All vineyards and thus the wines they produce are not created equal. Two Chardonnays grown in neighbouring plots but with slightly differing soils, slopes and sun exposure will taste subtly different, even if both will still taste of Chardonnay too. This unique ‘somewhereness’ is what the French call terroir.
So imagine the shock French government soil scientist Claude Bourguignon caused in 1988 when he told a group of leading French wine-growers their supposedly blue chip wines had lost their individuality, their terroir-ness. Several decades of intensive farming with man-made fertilizers, weedkillers and pesticides had obliterated the subtle differences their individual terroirs should show, Bourguignon told them, making all wines taste the same. He then added insult to injury by telling them their vineyards soils “had less life than Sahara desert sand.”
To re-vitalize the soil life Bourguignon suggested how a form of organic farming called biodynamics redressed imbalances in soils, and thus in vines, grapes and wines, by creating the conditions in which worms and smaller organisms like beneficial fungi and bacteria thrived. At that time there were a mere handful of biodynamic vineyards in France, small under-the-radar growers like Eugène Meyer in Alsace. He was the first to convert in 1969, but not because he was thinking about the making his wine taste more terroir-like. “The optic nerve in one of my eyes was paralysed by vineyard pesticide and my homeopath suggested biodynamics as an alternative,” he says.
Biodynamics is the oldest form of alternative, or post-industrial farming. It dates from a series of ‘Agriculture’ lectures given in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner of Steiner school fame. Steiner’s audience was a group of farmers who’d found adapting to new, labour-saving agricultural technologies like pesticides and heavy farm machinery had not been a boon but had caused a decline in the health of their crop seeds, livestock and soil. Steiner’s basic message was farming which ignores “living processes” – sacks of fertilizer made by synthesising atmospheric nitrogen don’t contain any worms– produces food and farmers who lack the ‘will’ to get a more natural way of farming back on track. Steiner also predicted our bees would face extinction from around the year 2000, but that’s another story…
Steiner’s main biodynamic precept was each farm should have the right balance of crops for economic sustainability, of livestock whose composted manure maintains soil fertility, and of wild habitat to avoid creating unsustainable farm monocultures. The ‘organic’ movement which appeared after the Second World War derived its name from Steiner’s farm ‘organism’ idea. But organics, in French wine as elsewhere, remained marginal. Its late 1960s pioneers relied on seaweed-derived treatments to correct soil imbalances, useful perhaps for carrots and cauliflowers but old-fashioned for aspirational crops like wine. One lone organic Champagne grower, a maker of honest but dull fizz, erected tall poles in his seaweed-treated vineyards to dissuade his wealthier neighbours from spraying their pesticides using low-flying helicopters – but his efforts were in vain. Wine-growers are a nervy, suspicious bunch. Whereas a bad sowing of annual crops like carrots or cauliflowers can quickly be corrected, wine-growers get but one chance a year to put wine in the bank.
So why trust Claude Bourguignon, a man who said he was sure biodynamic methods helped vines put down better root systems; but he was also absolutely sure he could not explain exactly how biodynamics worked? Step forward Anne-Claude Leflaive from Domaine Leflaive, a Burgundy estate with world-renowned vineyards but wines whose quality had been slipping due, she felt, to an excess of conventional ‘chemical’ fertilizers.
In the early 1990s Anne-Claude divided one of her Chardonnay plots into three: one ‘chemical’, one organic, one biodynamic. Over the next few years the taste differences in the wines from each farming system were clear, to her and the wine-growers, wine writers and wine importers she travelled the world showing the wines to. The biodynamic wine had the most intense, interesting and even challenging narrative to relate in terms of smell, taste and texture. Let the wine do the talking, said Anne-Claude. Far easier than trying to explain the nuts-and-bolts of biodynamics with its reliance on teas and composts based on cow manure, minerals and medicinal plants like stinging nettle, chamomile, and dandelion, with the complication that biodynamic work be timed (ideally) to tune with lunar and other celestial cycles. But these were complications wine-growers, not just in Burgundy in particular or even France in general, but across Planet Wine as a whole, seemed increasingly prepared to accept.
The 1990’s and 2000’s were decades in which wine reached arguably its maximum point of polarization. On the one hand the craze for dense, over-ripe wines exuding sex appeal and whiffs of expensive new oak barrels, wines pre-designed by winemakers to gain the maximum 100-point score from the leading critic of the day; and on the other subtler wines from soils re-stocked with the worms and microbes that allowed the grapes to re-connect with the earth in the way that Anne-Claude Leflaive’s had done.
But for biodynamics to grow worldwide, influential Leflaive-esque pioneers prepared to take the plunge and potential ridicule – a key biodynamic practice is burying cow horns filled with manure to create a worm-friendly soil inoculant – were needed: step forward the Frey and Fetzer families in California, Alvaro Espinoza of Antiyal in Chile, James and Annie Millton in New Zealand, Michel Chapoutier in the Rhône, Jean-Pierre Fleury in Champagne, Nicolas Joly and Domaine Huet in the Loire, Dr Bürklin-Wolf in Germany, Southbrook in Canada, Bodega Noemía in Argentina, Johann Reyneke in South Africa and Stefano Bellotti in Italy.
The wine commentariat now appears to be moving “beyond” biodynamics. A wave of ‘natural’ wines is grabbing the headlines from worthy yet dull organics and effective but inexplicable biodynamics. Natural winemakers are iconoclastic rule-breakers, claiming wine makes itself best when left to, well, make itself. But wine doesn’t make itself. Wine is the mid-point between grape juice and vinegar (Fr: vin aigre = vinegar). Wine-growing and winemaking are interventionist acts: pruning, ploughing, picking, pressing and packing (bottling) cannot be left to chance.
Biodynamics encourages the interventionism of man, of the human spirit, of our will to action. Because as Rudolf Steiner set out in his 1924 Agriculture lectures: to think better we need to eat – and drink – better, and to do that we need to grow stuff better too.
Featured image credit: ‘Production of horn manure (BD preparation 500) at Granton Vineyard’ by Stefano Lubiana. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.