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Biodynamics overview

Biodynamics overview Part 2

Part 1 of this article was about context, Koyaanisqatsi, a life out of balance caused by using man-made chemicals. Some of the reaction to this has been the development of “sustainable” agriculture and organic farming. This Part 2 is a Biodynamics overview; of how it builds upon organics and why, controversially, its adoption has grown.

BD is rooted in the theories of Rudolph Steiner, called anthroposophy, which attempts to combine science with spiritualism. Steiner also tried to make his ideas practical, for example through education, the arts, medicine and agriculture. BD winegrowing began in European vineyards in the 1980’s and has become increasingly influential around the world. Adopted by some of the world’s most ambitious wine producers, the total number of farmers and vineyard acreage remains small. However, its influence continues to grow, and most wine regions now have Biodynamic farmers.

There are three reasons to adopt Biodynamics.

Firstly, there is the environment. Vineyards and wineries occupy some of the world’s most beautiful places. It can be hard to imagine them damaging the environment. Many do. BD represents the ultimate form of sustainable agriculture, one that works in harmony with nature. While promoting life’s diversity and species for future generations, Biodynamics revitalises land previously damaged by humans, actively supporting life in the soil, the health of the vines and species diversity.

Secondly, our health. We perceive wine as a single wholesome beverage and, regretfully, pay little attention to its chemistry beyond the statutory warning about sulphites on wine labels. But using man-made chemical pesticides and fertilisers on a massive and profligate scale endanger the producer, local populations, the environment, and the drinker. BD makes a wholesome product with a natural chemical composition that is without these risks.

Thirdly, Biodynamics offers the best potential to make great wine, including some of the world’s best. Leading winegrowers have adopted it as the route by which they can obtain the best possible quality grapes to make authentic wines that reveal a sense of place. Great wine is made in the vineyard because wine is only ever as good as the grapes that make it. Though you still need skilful winemaking to realise this potential, many BD winegrowers say that their grapes are so pure that their winemaking is made much easier.

BD is extreme-organics or super-organics. Critics dismiss it as mumbo-jumbo or voodoo. The starting point of a Biodynamics overview is that BD builds on passive organic methods. Just like organics, biodynamics emphasises the health and balance of the soil and forbids man-made agrochemicals and fertilisers.

But then BD goes much further. Central to biodynamics is to consider a farm as a single self-sustaining living system that addresses the “micro-environment” (flora, fauna, and Man) and the “macro-environment” (the rhythms of the Earth, Moon and Cosmos).

On the micro level, active interventions are made by the farmer to prevent vineyard problems rather than seek to cure them, by working with nature and promoting vine health and natural resistance to disease. These interventions use naturally occurring preventative preparations. Those are made from natural plant material and applied in highly diluted, nay homoeopathic, quantities.

There are two main preparations; one is cow manure and the other is silica. These are buried separately in cow horns in the vineyard. They are then dug up, heavily diluted with fresh water and then “dynamised” (stirred in particular ways for up to an hour) before being sprayed in the vineyard.

Natural compost is added to the soil to build soil structure and encourage microbial life. Other BD preparations, made from plants such as yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak, dandelion, and valerian are added to the compost or sprayed on the vines.

The objective of these treatments is to strengthen the vines natural defences so that they are more able to withstand pests and diseases and make more soil nutrients available. Healthy plants, it is reasoned, ultimately produce the best quality grapes.

On vineyard visits, I was initially impressed by those vineyards that looked neatly manicured. I didn’t realise that this was often achieved with chemicals. These days, I prefer those that look far wilder, even messy, where the vines coexist with a diversity of plant and animal life.

The macro-level is concerned with the timing of these interventions, made according to cosmic events and the lunar calendar.

Most controversially, Biodynamics claims that the universe contains “life forces” which influence all living things. The vine has four distinct parts; roots, leaves, flowers and grapes. Each part is said to have particularly auspicious days (and times of day) when specific treatments are at their most effective. The timing is according to the position of the Earth relative to the positions of the Moon, planets, and constellations. Oh dear! It’s astrology. Or it’s magic. Or just irrational. Why not dance naked in the vineyard instead?

Are there life forces we do not yet understand or cannot detect and measure? Our culture is one based on rational science and technology, so this idea is laughable to many.

But consider other examples from hard science. Newton discovered gravity, but he did not envisage relativity and quantum physics; it took Einstein, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg to do that. In cosmology, we accept by inference that the mysterious dark matter and dark energy exist, but we have yet to discover their properties. Only in the past year have we obtained proof of the gravitational waves predicted by relativity. And there is still no unifying “theory of everything” in physics. There may be many dimensions in spacetime and even parallel universes. These ideas are not ridiculed even though may be controversial and incapable of proof. Meanwhile, many believe in a God or a deity, who’s existence is a matter of faith. Biodynamics, at least in part, is a belief system too.

Perhaps we do not yet understand all that is going on. Certainly, the Moon influences life on Earth, witness the ocean tides.  However, intangible cosmic “life forces” have not submitted quickly to rigorous scientific examination. Not all biodynamic practitioners accept or adopt these astronomical aspects, relying instead on the preparations.

Regardless, the acceptance of Biodynamics has followed Schopenhauer’s maxim:

“All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

Does it work?

It might just be that BD winegrowers are just obsessed with quality. They spend so much time in the vineyard that their minute attention to detail is the reason why they produce something special. As prevention is better than cure, increased vineyard surveillance and vine management must help. This is an argument that does not need to attribute anything to homoeopathic sprays and cosmic influences. It is treating the vineyard like a garden, which perhaps is reason enough. There is clear evidence though that BD methods do increase soil microbial life enormously and it is highly likely that this makes a huge difference. Scientific research into the effects of various biodynamic preparations is continuing.

Is it special?

All the evidence I need is in my wineglass. Time after time, BD-made wine is in the very top-drawer, confirmed by numerous blind tastings. The good news is that as BD practices have spread you can buy BD wines in supermarkets and wine shops, at real-world prices.

Now we have a Biodynamics overview; Part 3 explores how Biodynamic practices are employed.

Comments 4

  1. Andrew Halliwell

    Another balanced and well-written article. With regards not yet knowing what’s out there and the comparison to physics, I would be pretty astonished if Steiner had discovered “life forces” just be thinking about things, whereas the combined minds of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg, Higgs, Hawking et al had somehow missed them.

    As for wines tasting better on certain days, this would be reasonably straightforward to prove via a large experiment and proper statistics. Don’t suppose anyone can really be bothered though and believers will believe anyhow.

    I’ve tried a number of excellent biodynamic wines and witnessed some incredible biodynamically-managed vineyards side by side with conventional. The differences can be plain to see. But I just can’t buy in to some of the astrological beliefs.

  2. Andrew Halliwell

    Another balanced and well-written article. With regards not yet knowing what’s out there and the comparison to physics, I would be pretty astonished if Steiner had discovered “life forces” just be thinking about things, whereas the combined minds of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg, Higgs, Hawking et al had somehow missed them.

    As for wines tasting better on certain days, this would be reasonably straightforward to prove via a large experiment and proper statistics. Don’t suppose anyone can really be bothered though and believers will believe anyhow.

  3. Steve Slatcher

    The thing about wine tasting better or worse according to Maria Thun’s calendar is one of the more silly claims made on BD’s behalf, and has nothing to do with any of Steiner’s writings. Even the supermarkets that lent credibility to it by organising their tastings accordingly no longer seem to do so. I did actually do some “proper statistics” on my tasting note database, and found barely significant effect (and in the wrong direction).

    I don’t believe in “proper” agricultural BD either, but that is another kettle of fish I won’t get into now.

    1. Post
      Author
      Paul Howard

      Thanks, Andrew and Steve for your comments and being engaged in the controversy. As far as wine tasting better according to the biodynamic calendar (usually claimed to be a fruit day), I do feel that there is absolutely no evidence for any such assertion. I first heard this some years ago, something to do with the preservation of life forces. I have spoken with many biodynamic winegrowers worldwide, and most told me that this is utter tosh and degrades the understanding of what Biodynamics sets out to achieve. Hence, I made no reference to it in the article directly. Yes, I recall some supermarkets failed to cover themselves in glory by jumping on this and saying it applied to any wine, including those made with chemicals. Hence, they stated that they tried to hold tastings on auspicious days, although I recall one being on a root day. All this produced much mirth and quietly dropped. They caused more harm than good when trying to discuss biodynamics intelligently. Having tasted extensively, I find no evidence for any wines tasting better on fruit days, or worse on any other. The other way of looking at it would be if the taster, as a living being, were affected in any way. I cannot detect it. Yes, I certainly am a better taster on some occasions, and worse on others. But this is more likely to be driven by my mood, motivation and a general state of health. What I do believe is that BD wines taste better than their chemical counterparts.

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