower their head and point their horns at you. It’s their way of “sensing” you.

The cow horns’ sensitivity is why Steiner used them as sheaths for the first two of his spray preparations: horn manure and horn silica. In each case the horns are filled either with cow manure or ground-up silica, an abundant mineral (also called quartz) and buried for six months: over autumn (dark) for the horn manure and over summer (light) for the horn silica.

Once dug up the horns are removed and their contents diluted in water and sprayed: horn manure on the soil to enliven the earth and its terroir-giving character, and horn silica over the vines to enliven heat and light forces to give the wine more fruit character and a greater capacity to age. The idea with the two preparations is the vines must work hard: stretching their roots down into the earth (terroir), and stretching their shoots up to sun (taste).

The third spray preparation is made from the medicinal common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) plant. This is sprayed on either on the crops (as a fresh tea) or on the soil (as a macerated tea). Common horsetail lives in damp, dark places (shady riverbanks) but does not suffer rot or mildew, fungal diseases to which grapevines are very susceptible. Spraying common horsetail gives the vineyard the capacity to keep fungus diseases in their place: in the soil, but not to jump up on to the vines.

What is Natural Winemaking

Natural wine is an important, growing if still slightly niche trend. Natural winemakers often use organic/biodynamic methods in the vineyards but are opposed to any form of independent certification. With no one checking on what they do ‘natural’ winemakers run the risk of being seen as opportunistic, jumping on the green bandwagon without having to jump through any bureaucractic hoops.

Their main focus is on making wine in as “natural” a way as possible by reducing or eliminating any additives, the main one being sulfur dioxide (sulfites). This preservative allows wine to age in bottle longer, but may cause allergic reactions in a small minority of drinkers (there is no evidence to suggest sulfur dioxide adds to the “hangover” effect).

If you are worried about sulfites look for wines labelled “no added sulfites” or “no detectable sulfites.” See also the Orange Wines, below.

Biodynamic rules force winemakers to use minimal intervention in the winery not just in the wine but water for cleaning, energy use for pumps, new barrels, and packaging (bottles, capsules, boxes, even the type of ink on the label).

Vegetarian/Vegan Wines

Wines made using no animal-derived winemaking aids/additives like egg white, casein (from milk), gelatin (from mammals) and isinglass (from fish) can be labelled as suitable for vegetarians/vegans. Note that not all wines – whether conventional, organic, biodynamic, natural, or sustainable – are vegan/vegetarian suitable.

What are “Orange” wines?

Orange wines are white wines made using a technique first used thousands of years ago, when everything – grapes, juice, pips and stems – went into the fermentation vessel, usually a clay amphora buried in the ground. This kept the wine both cool, and safe from thirsty prying neighbours.

Normally, white wines are made just from the grape juice which comes when the grapes are pressed. The grape skins are thrown away leaving the grape juice to ferment on its own into wine (ferment = yeast eat grape sugar and turn it into wine alcohol whilst farting out carbon dioxide).

To make red wine both skins and juice must go into the tank because the wine only gets its red colour and tannins if the juice soaks on the dark-coloured grapeskins whislt fermenting. The tannins are what help red wines to improve with age and give them their particular mouthfeel.

With orange wines the white grapes are crushed but instead of being thrown away the skins are left with the fermenting juice, for several weeks, just like in red wine. As white wine grape skins are greenish-yellow the wine takes on an yellow-orange colour and picks up tannins from the skins. These tannins give orange wines their notably broad texture and help orange wines to age longer than normal by reducing (or eliminating) the need to add any preservatives like sulfites to the wine. This is why orange wines are often seen as the flagbearers of the natural wine movement outlined above. The orange wine movement started in Friuli in north Italy but is growing if still niche phenomenon worldwide.

Why should we drink organic/biodynamic/natural wine?

The main reason is taste.

Not everyone agrees organic/biodynamic/natural wines taste better (although we like to think so…!), but pretty much everyone agrees they taste different. Grapes from a conventionally run vineyard where weeds are burnt off with herbicides and mite pests are controlled with synthetic pesticides simply cannot taste them same as grapes from vineyards in which weeds were allowed to grow naturally and mites were discouraged with stinging nettle or chamomile teas. Plenty of organic growers even drink the teas they spray on the vines, because they are healthful, tasty and safe.

The era of cheap wine is coming to an end for two reasons. Fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and being heavy and fragile this makes it more expensive to get wine bottles into our shops. Second, until now, wine-growers didn’t have to pay for any mess they left behind in terms of potentially toxic spray residues (in wildlife or rivers). This is changing.

To survive we need carbohydrates, vitamins and protein – but not wine. Wine is a luxury. The best argument for eliminating toxic residues in wine is not to scare people but to reassure them that

a) organic/biodynamic/natural wines taste different and if you try’em you might like’em, and

b) thousands of wine-growers all over the world are growing grapes organically and biodynamically and getting rave reviews both from critics and normal wine drinkers.

If organics/biodynamics didn’t work, why are more wine-growers than ever before shutting the door to the place they store the synthetic sprays, and throwing away the key? Some are doing it because they worry about their own safety, or that of their workers, neighbours and local watercourses and communities, others simply because they want to “save the planet”.

But most are doing it because they say they “just get better grapes.”

That’s something we should all drink to.