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Cornelius' Monthly Picks: Exploring Biodynamic Farming

By Matthew Hawkins

March 07, 2019

By Matthew Hawkins

March 07, 2019
[The below was originally sent to Cornelius' Picks "Red Only" members.  Join Cornelius' Picks now to receive the March wines.  4 bottles for $75 per month.  Choose Red Only or Red & White wines.  Switch or pause your subscription any time. If you have any questions about the club pleas e-mail our Wine Club Manager matthew@vanderbilt.wine.]

Help! There's Cow Poop In My Wine

Biodynamics: you’ve heard about it if you’ve set foot in our store, and if you’ve been in the wine club for more than a month, you’ve tasted it too.  As wine merchants who focus on natural wines, we’re rooftop-screaming-advocates for biodynamic farming. We believe it’s one of the best available models for sustainable, delicious, wines.  This month we’ll explore the history behind it, what the farming looks like and what it means to be practice biodynamics.

There is a lot to cover here, and we’ll hardly scratch the surface, so I’ve included links to some helpful videos and books (which I encourage you to pick up at your local bookstore or library).

History

Biodynamics is a set of agricultural tenants that Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) developed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  You can think of it as organic farming raised to the next level, with a heady dose of cosmic/mystical logic. The bulk of the philosophy was outlined in a 1924 lecture he gave, which was later published as:  “Agriculture: Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture”.  Most of his teachings draw lines between spirituality and science, and his work on astral projection is really out there, even if you appreciate or ascribe to eastern mysticism.  He was also a social and educational reformer, a literary critic and an architect. His two great legacies are his 1924 lecture and the creation of the Waldorf Academies.  

The first vineyard to adopt the practice was in Touraine, in the Loire Valley, France in 1962.  It was soon adopted by famous estates, including Domaine Leflaive (Burgundy), Domaine Leroy (Burgundy), Domaine Chapoutier (Rhone), and Domaine Huet (Loire Valley).  Now almost 1,000 vineyards are certified biodynamic.

Practice

Biodynamics are a set of farming guidelines that view the vineyard (or the farm) as a self-sustaining entity.  At the surface, it presents a holistic view of the vineyard, where each individual part of the farming process (animals, cover crops, humans) work in concert with everything from the stars above to the tiniest microbes in the earth.  When asked, a biodynamic farmer might tell you that he/she is harnessing the spiritual forces that act in the vineyard, in addition to cultivating the natural forces.

A biodynamic farm is treated regularly with nine herb and mineral-based concoctions.  One concoction, called Preparation 500, is made from cow manure stuffed into a cow’s horn. The horn is buried underground for a year, then dug up, its contents are stirred into water, then sprayed over the topsoil.  The other concoctions are made from yarrow, stinging nettle, chamomile, oak bark, dandelion and valerian.  Ideally, these are all grown on the farm, which means that any vineyard really serious about biodynamics also cultivates quite a few other plants on the property.  Together, these preparations seek to return cosmic energy to the soil.

You’ll also see lots of animals on a biodynamic farm; all plows are horse led, and the manure is used to enrich the compost.  This was particularly important as late-20th-century mechanization saw the slow removal of livestock from vineyards. Biodynamic growers, “are at the forefront of reversing this trend by acquiring livestock for manure (cows), traction (horses, mules), weed control (sheep), or pest control (chicken eat cutworms)” (pg. 83, The Oxford Companion to Wine).   Consequently, the move towards biodynamics is movement away from vine monocultures, and the result is a natural equilibrium in which pests and diseases become potentially less potent (83).  

Additionally, key tasks such as: “planting, pruning, ploughing, picking and bottling should be timed to harness beneficial ‘formative forces’ exerted by earthly and celestial planetary, solar, stellar and especially lunar rhythms” (82).   All told, biodynamic farmers play second fiddle to nature and her rhythms.

Biodynamic Certifications

The most recognizable international biodynamic certifier by far is Demeter.  (The only other one I’ve heard of is based in Austria and it’s called Respekt.)  Some of the wines below are certified, and some are not.  But all of them practice at least organic farming, and all of them use some form of biodynamic philosophy to inform their thinking.  

In our minds, the certification is never the thing.  For one, it costs money to apply for the certification, and many of the farmers we love most do not have the spare cash to pay for it.  Some of the wines below are made by “practicing biodynamic” wineries. I’ll also add that biodynamic certification doesn’t guarantee good wine - not by a long shot.  I’ve tasted plenty of wines that are made with strict biodynamic farming practices that just don’t taste good.

However, there is a great correlation between biodynamic farming and good wine - if for no other reason than the winemaker is forced to spend a lot of time in the vineyard to achieve the certification and if he/she is in the vineyard every day, they are likely to understand and respect the grapes.  Great grapes are well farmed and only great grapes have the potential to create great wines.

What’s it to me?

If I can leave you with one thing, it’s this: biodynamic is not a taste, and it’s certainly not the same as “funky”.  I hear the two conflated time and time again. “Hi, I’m looking for something organic and funky. Maybe even unfiltered and biodynamic.”

The key thing to remember is that biodynamic is a farming technique that seeks to maximize the energy  that exists in the vineyard. It has less to do with the winemaking - ie. the decision to use oak or not; the use of whole cluster fermentation or not; the use of sulphur, etc - than it does with the farming.  

A biodynamic vineyard looks green and it’s loud with the sound of buzzing bees and birds.  

Now, onto the wines.  

Cheers!

Matthew & the Vanderbilt Wine Merchants Team

Bodegas Ponce, Manchuela La Casilla 2016

Grape: Bobal
Region: Castilla La Mancha
Appellation: Manchuela

Juan Antonio Ponce began his winery in 2005 at the age of 23, and even though he’s got ample experience at this point, he’s still on the upswing.  He works just one grape, Bobal (it’s okay if you’ve never heard of it) and he makes his wines far from the beaten path in Manchuela, a high altitude appellation that’s inland from Valencia.  Farming organically and observing biodynamic practices in the vineyard, Ponce is known as the master interpreter of this grape and this appellation. By farming well and limiting yields, Ponce crafts Bobal that has gained attention outside of Spain.

But what’s up with Bobal, you ask? The grape is grown mainly in eastern central Spain, where it produces slightly rustic wines which can, at their greatest expression, achieve a deep color and a smooth, velvety texture.  This wine achieves elegance while maintaining the essential rustic nature of the grape. Dark, perfumed fruits move parallel with savory elements (olives, crushed rocks) and the wine is at once crushable, while still asking you to pay attention.  A wine perfect for a Thursday pork chop or for the regional classic paella.


Domaine du Mortier, Graviers 2016

Grape: Cabernet Franc
Region: Loire Valley, France
Appellation: Graves

Located within the Saint Nicolas Bourgueil AOC  (an appellation that lies between major cities Angers and Tours), Domaine Mortier sits on a small 9-hectare vineyard and  looks more like a farm than the monoculture vineyards you’ll see in commercials. Fabien and Cyril Boisard, the two brothers behind the project, are passionate about developing the life of the soil and they plant crops between the rows of vines to enhance the diversity of the soil.  It’s a practical way to promote eco-diversity and helps them create stunning living wines. They are certified biodynamic.

This wine pours deep red with a velvety purple shimmer and to me it just smells lush.  I’m reminded of fresh raspberries and black currants, as well as an incredibly comforting girding of spice (clove) and stone (wet gravel).  The interplay between earth and fruit - just like the interplay between earth and vignerons - is harmonious and it adds up to more than the sum of its individual elements.   Drink it with a cured meat and cheese plate or with grilled sausages and artichoke.


Gut Oggau Atanasius 2017

Grape: Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch
Region: Burgenland
Appellation: Austrian Red Wine 

Gut Oggau is spoken of with reverence by many a wine nerd and many a wannabe-wine nerd alike. Their table is always the most crowded at the wine fairs each year.  In addition to their original and (dare I say) perfect packaging, their wines are vibrant, full of character  and they tell an incredible story about the past and present of natural winemaking. The project was started in the tiny town of Oggau in  Burgenland, Austria by Eduard and Stephanie Tscheppe in 2007. Eduard had made conventional wine with his father in Styria and Stephanie came from a Michelin-starred family.  They found and restored a 17th century winery that had been abandoned for 20 years, which was a stroke of luck because the vines hadn’t been treated with any chemicals for two decades. The duo were able to work biodynamically from the start and they’re full certified.

A word on the label: for each of their wines, the winemakers have an artist draw the personality of the wine (there is no real “Atanasius”).  I’ll let the winemaker’s website give words to why they depicted the personality of this wine as a high-school hunk: “Atanasius has a very affectionate and easy-going nature [...]  and is an attractive young man, but in no way superficial. Despite already being exceptionally popular, he still retains some hidden qualities, which makes him even more interesting. His dream is to one day become an acclaimed world star.”   You’ll see him on the big screen in a few years. But isn’t it nice to know he’s a good person, too?


Monte Bernardi Chianti Classico Retromarcia 2016

Grape: Sangiovese
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Appellation: Chianti Classico

When Michael Schmelzer, an American, decided to grow grapes in the belly button of Chianti he was committed to biodynamic farming - he just didn’t know how hard it would be.  Conventional vineyards spray when it rains to prevent rotting and the chemicals wash into the soil, making the transition from conventional farming to biodynamic extremely difficult.  He soon realized he needed to plant his own vines, taking over an old vineyard was not enough. His hope was that healthy roots would translate to healthy vines that could withstand mold and pests.  15 years later, any drinker of his wine would call the project a success. This wine is deep ruby red, tinted purple. Dark fruits (cherry, blackberry) combine with my favorite Christmas smells: orange peel studded with clove and soaked in anise.  Great acid, long finish.

When asked why he farms biodynamically, Michael Schmelzer says: “These farming practices are so complete - people were poor [when the practices were first initiated]. They didn’t spend time or energy on things that didn’t work, so what’s been passed through the generations is what works.”  It’s such a simple and beautiful line of thinking.

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