Stephen Quinn spoke to winemakers in France, Chile, Italy, Australia and New Zealand to find out why they believe that biodynamic practices make for better wine – and happier workers.
Monty Waldin, a British winemaker based in Italy and a world authority on biodynamic winemaking believes it is possible to make a good business case for this process. He maintains that the ability to grow quality fruit to make quality wine is the main reason for choosing this approach, and further maintains that it does not need to be expensive.
Some of the world’s most famous wine estates such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and Château Pétrus in Bordeaux are biodynamic. Why would they risk their reputations by embracing biodynamics? Because it improves the quality of the wine, Waldin said. “The wines have better acidity, [are] more digestible and easier to drink because of lower alcohol. They are more refreshing. Ultimately people feel enlivened by them and continue to pay their high prices.”
Winemakers who love their estates have an emotional link with their vines and want to do the best for them. Farming is a long-term and cyclical business.
Farmers introduce fertilizers to boost crop yields. But fertilizers also help weeds grow so the farmer needs weed-killers. These chemicals weaken the soils so the farmer needs fungicides and pesticides to protect the vines. The result is poor quality grapes that are difficult to ferment, so the winemaker needs chemicals to enhance the winemaking process.
A vineyard’s unique selling point is its terroir. Biodynamics boosts that sense of place. “Terroir is about the micro-biology of the soil as much as it is about the climate and location,” said Waldin. “Biodynamics is very conscious of that microbiology, and it gives wine a unique sense of individuality. The fewer external elements you bring into your vineyard, the better your chance to represent your terroir.
“Biodynamics produces healthier soil with more disease resistance and deeper rooting plants. Soil is held together by micro-organisms. If you distort or kill them you get erosion. You also lose the influence of the terroir, that ‘somewhere-ness’ that makes a wine stand out.”
Winemakers also run the risk of pesticides – which are effectively poison – in the soil affecting vineyard staff. “Two years ago, for the first time, the French government gave the cause of death of a vineyard worker as vineyard chemicals.”
What are the main costs of going biodynamic?
“Generally you will spend more money on manual labour. A French study in 2014 showed that an organic vineyard will statistically have more staff and be much more likely to handpick grapes. It’s often said the best sound in a vineyard is the sound of the winegrowers’ feet.”
The major set-up costs are buying the equipment, such as compost spreaders, that allows a farmer to work with nature. One main issue is controlling weeds under the vine and compost is the best way to do that.
The formula for compost is very important because compost returns the nutrients in the grapes left after winemaking back to the soil. “Recycling is better for the environment because you’re not dumping your waste products but returning them to your terroir.”
In general, organic farming requires more people and that is why countries with low labour costs like Chile or Argentina have an advantage. France has high labour costs but the European Union provides subsidies for vineyards seeking to invest in organic growing methods and ways to improve the environment.
“The cost of labour is the key economic factor that anyone interested in biodynamics has to get their head around. The cost of the worker, the cost of supervising that worker, and the cost of making sure you’ve got enough work for that worker, and making sure that worker comes back to you (in the sense that training vineyard staff is an investment).”
The influence of the moon was not that important, Waldin said. “Your wine is not going to be made because of the moon, it’s going to be made well because your weed control and pruning are very good as is canopy management so that the relationship between fruit and sun control is good so you get good fruit. This is far more important than the moon.”
Waldin affirmed people are becoming increasingly concerned about what goes into their bodies and are aware of the dangers of chemicals. “No trees on a vineyard means no birds and no birdsong. That does not look good. Vineyards blitzed by weed killer look like shit,” he said.
Biodynamics also offers a unique way to market wine. “In terms of upscaling your brand, biodynamics works because people who visit your vineyard or taste your wine will become your ambassadors.”
James Halliday, the doyen of Australia’s wine writers, noted that around the world “more and more winemakers are moving to biodynamic”.
The banning of herbicides and insecticides, often used in conjunction with under-row mulch (to minimise soil moisture loss) increases microbial activity and boosts the worm population.
“It is difficult to argue with the proposition that this allows vines to more freely explore the soil, and visual inspection of such vineyards tells you they are healthy, and are likely more healthy than nearby vineyards using the full gamut of sprays of all kinds.”
Halliday said he would “rather have my cake and eat it”. That is, he would follow biodynamic principles “but be prepared to jump ship if disease breaks out that can only be controlled by systemic sprays”.
In February he selected his five outstanding Australian wines. One of those was the 2013 Stefano Lubiana Settebello single block Pinot Noir. Stefano Lubiana is a fiercely independent winemaker from Tasmania whose questioning of mainstream practices led him to adopt organic principles in 2001, and his 23-hectare vineyard was certified biodynamic in March 2013.
Conventional vineyards use herbicides to control weeds between the vine rows. Lubiana introduced miniature sheep called Babydoll Southdowns, which never grow more than 60 cm high, to control the weeds.
“These Babydolls can just reach the bottom trellis wire but that’s not high enough to do any damage. They’ve done a good job of de-suckering (removing excess growth on vines) this season,” Elementals, the Journal of Biodynamics Tasmania, reported in its Winter 2013 edition.
Read the full article on Biodynamics in the print issue of Sommelier India April-May 2016.