What is biodynamic winemaking?


Hands holding crumbly, light soil in the vineyard at Ch. Palmer
Photograph by Olivier-Metzger, courtesy of Ch. Palmer

Barbara Drew MW explains what biodynamic winemaking is, why it’s practised and what to expect from biodynamic wines.

Burying cows’ horns in the vineyard. Fermenting flower heads in a stag’s bladder. Harvesting grapes when the moon is in front of a fire constellation. It is easy to see how biodynamic farming has been misunderstood and even
mocked. Despite this, some of the most delicious wines I have tasted have been biodynamic, and some of the finest, most sought-after wines happen to be the result of this approach. So what does this form of farming actually involve? Is it a more sustainable approach? And what are the results?

The evolution of biodynamic Biodynamics as a concept originated from eight lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. His belief was that a holistic approach to agriculture (amongst other things) would generate the best results, in terms of the health of the soil, and
quality of produce. His ideas, which were part of a much broader philosophical argument, have evolved and been applied to vineyards, resulting in an extreme form of organic viticulture with the aim of stimulating the health of the vine and vineyard so pests and diseases are no longer a problem.

A biodynamic approach to viticulture is not simply practical, but can border on the spiritual – as such there are elements of Steiner’s teachings that some winemakers pick, and other aspects that they choose to drop. Just as a religious group can encompass the devout through to those who only celebrate the chocolate-themed holidays, so an assembly of biodynamic winemakers will cover a spectrum of evangelical adherents, to those who are more pragmatic, doing what they believe will have the greatest visible impact on their vines.

The basics of biodynamics

At the most fundamental level, all biodynamic producers agree that good wine starts with good soil. Producers need to return to the soil any nutrients
they remove through grape-growing. Plenty of the more common vineyard treatments are not allowed in biodynamic vineyards, including most
commercial fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Instead, vignerons have at their disposal a suite of nine biodynamic preparations, which range from manure, to fermented flower heads or ground-up quartz. These are either added to the vineyard’s compost heap, or diluted with water and sprayed in the vineyard. Each preparation offers a different benefit. Oak bark, for example, can be added to the compost heap, with the tannins in the bark helping to prevent fungal diseases in the vineyard. These preparations bolster the compost produced on the property, which in turn revitalises the soil and supports the health of the vines.

Those vineyards which need additional support against pests or fungal attacks can go further. Copper and sulphur sprays are permitted to protect against common fungi such as powdery mildew. However, the quantities allowed under various certification schemes are relatively small; copper can inhibit the activity of earthworms in the soil.

The importance of water in biodynamics

A number of biodynamic preparations need to be diluted with water before being sprayed on the vines. Using water straight from the tap isn’t an option: instead, it must be dynamised. This process involves stirring the water rapidly in one direction, then the other, for around half an hour. Some argue the benefit of this is to firmly “transmit the message” of
the preparation through to the water. Others say the movement of the water mimics a natural flowing stream or river. While it is possible to purchase water dynamisers that will stir your water for you, some
producers still prefer to do this by hand – a time-consuming, not to mention exhausting process.

Biodynamic winemaking and the moon

Many who work according to biodynamics also follow the lunar calendar. This is not obligatory and, for example, does not form part of most certification systems. Nonetheless, many vignerons will choose when to prune their vines or harvest based on the moon. It is recommended that one prunes under a waning moon. The ideal time for picking, according
to biodynamic calendars, is when the moon is in front of a fire constellation – Leo, Sagittarius or Aries (also known as a “fruit day”). Indeed, some producers will even argue that their wines taste better on certain days of the lunar calendar, a claim strongly disputed by Monty Waldin – who, quite literally, wrote the book on biodynamic wine. He states simply that: “tasting by the moon doesn’t change the quality of your wine, people have proved that”. However, if your vineyard and winery decisions are made according to the moon, it seems to me only sensible that the final step, drinking the wine, follows the same path.

Biodynamics and technology

While pruning and making wine according to the moon may seem extreme, some adherents take biodynamics further still. For these producers, it’s essential to avoid any manmade influences on their vineyards which may
adversely affect the grapes. For example, Nicolas Joly, a winemaker (or “nature assistant”, as he prefers) in the Loire, is lauded as a leader in the field of biodynamic viticulture. He believes that even electrical objects can interfere with vines and winemaking. In his view, something as commonplace as electric lighting in a cellar may damage the fermenting and maturing wine.

Voices such as Joly’s, combined with bans on chemical intervention, mean that there is often a misconception that the only way to practice biodynamic viticulture is to step back in time. Nigel Greening, of Felton Road winery in Central Otago, New Zealand, is keen to demonstrate that this is not the case. In 2018, Felton Road installed a huge area of solar panels at the vineyard. The 120-panel array generates significantly more power than they use, taking the biodynamic concept of putting back what you take out to a more literal end.

It is not just electricity that can be contentious though. Anything deemed too far removed from the natural world is generally not permitted. For example, wineries certified as biodynamic may not use plastic or fibreglass tanks in their winery, utilising wood, concrete or steel instead. They should ideally use natural yeast (found on the skins of grapes and in the air in the winery), or, if buying in yeast to kick-start fermentation, it must be certified biodynamic yeast from a specialist supplier. Sulphur is permitted in the wine, though at lower levels than for non-biodynamic wines. And, according to Demeter – one of the certifying bodies – any winery seeking biodynamic accreditation must ensure that the winemaking process is free from GMOs, ascorbic acid and synthetic fining agents such as PVPP. Animal products such as isinglass or gelatine are also not allowed.

A return to old-fashioned winemaking?

On the surface at least, biodynamics may seem like a return to a simpler form of agriculture. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this translates to lower costs than conventional modern farming, but this tends not to be the case. In fact, the cost of being fully biodynamic can be onerous – from additional manpower for hand harvesting and applying preparations, to purchasing specialist equipment such as a water dynamiser. There are, on top of those costs, fees for inspection and certification, as well as royalties for logos on bottles.

As an example, Demeter, which is one of the most widely used certification bodies, will charge a winery approximately 2% of its revenues to be certified. For some wineries, that cost is enough to persuade them not to pursue official accreditation.

This makes it especially challenging for the customer: if it’s not certified, the wine shop cannot sell wine as biodynamic, even if it’s made according to
the rules. Even when bottles do carry the certification symbol, usually from Demeter or Biodyvin, this only confirms the winery adheres to basic standards (using biodynamic preparations on the soil, not using
synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or fungicides, not using banned additions in the winery). Such logos do little to explain to a consumer the real philosophy behind a wine. They won’t distinguish between those producers who harvest according to the lunar calendar and those that don’t. Nor can they point to producers who choose not to be certified, but follow all the main requirements – and more – in the pursuit of the perfect bottle of wine.

The biodynamic winemaking philosophy

So why do producers adhere to biodynamics, especially if they can’t (or won’t) shout about it on the label? Quite simply, most believe that this method of viticulture results in better wine and a healthier vineyard. In
some areas, yields drop as a result of this approach, but the fruit quality improves. Typically, this might mean that the grapes show a better balance between sugar and acidity. As a result, many biodynamic wines have
an intensity of flavour, and poise that sets them apart from conventional wines. Such characteristics are hard to quantify though.

What is easier to quantify is soil activity, and many studies have shown increased microbiological activity in biodynamic vineyards. This bodes well for the resilience and long-term future of such vineyards. Perhaps surprisingly, there haven’t yet been any large-scale, peer-reviewed studies carried out on this form of viticulture. Without the reassurance of data and
science, this style of farming has been left to develop a rather esoteric image.

Despite this, interest in biodynamic wines is steadily increasing as awareness around pesticides and soil health grows. The number of wines which are certified biodynamic increases year on year, and even those producers without certification are choosing to adopt certain aspects of this philosophy – taking what suits, leaving the rest, as has been happening with
Steiner’s ideas for nearly a century.

What does this mean for the consumer? If you are interested in trying biodynamic wines, certification logos are still a good place to start. However, they don’t represent the limits of this category of wines. Talk to
wine merchants, ask about what producers are doing. And if you find me waiting until the next fruit day to open my best wines, you’ll know why.

Discover more about sustainable winemaking here.