Biodynamic Wine: What Is It and Why Is It Becoming So Popular?
Learn about this harmonious style of crafting wine from one of the leading proponents of the movement.
I’m sitting cross-legged under a tree on a sunny day in late June in the South of France. Domaine de Cigalus estate director Gilles de Baudus, who also heads up the biodynamic farming for all fourteen estates owned by winemaker Gérard Bertrand, is passing around bags of dried plants, flowers and herbs used in biodynamic preparations. The other journalists and I seated in a circle are trying to better wrap our heads around this seemingly mystical way of making wine. The scene reminds me of something out of a 1960s peace-and-love-filled sit-in (sub-in cinsault for psychedelics), punctuated only by the presence of a large spider hell-bent on terrorizing the most arachnophobic among us. Biodynamics, after all, encompasses respect for and preservation of a region’s entire ecosystem. Even the creepy crawly things.
What it doesn’t involve, Bertrand told me, is the sleight of hand or hocus-pocus that some people believe exists solely for marketing purposes. “While we do not yet have scientific explanations for every process, we have explanations and theories for why certain practices work and why others are harmful.” So what exactly is behind this philosophy, which dates back to 1924 and is based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner?
Well, take those bags of dried ingredients, for example, which serve as a chemical stand-in to combat insects, mildew and other pests in the vineyard. Yarrow can offset high temperatures and refresh the vineyards, dandelion works against mildew and valerian fights oidium. Even if their overall effectiveness may be questionable, what isn’t debatable is the fact that they are way less destructive to a region’s plants, animal and human life than the toxic stuff. “We know for a fact that the application of petrochemicals for fertilizers or fungicides destroys the microbial diversity of soils, indeed, it kills soils entirely,” Bertrand says. “Biodynamics does the opposite: it brings life to the soil.” Life, harmony, balance, health. It all sounds pretty amazing, right?
I learned a few minutes later where biodynamic preparations veer away from science and towards a kind of alchemy. Proponents believe a tiny amount of one element (say, 20 grams per hectare) will have huge consequences on the vine--a philosophy diametrically opposed to anyone accustomed to seeing gardeners lug fifty pound bags and large plastic spray bottles of herbicides and pesticides at a home supply store. The element is added to a copper machine called a dynamizer filled either with well water (good) or rainwater (better). Using a circular motion that switches direction every minute from clockwise to counterclockwise, the dynamizer takes the energy of the element and mixes it with the water; it is believed the preparation must be spread on the vines within seventy-two hours to be effective. Bertrand’s estates maintain thirty-five of these machines, which works out to be about one per every six hectares.
So how can just a tiny amount even make a blip in how a vine grows and develops? While it may require a bit of suspension of disbelief for anyone familiar with conventional farming practices, Bertrand and his contemporaries view it as a “thoughtful, compassionate way to restore balance.” (He also points out that before the chemical industry became tangled up with agriculture after World War II, these techniques were just a part of “regular” farming.) And while he admits that it’s quite easy to make wine, biodynamically or otherwise, in a region like the Languedoc-Roussillon, which is blessed with ample sunshine, a dry growing season and wonderful soils, the practices can be done anywhere--as long as you listen to the climate, soils, flora, fauna and topography, and select the varietals, rootstocks and vine training that will thrive in local conditions. “In a region with cooler soils and less sunshine, you might use biodynamic treatments that promote soil warmth and reflection of light to facilitate easier ripening of grapes,” for example.
All of that makes perfect sense to me, as does another biodynamics principle: the emphasis on conducting certain practices on days related to the lunar phases and the placement of constellations. Biodynamicists believe there are root, leaf, flower and fruit days, and planting, pruning and harvesting should only happen on prescribed days. It can sound a little astrological until you consider the effect the moon has on waves and tides. Is it really that much of a stretch to believe that the moon’s pull can influence the water in the roots, leaves, stems and berries? I don’t think so. Taking this one step further are apps like When Wine Tastes Best, which tell you what days are more auspicious on which to drink wine. (Although if you are having a bad Tuesday and need a glass, I say go for it no matter what the recommendation.)
Another obstacle the biodynamic movement has had to fight is the term constantly being interchanged with “natural wine.” The latter generally means wines made with organic or biodynamic grapes (certified or not), no use of sulfur-dioxide, minimal intervention or manipulation, spontaneous, non-temperature-controlled fermentation and no filtering or fining, but the term is not legally defined, so it can mean different things to different people, according to Bertrand. “The best examples are fresh and expressive, [but] often the wines can have some ‘off’ aromas and flavors [as] there are a lot of microbes and wild yeasts in the air that might pop in without invitation.” By contrast, his biodynamic wines use biodynamically-grown grapes, little intervention, indigenous yeasts, minimal sulfur, temperature-controlled fermentation and maybe light filtration of fining--but that’s it. (He also offers a line of sulfur-free biodynamic wines called Naturae.)
The main takeaway with biodynamics? That it promotes harmony--in a vineyard, in the cellar and in the bottle. And that can only lead to a great end result in the glass. Bertrand compares it to a holistic approach to medicine or health. “When people eat wholesome, nutritious food, breath clean air, get plenty of exercise and rest, have loving relationships and are stimulated intellectually and spiritually, they lead healthy lives, longer than they would be otherwise.”
If this all still seems esoteric and abstract, you can actually recreate a biodynamic experience yourself at home that might make you a bit less skeptical. At Bertrand’s most esteemed property Clos d’Ora (where he does meditation daily in a hut among the vineyards, obviously), we remove our shoes at the door and take turns creating musical tones using a chakra bowl. Over dinner he instructs us to taste the wine then swirl it seven times to the left and seven times to the right before tasting it again. Call it hocus pocus, the power of suggestion or just too many aperitifs before I sat down, but it tasted decidedly different. Not just more open and expressive from the expected aeration, but truly different.
That dynamizer? It just might be onto something.
Biodynamic bottles to try:
2015 Domaine de Cigalus Red ($40), a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache and caladoc that’s lush and opulent with black fruit and velvety tannins.
Chateau l'Hospitalet Art de Vivre White ($32), an elegant and balanced wine with aromas of citrus, apricot, peach and honey and a rich full palate with mint, anise and citrus and a lengthy finish.
2016 Frey Biodynamic Tempranillo ($16.50), a California red made with the classic Spanish varietal with aromas of violets and cassis and an elegant palate of elderberry, allspice and sandalwood. This wine won a gold medal in the 2018 NY International Wine Competition.
2016 Frey Vineyards Biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc ($20), Notes of lemon custard, pineapple and guava join balanced acidity in this fresh and expressive white that’s extremely food friendly.
2015 Montinore Reserve Pinot Noir ($38), an Oregon pinot with grapes sourced from their best sites, this wine has aromas of plum, cherry, tobacco leaf, cedar and sage and a palate of wild Oregon berries, red plum, leather and baking spice.