To the uninitiated, biodynamic winemaking can seem mysterious. Harvesting grapes in accordance with the lunar cycle, burying cow horns underground, using horses to plough the soil—we can see how it might appear a little woo-woo.
Talk to the world’s best winemakers, however, and you’ll quickly realize why biodynamic farming—the oldest “green” farming movement—is the optimal way to cultivate grapes. Not only are biodynamic practices better for the environment, but they also produce naturally delicious wines that better express the terroir.
“The balance in the vineyard results in wine that reflect the vintage and terroir,” says winemaker Cécile Buecher, who, together with her sister, Amélie, own Le Vignoble des 2 lunes in Alsace, France. “The quality of the grapes is better, and the yields are more regular because we aren’t pushing the vine past its limit.”
Despite its many advantages, biodynamic winemaking is not without its challenges, which partly explains why many winemakers are reluctant to make the switch.
“It’s an investment,” says Amélie. In lieu of chemicals and heavy machinery, the sisters hire additional farm hands during harvest and other busy times of the year. “The recruitment of seasonal workers becomes more important because the time in the vineyard is increased,” she says. To go biodynamic, Amélie and Cécile also had to invest in equipment like a plough for weeding and quad bikes that can move lightly across the soil, limiting soil compaction.
Many winemakers undertake these costly and time-consuming measures in pursuit of the precious Demeter certification, the holy grail of ecolabels. Founded in 1928 using Rudolf Steiner and Maria Thun’s framework for biodynamics, Demeter certification is rigorous and requires annual renewal. Winemakers must adhere to a set of requirements that vary based on location. In the United Kingdom, for instance, winemakers may use commercial yeasts, whereas Demeter USA bans the use of these fermentation products.
What else is required in the long, expensive process of going biodynamic? Read on to find out.
In place of synthetic, chemical-driven fertilizers, biodynamic winemakers use a variety of all-natural preparations made from fermented herbs, minerals, and cow manures. These aids enliven the soil and promote the growth of plants and healthy bacteria.
Three of the preparations are stuffed in a cow horn, buried in the soil for a certain length of time, then mixed with water and sprayed onto the leaves of the grape vines, or on the soil. The other six preparations are used to make compost and highlight a specific plant like dandelion, valerian, and chamomile. Stinging nettle preparation (aka preparation 504), for example, supports soil equilibrium and texture and limits the growth of hard crusts.
The Biodynamic Calendar
Rudolf Steiner believed the “cosmic forces” had a strong influence on plant life and the composition of the soil. When he passed away in 1925, one of his disciples, Maria Thun, expanded on his thinking by creating the biodynamic sowing calendar, which lays out the optimal times to sow, plant, cultivate, and harvest crops based on the cycles of the stars, planets, and the moon.
The biodynamic calendar splits days into four categories: there are root days, flower days, fruit days, and leaf days. Certain practices are advised for specific days. Fruit days are recommended for harvesting grapes, for example, since the rising of the sap in the vine is believed to correspond with improved aromatics in the grape. Root days, on the other hand, are considered optimal days for pruning.
The Integration of Plants and Animals
Industrial viticulture works as a monoculture, with the aim of maximizing yields while driving down costs and labor requirements. These practices deplete nutrients from the soil and weaken the vine’s immune system, making it more dependent on synthetic pesticides. In contrast, biodynamic viticulture is a more holistic philosophy that sees the vineyard as one singular self-sustaining ecosystem.
To that end, one of the main requirements of Demeter certification is biodiversity—a minimum of 10% of a biodynamic acreage must be dedicated to this cause. Visit a biodynamic vineyard and you’ll often see animals (cattle, sheep, goats, horses) grazing in open fields, and a variety of different plants scattered around grape vines.
Ultimately, going biodynamic is a personal, financial, and ethical choice. For some winemakers, however, it’s less of a choice and more of an imperative. Says VIVANT winemaker Morgane Fleury: “My father started biodynamics with the arrival of toxic products in the 1960s. Many of the chemicals were sold in cans with skulls on them. These products go against all forms of life in the vineyard, and my dad wanted to preserve the living matter in the soil.”
For Morgane, biodynamics isn’t just a tribute to her father’s legacy—it’s also an investment in the future: “As my father used to say, taking care of our soil is key to leaving behind a clean earth to our children.”