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What is biodynamic Wine?

What is biodynamic Wine?
Since my first mouthful of wine some thirty years ago, I have been hooked.  I am a wine enthusiast and have studied and taught the subject for more time than I care to remember. Until relatively recently, I considered the concepts of Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Wine as mere marketing devices, used to increase sales and add an air of mystique to the product. However, as time has passed my views have altered quite radically.

What are Biodynamics? 

Biodynamics originated in the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The core values of biodynamic farming are the abandonment of chemical treatments; the encouragement of biodiversity between animals, soil and plants and the farmer working holistically.  The practice encourages the use of cover crops between vines, the use of green manures, crop rotation and avoids the unnecessary use of machinery.  Nothing too controversial so far. However, Steiner loses the link with science and develops a spiritual angle with the preparations used to promote fertilization and the timings used. These rather obscure preparations include the following:

Preparation 500, a mix of cow manure and soil mixed in a cow’s horn and buried strategically and retrieved in the spring. Preparation 502 where Yarrow blossoms are stuffed into the urinary bladder of red deer (presumably dead) and dried in the summer sun before being buried in the vineyard. There are numerous such potions each odder than the other.  Steiner believed, as do many of his followers that cosmic forces were channelled through the soil using these bizarre preparations.  Steiner also set out the most suitable times of the lunar calendar for planting, pruning, adding fertilizer and importantly harvesting the biodynamically grown crop.

To say I was cynical is an understatement. I joked to customers and classes alike that I saw no connection with quality wine and the dubious behaviour of these ‘pot smoking winemakers’. However, I failed to note a trend in my own collection of wines; an ever-growing number of biodynamic wines were filling my shelves

Some years ago, I visited the vineyards of Pepi Umathum on the shore of Lake Neusiedl in the Burgenland wine region of Austria.  Pepi was a committed biodynamic wine maker and I was struck by his enthusiasm and love, firstly for winemaking and secondly for the biodynamic philosophy.  Pepi had abandoned traditional winemaking methods and travelled to the Alsace where he studied Biodynamics under Oliver Humbrecht; winemaker at Zind Humbrecht one of the most respected winemakers in that region, biodynamic or otherwise.

The next day I met and tasted the wines of several winemakers, one of whom stood out for me.  The young Claus Preisinger poured both white and red wines which possessed a mineral intensity that I both love and actively seek out in my wines. I was very impressed and asked if he had an agent in Ireland.  He hadn’t. We shook hands and I began to import his wines two months later. Claus is quietly biodynamic, while not shy I had to ask about his winemaking methods before he revealed his profound commitment to biodynamics.

Still not convinced and in truth not seeking to be convinced, I attended a trade tasting of Spanish wines in Dublin approximately 18 months later.  Here I tasted the wines of Rafael Palacios, Daniel Jimenez-Landi and Fernando Garcia and I loved them all so much I decided I must visit their vineyards to see how they were making such extraordinarily pure wines. I ended up dragging my wife and two teenage daughters to the remote mountainous region of Valdeorras in Northern Spain to see Rafael Palacios’ isolated vineyards. We toured these elevated sites and he gushed with enthusiasm about the purity and minerality he achieves in the grapes grown on the exposed hillsides. He follows biodynamic practices in so far as he can without adopting all of the “preparations. His top wine - As Sortes is one of my favourite wines.

Later that year I visited Daniel Jimenez-Landi and Fernando Garcia in the Mentrida mountains. Both boyish and brimming with enthusiasm, they explained their desire to produce wines that will be compared with the wines of Emmanuel Reynaud of Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf de Pape. This wine is one of my favourite wines which I have only tasted on four occasions. Coincidence or not, Rayas is also biodynamically made.

Both Daniel and Fernando explain the vital importance of following biodynamic practices, hand harvested, no chemicals care with religiously following the moon’s movements. We tasted the current vintages in vineyards accessible only by foot, where herbs and grasses grow between vines and where goats graze. Biodiversity is critical to their philosophy. The wines are outstanding.

At home again and I look through my shelves, littered with biodynamic wines, selected not for how they were made but for their quality. Selected because of their unique character, each tasting different despite sharing common grape varietals or origins. This process must at least be part responsible for preserving the individualism of these wines.

So, what do I think? I no longer joke or make jibes about tree huggers. These are serious people who make wonderful wines. I firmly believe that biodiversity is vital in promoting a healthy environment for the vines. I believe that nature can be helped to promote healthy growth and can protect itself without systematic chemical use. I even believe that there might be merit in the use of the lunar calendar, the power that drags and pushes tides. But that is where my beliefs lie. Steiner’s potions are one step too far for a conservative realist, however the romantic in me truly hopes that this mystical approach adds that little magic to the glass.

Biodynamic Wine . . . Nature or Mysticism? You decide . . .

Gerard Maguire