Biodynamics detail Part 3
Part 1 of this article gave some context regarding the condition of modern agriculture, while Part 2 provided an overview on Biodynamics. Now it’s time for the Biodynamics detail. How is Biodynamics practised and how is it certified?
The origin of Biodynamics is rooted in eight lectures delivered in 1924 by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, called The Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. He was the creator of the ‘spiritual science’ of Anthroposophy. It seeks to link science with spiritualism in education, health, the arts, and agriculture.
In these lectures, he set out the precepts of a healthier and sustainable agriculture based on revitalising the soil to produce better quality food. A convinced teetotaller, he had no interest or involvement in wine at all!
Steiner wasn’t an agriculturalist either, so modern BD practices have gradually evolved under his guiding principles, and there are official certification bodies such as the Biodynamic Association, Demeter, and Biodyvin.
Biodynamics uses a range of unique natural homoeopathic preparations in very dilute form to promote the microbial life of the soil and boost plant health to combat diseases. This is shown in the table* below;
|BD 500||Cow manure. Fermented in a Cow horn by burying in the soil for six months during autumn and winter||Spray on the soil 2-4 times per year to increase microbial activity and soil health.
Basis of the compost pile along with plant waste
|BD 501||Ground silica (quartz). Mixed with water in a Cow’s horn, then buried in soil for six months during spring and summer||Spray on the vines to harden the plant and reinforce root development and photosynthesis, 2-4 times per year|
|BD 502||Yarrow flowers. First buried in a Stag’s bladder||Place inside the compost pile as enrichment, helps take up of trace elements|
|BD 503||Camomile flowers, First buried in a Cow intestine||Place inside the compost pile as enrichment, fixes nitrogen in soil|
|BD 504||Stinging Nettle (whole plant)||Place inside the compost pile as enrichment, provides nutrition|
|BD 505||Oak bark. First buried in a Cow, Sheep, Pig or Horse skull||Place inside the compost pile as enrichment, raises pH of soil|
|BD 506||Dandelion flowers. First buried in Cow mesentery||Place inside the compost pile as enrichment, aids flowering, and fruiting|
|BD 507||Valerian flower juice||Spray liquid over the compost pile as enrichment, encourages earthworms|
|BD 508||Horsetail Tea||Spray soil and vines as a fungicide|
*based on articles by André Ostertag, Maria Thun, Jamie Goode and DemeterUSA
BD 500 and BD501 are the two essential sprays for the soil and vines. However, composting is also fundamental. The compost is a mixture of cow manure and vegetable waste that is augmented by preparations BD502-BD507. These are added in tiny homoeopathic quantities and are said to help break down the compost and make trace elements available to the plant.
All these preparations are best made in the vineyard, because according to theory, the farm will not be a monoculture but also have other forms of agriculture, including animal husbandry. Maria Thun also developed vegan-based alternatives for those opposed to the use of animal products. Those have been taken up by producers such as Querciabella in Italy. Because BD preparations are time-consuming to make, they can be purchased ready-made.
The preparations are diluted down to homoeopathic levels in rainwater. They are then activated, or “dynamised” by extensive stirring before use. Stirring takes between 20 minutes and an hour, first clockwise, then anti-clockwise, creating a vortex. The preparations are used within 3-4 hours while still fresh.
A “dynamiseur” is used to stir the preparations, essentially a small cask with rotating paddles. Substances become dissolved evenly, and microbial life in the water reproduces rapidly. Hence even very dilute quantities of BD500 contain enormous numbers of microbes.
Cover crops e.g. Chicory, Lupin, and Vetch grow between vine rows. These provide “green manure” to increase humus in the soil and help fix nitrogen. They also promote biodiversity hold water and prevent soil erosion. Weed control is by mulching, ploughing or grazing.
As with organics, Copper and Sulphur are still allowed to be used as a barrier to fungal diseases. Bordeaux mixture (Copper Sulphate and Lime) treats downy mildew, and powdered sulphur treats Oïdium (powdery mildew). These are poisonous substances. However, BD farmers claim that the quantities they use are far smaller than in either organic or conventional viticulture because plants are more resistant due to the BD preparations. Hence, toxicity is much reduced.
As with organics, pest control, rather than pest elimination, maintains biodiversity and food chains. Natural vineyard predators will keep pest populations at a low level. Some vineyards also employ chickens and ducks to do the job!
Another control method, advocated by Biodynamic extremists such as Nicholas Joly, is known as peppering. He claims that spraying a dynamised liquid containing the ash of the dead pest works. I remain unconvinced that revenge is sufficient!
It would appear to be likely that it is the microbial life of the soil that is the crucial factor in Biodynamics. A great deal of scientific research is being undertaken to explore how the interaction of soil, microbial life and plants works. These relationships are highly complex and remain poorly understood. Bacteria are known to perform a broad range of transformative biochemical functions, including photosynthesis, carbon and nitrogen fixing and making trace elements available for plant uptake. Described as one of the most complex biological materials on Earth, a handful of healthy soil can contain billions of micro-organisms. The beneficial role of Biodynamics appears to be the promotion of diversity and abundance of these micro-organisms for the benefit of plant life.
Furthermore, the application of the Biodynamic treatments can be timed to coincide with the rhythms of the Earth and various cosmic cycles. Hence, Maria Thun devised the “biodynamic sowing and planting calendar”, based on her experimental plant research over many years. In this timetable, four “forces” are ascribed to the individual parts of the plant as follows:
Earth (and Earth signs) with Roots
Water (and Water signs) with Leaves
Air (and Air signs) with Flowers
Fire (and Fire signs) with Fruits and Seeds
The calendar is complicated and divides each year into days (and times of day) that are either favourable or unfavourable for different aspects of work. Timings depend on the movement of the Earth, Moon, and planets against the backdrop of the Zodiac constellations.
Many BD winegrowers do not use the cosmic aspects. Some see those ideas as a step too far; others find that the suggested timings are impractical. Instead, many biodynamic growers have developed individual practices that suit their particular vineyard situation and needs. No wonder there is differing and sometimes conflicting advice given by BD consultants.
As a result, BD is a broader church than it may first appear. All will use the preparations, but the timing aspects remain optional.
BD needs far more time spent on vineyard management and labour. As a result, some BD vineyards are more costly to operate than their chemical counterparts. However, others work out cheaper. The economics largely depend on upon the size of the vineyard and its location. It is one reason why many BD vineyards tend to be relatively small in size, although there are large estates, for example, Querciabella in Italy, Chapoutier in France and King Estate in Oregon, USA.
One of the ongoing problems faced by all organic and BD vineyards is that they are rarely in isolation. In areas such as Burgundy, vineyards may have many owners, and this brings the possibility of contamination from neighbours using chemicals. Where possible, natural buffer zones may be needed.
Also, Organic and BD growers have occasionally been accused of encouraging the spread of vine viruses, pests, and diseases. For example, in a recent case in Burgundy, BD winegrower Emmanuel Giboulot faced up to six months prison and a hefty fine for not spraying pesticides against a disease called flavescence dorée after all wineries were instructed to do so. Thankfully, he won his court case on appeal.
Should BD be certified?
Personally, I’m for it. For biodynamic certification, producers must first meet organic production criteria as defined by various organic certifying bodies (e.g. Ecocert, IFOAM, and others). Specific rules therefore vary, but the certifier has to be an independent third party and recognised by the country in which it operates. It also requires a conversion process, where the vineyard must have adopted BD methods for three or more years before achieving certified status.
Secondly, producers must use the biodynamic preparations BD500-BD508. Any adherence to the cosmic calendars is however entirely optional and never part of certification.
Demeter is a primary certifying body. Its agricultural standards are not unique to viticulture or concerned with wine quality because they apply across all forms of agriculture. Since 1993 Biodyvin, (the SIVCBD, Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Biodynamique) has become established. Their standards are specific to viticulture. It has also developed a wine quality charter, and wine tasting tests are incorporated to ensure that wine quality is a requirement for certification. Producers can be members of both bodies.
As with organics, there are arguments about the merits of certification in the Biodynamic community. On the one hand, it is a guarantee of adherence to BD practices. Some growers are not certified and won’t mention BD on the label either. One or two others have abandoned certification, saying they derived no tangible benefit from it. Certification still has little consumer relevance, and this represents a significant challenge to recognition and perhaps wider acceptance.
There are several reasons for not being certified:
- Producers are trialling or still in a conversion process which takes several years;
- Producers don’t want increased bureaucracy or are unwilling to pay the certification fees;
- A minority are reluctant as this would limit their ultimate freedom to use chemicals in a crisis;
- Some highly rated winemakers are opposed because they do not want to be pigeon-holed by their production methods.
Like most organic certification, biodynamic certification in a strict sense certifies “wine made from biodynamic grapes” rather than “biodynamic wine.” It does not cover winemaking, although wine-making standards are being discussed and developed.
In my opinion, BD has the potential to make the best-tasting wine because it produces grapes of the best possible quality. Clumsy winemaking can still ruin all that effort. Some biodynamic (and organic) winegrowers, therefore, extend their personal ideas into the winery.
Such ideas range from using modern science all the way to esoteric techniques. That can include the design of the fermentation and storage vessels. I have seen egg-shaped and pyramided designs. Others use terracotta amphora or make no sulphur wines. One or two even insist on playing classical music to see if they have beneficial effects on the maturing wines as well as on the winemaker! Others have been experimenting with specific sound frequencies to see if that makes any difference. Make of those what you will.
More understandably, the use of wild yeasts, no fining or filtering, and low-sulphur regimes seek to make wine as natural as possible. There is also a role for modern technology, for example with renewable energy sources to ensure carbon neutrality. BD producers are also concerned with their waste products, particularly waste water. BD wineries such as Montirius naturally filter their waste water with ponds and reed beds, which also creates wildlife havens.
Saving the planet never tasted better!
Regardless, I hope that these three articles encourage you to try BD wines and reach your conclusions about their merits. Please join in with the debate and share your views.
Do you want to find Biodynamic wines? Ask me!
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