There are a lot of buzz words in wine. Industry types argue over their meaning all the time, redefining terms like “terroir” and “natural” with every coming vintage.
Biodynamic is one of those words, but its basic meaning is relatively straightforward. In the early 20th century, as machines and fertilizers replaced livestock and natural farming, an Austrian by the name of Rudolf Steiner sounded the alarms. He advocated for a return to the old ways in order to preserve the well-being of the soils, the lifeblood of any farm.
Most people associate biodynamics with cow horns filled with manure, tea treatments, and the stellar calendar — hippies parading through vineyard rows tossing dashes of chamomile here, honey there. That is part of the movement, for certain, but it tends to distract from the very rational benefits of the rest of the practice. At its core, the farming philosophy is all about sustainability, biodiversity, and natural inputs.
I used to lead biodynamic tours at Cooper Mountain, one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette Valley. Describing the philosophy was never easy, but I ultimately settled on the following: Biodynamic farming stresses both sustainability and self-sufficiency and looks to leave the soil in better shape than it was found.
Then somebody would ask: “What about organic farming?”
I wanted to say that organic farming is an attractive phrase that, in order to slap it proudly on your product, requires lots of waiting, lots of hoop-jumping, and can be quite expensive. But I usually went with:
“Organic farming is natural, but a lot of what’s used in it is trucked in from elsewhere. Biodynamic farming takes advantage of indigenous plants, bugs, and critters to strengthen the land. In that sense, the vineyard becomes dependent on nothing but itself.”
Darrin Low of Domaine Anderson in California is a biodynamic producer. He worked in his parents’ wine shop in Healdsburg before studying enology and viticulture at UC Santa Cruz. He’s the first to admit that the process does not yield immediate, plainly obvious results.
“Most of the benefits that I’ve perceived are subtle and slow-changing,” Low says. You can add it to the long list of things people in the wine industry have to be patient for, from the first viable crop in the vineyard to the long gap in the cellar between harvest and bottling. But that’s not really the point. It’s more about not beating the hell out of some land in the name of a bumper crop, as so many farms of any number of crops do.
“Adopting a biodynamic mindset will benefit in the long term by laying the philosophical foundation for stewardship, working intimately with the estate and with the creation of the wines,” he says.
At Domaine Anderson, there are no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides. Vineyard preps are made from nearby plants and compost. “Microbial life in the soil is promoted and nurtured,” adds Low. “The resulting product of this enhanced soil-plant relationship expresses itself in the grapes.”
For his label, that translates to Pinot Noir that’s fresh, bright, and built around brambly fruit flavors and Chardonnay that’s especially free-spirited, showing lively, leafy green flavors and lemon custard notes. He doesn’t have to add yeast and there is a certain transparency in the flavors.
That kind of expression is terroir, a word wine drinkers ogle over these days. And it makes loads of sense. If you’re trying to create a wine that reflects its unique surroundings, the fewer things getting in the way the better. Excess irrigation, chemical sprays, and manipulative, hands-on farming turn a one-of-a-kind estate into Chateau Everywhere.
So why isn’t biodynamic winemaking more popular? Well, a steady diet of fast food is much more convenient than farm-fresh seasonal fare, isn’t it? That’s a bit of a stretch, but as Low says, it asks that the grower be trustworthy, patient, and unconventional. Biodynamic farming requires some letting go, which can be risky, and a lot of growers, larger ones especially, simply don’t want to bet the farm on something like that.
Two very attractive elements of biodynamics are often overlooked. Firstly, the immune system of the vineyard. Because the vines are forced to fend for themselves, they tend to become more resilient and are constantly adapting. This could prove crucial as climate change continues to throw curveballs at winegrowers. “Any farming practice that is forward-thinking and acclimates to changing conditions is indispensable,” Low says.
Secondly, it’s all about connection. Even for those who don’t necessarily buy the more out-there biodynamic stuff (I’m looking at you again, manure-filled cow horn buried in the vineyard on a very precise date), there is very active alignment between plant and earth, person and vineyard.
It’s no longer just a parcel of land when its soils are lodged beneath your fingernails.
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