Enjoying wine is one of life's great pleasures. But how that wine was grown and how it was made are questions that often go unexamined.
Biodynamic farming provides a comprehensive and eco friendly approach to growing wine grapes. Some people call it "organic plus."
This brief overview of biodynamic wine grape growing introduces the main concepts that make biodynamics unique.
• Biodynamic Basics
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THREE KEY POINTS
1. ORGANIC IS THE FOUNDATION
• Herbicides, fungicides and other toxic chemicals are widely used in vineyards.
• Organic and biodynamic farming offers healthier alternatives, that don't rely on synthetic chemicals which present human and environmental dangers.
2. REGENERATIVE IS THE DIFFERENCE
• Biodynamic farming is more comprehensive than organic requirements and is an overall, ecological approach to managing a farm's fertility and life. One of its goals is to sequester and recycle carbon.
3. BETTER WINE QUALITY OVERALL IS THE RESULT
• Thirdly, many wineries, including some of the most famous in the world, have discovered that biodynamic farming results in more flavorful grapes and balanced wines with greater depth and character.
Is there any other term in the wine world that is more misunderstood than biodynamics?
Many people would like to simplify the definition to "farming by the moon" or "burying cowhorns," but these definitions miss the core of biodynamic farming—its integrated ecological approach.
As Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard succinctly put it (in the quote above):
“Organics is essentially the replacement of chemical additives with non chemical additives. Biodynamics is the building of a system in which additives are largely unnecessary because you have designed an ecosystem that provides what your crop needs.”
Biodynamic wine grape growing is a tool that many gravitate to in their search for making better wines.
Briefly stated, Biodynamic vineyard certification requires a systems approach to farming, including the following practices:
• Maximizing the use of on-farm inputs to improve soil and plant health
• Setting aside 10% of the land for wildlife and biodiversity
• Integrating domesticated, farm animals (and chickens) into farming practices where appropriate
• Using biodynamic compost (created from on-site green waste and animal manure—often obtained from neighbors' properties—treated with the Biodynamic preparations)
• Applying 8 different biodynamic herbal and mineral based preparations on compost and vineyards
Perhaps the easiest way to understand biodynamics is to listen to a series of YouTube videos shot in 2008, with Alan York (1952-2014), a leader in biodynamics. He outlined the four main biodynamic principles:
A. CLOSED LOOP SYSTEM
The farm should provide nutrients for its crops from the property itself.
Photo: At Montinore Estate in Oregon, nearby organic dairy farmers drop off their organic cow poop which Rudy Marchesi uses to make compost.
(In general, wineries often do not have enough land to have enough cows to fertilize their own vineyards, so using local, organic dairy manure from nearby farms is
B. BIODIVERSITY OR LANDSCAPE ECOLOGY
Diversity is nature's form of biological control.
Certified biodynamic properties must leave 10% of the land uncultivated as a set-aside for biodiversity.
Photo: Benziger Family Wines in Sonoma is surrounded by woods.
In addition, it has constructed insectiaries within the farmed areas to attract more beneficial insects that eat pests.
C. BIODYNAMIC PREPARATIONS: HERB AND MINERAL SPRAYS AND COMPOST TEAS
The biodynamic preparations, or preps, are herbal and mineral sprays that enhance plant health and provide protection from diseases and pests.
Photo: In this 2003 shot, Dave Koball, then at Bonterra, examines a cowhorn used for making horn manure.
The horn, which is full of calcium, is filled with manure and then buried in a micro
D. HOLISTIC APPROACH
The farm is its own ecosystem in which all living things are interconnected.
Photo: At Apricot Lane Farm, the farm is seen as a whole. The story of Alan York's collaboration with the owners, John and Molly, to transform Apricot Lanes to a biodynamic farm is the subject of the documentary The Biggest Little Farm.
Animals are an important component of biodynamic farming. Wineries often have sheep, pigs, geese, ducks, or chickens. Cows are especially important and treasured for their manure.
Cow manure is used to make both the biodynamic horn manure preparation and compost. Grape must and clippings often go into the compost pile, too.
Wineries often plant different crops like fruit trees, vegetables, and olive trees along with native plants. Many sell their olive oil.
Water conservation and restoration is encouraged on biodynamic farms. Demeter certified properties must set aside 10 percent of their land at a minimum for conservation.
The biodynamic preparations are used to promote plant health and protect plants from pests and diseases.
Some were used as early as 160 B.C. and were written about by Cato the Elder.
The first preparation is horn manure (500). This is the most well known symbol associated with biodynamic farming.
A cow horn is filled with fresh manure and aged underground in active soil for 6 months.
When it's dug up, it's filled with a finely textured humus full of fungi and other soil stimulants that promote the growth of mycorrhizal fungi. The mycorrhizal fungi bring added nutrients to the plants' roots.
The second preparation is called 501 and consists of a silica spray made from finely ground quartz which is mixed with water.
This spray is applied to the plant's leaves.
The tiny crystals adhere to the plant's leaves and regulates photosynthesis.
It modulates extremes of heat and cold.
It works on the plant above ground.
Six plants are used to make biodynamic compost:
• Yarrow blossoms
• Chamomile blossoms
• Stinging nettle
• Oak bark
• Dandelion flowers
• Valerian flowers (in liquid form)
In addition, a tea made of horsetail, which is rich in silica, is sprayed on vines as a natural fungicide.
Biodynamic farms celebrate their individual sense of place, or as one vintner, Mike Benziger put it, their "proprietary biology."
In winemaking in particular, this concept of the "taste of place" is valued as it expresses the unique terroir of the farm.
"I can't taste when a wine is grown organically, but I can taste if it was grown biodynamically."
"...having tasted numerous wines made using some of the practical aspects of biodynamics I have found they are marked with a purity, silkiness and concentration rarely found in other wines."
“Being biodynamic has brought more complexity to our wines, and more quality, which is key.”
"When we were first experimenting with biodynamics by farming a test block that way, we found that the biodynamic blocks outperformed their previous scores in both the first and second years of adopting biodynamic practices."
“After four or five years, we were 100 percent able to identify the wines from biodynamic soils. More intensity, more clarity of fruit, a velvety texture and a link between fruit and acidity."