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Biodynamic Basics
By Sandra Taylor
May 22, 2018
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Biodynamic wine producers believe that life begins in the soil and that a healthy balance in the vineyard eco-system and in their wines is dependent on first achieving healthy balance in the soil.  Many turn to biodynamic viticulture in order to restore balance to over-used soil that had been abused by years of poor agricultural practices.

The biodynamic approach to grape growing has become one of the more controversial issues within the wine industry.  The skeptics, who are many, see it as an incredible waste of time and money.  For some, it is pure quackery, an affront to science and modern thinking. 

For its adherents, however, biodynamic viticulture is a further advance along a similar line as organic viticulture.  It is natural, not only because no chemicals are used, but also because it takes into account the forces of nature -- the seasons, the phases of the moon and planetary constellations.  Just as the moon gives us the tides, the moon can influence moisture content in the vine and the soil, creating a biodynamic calendar, which indicates the best times to plant, prune and prepare the soil. 

On a practical level, biodynamic farmers use homeopathic formulations to treat their plants and the soil.  Some of the oft-lampooned "interventions" are compost energizers made from plants fermented in animal bladders and bones, or spraying ground-up quartz on the vine to increase the luminosity of the sun.  Leaf sprays, used for treating and re-enforcing the vines, are made from the juice of ground-up flowers, dried plants, herbs and other natural sources.
Whereas organic farming focuses on refraining from adding certain things to the vine and the soil, one of the core principles of biodynamic farming is adding certain preparation elements to the soil and, thus, the plant.  This distinction separates biodynamic farming from organic or other sustainable farming initiatives.

Biodynamics also has its astrological influences.  Many biodynamic winemakers will add compost, spray their plants, work and weed the soil, and ultimately pick their grapes and bottle their wine following a prescribed calendar that is loosely based on the position of the moon, the stars and the constellations.

Some biodynamic producers believe that this approach makes for better grapes.  Jean Michel Comme of Pontet Canet in Pauillac once told me that biodynamic treatments are preventive protections for the plant, not applying medicine, i.e. chemicals, when it is sick.  The vineyard manager must be continually receptive to what the plants need, and when they need it.

Although we speak of biodynamics as if it is relatively new, much is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, traced to a series of lectures he gave in 1924 to a group of European farmers who had observed a rapid decline in seed fertility, crop vitality, and animal health on their farms.

For Steiner, the ideal biodynamic farm was a diverse but self-sustaining ecosystem of plants and animals, surrounded by a belt of forest or wild growth to provide protection from predators.  Diseases and pests are less likely to settle on this type of property.  While this rationale sounds rational enough, biodynamic agriculture is still a mystery to many.  Why is that?  Well, some of the components and rituals of biodynamic farming are pretty strange and may sound a little like wizardry to some.  Many biodynamic farmers admit that some of the practices are unusual, but they harken back to the days of pre-industrial farming, when a farmer would utilize materials found on the farm to create their own fertilizers and preventative measures for pest and weed control.  Similarly, relying on the phases of the moon to plan vine planting, pruning, and harvesting is not entirely unlike the use of The Farmers Almanac by earlier generations of farmers.

In recent years, biodynamic has become a more respected and coveted way to make wine, largely due to the quality of the wines it produces.  I have found that wines from vineyards that have been biodynamic for a number of years and are well made, have vibrancy and minerality about them -- as if the soil is alive and the wine is alive too.  No one can be exactly sure how and why biodynamics works so well in the vineyard, but when combined with great winemaking, the results can be sublime.  After all, the most expensive wine in the world, Romanée-Conti, is biodynamic.

Benziger Family Winery is Sonoma’s first biodynamic winery, dating back to 1995 and certified by Demeter in 2000, producing Cabernet, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  According to Mike Benziger, “Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides, we rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on our estate, to keep our vineyard healthy and balanced.  There is no silver bullet in Biodynamic winegrowing.  When you eliminate all the artificial crutches, you learn to trust your instincts and to trust nature’s ability and capacity to make a great wine.”
When I visited Johan Reyneke, the first biodynamic winegrower in South Africa, we talked about his powerful commitment and enthusiasm for the land and the people who work the land with him.  The homeopathic treatments that he applies to the soil seem to have provided moist, crumbly soils that you can plunge your hand into.  This contrasts sharply with a neighboring “conventional” vineyard where the surface soil is compacted, hard, impenetrable and devoid of life.  His wines are fresh, clean, complex without being aggressive -- the very definition of terroir driven wines.

Of Reyneke’s wines I have enjoyed immensely are, first, the highly rated 2015 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, which is a bit more subtle than some of the more popular Sauvignon Blancs we drink in the US, more mineral than fruity, yet still with delightful notes of stone fruits.  Second, the 2010 Capstone Red, a very fine Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, is a rustic, earthy, a chewy wine, with notes of vanilla and espresso, figs and a touch of spice. 

Several of the biodynamic estates I’ve visited over the years are very careful to describe themselves as a farm, not a vineyard, because of the high diversity of animal and plant life that exists on their property.  At Seresin Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand, there are working horses to pull the plows, sheep to graze the grass between the rows, cows for manure, and even pigs merrily running up and  down  between  the  vines.

Seresin Estate is home to extensive olive tree plantings, vegetable gardens, and orchards, all of which are tended with the same care as the vineyards that  surround  them.  The property is designed to be different from the monoculture that a commercial vineyard can become.  The gardens and livestock also give a sense  of  balance to the estate, allowing the proprietors to make good quality organic meat, fruit and vegetables for the restaurant and the people who work there, along with great quality wines( focused, precise Seresin Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough and the Seresin “Leah” Pinot Noir with bold notes of leafy fruit, balance of spice and oak, and a smooth, slightly tart finish).

Even those who are put off by the spiritual aspect of biodynamics can appreciate the sustainable goals and, especially, the emphasis on enlivening the soil that is so critical to vine health.  This is evidenced by the number of viticulturists who have adopted biodynamic farming in whole or in part in their vineyards, including a few of my favorites:

--Quintessa, Rutherford, Napa Valley:  From 280 acres of rolling hills include a valley, a lake, a river, five hills, four microclimates and numerous different soil types, Quintessa is a red Meritage wine with a blend includes some or all of these five varietals:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmènere.

--Cayuse Vineyards, Walla Walla Valley, WA:  In 2002, Cayuse became the first domain in the Walla Walla Valley to fully implement biodynamic farming.  Their wines are typical Rhône varietals and blends of Syrah and Grenache and certified biodynamic.

--Champagne Fleury, Champagne, France:  The largest biodynamic producer in the Champagne region, Champagne Fleury has been farmed biodynamically since 1989 and accredited by Demeter and Biodyvin. 

--Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand:  Known for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, Felton Road is a modern winery that is gravity fed and receives 100% estate grown fruit from its three vineyards that are all farmed biodynamically and are fully certified by Demeter.

Other especially noteworthy biodynamic producers include:

--Beaux Frères, Willamette Valley, OR,
--Domaine LeRoy, Burgundy, France
--Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, France
--Cullen Wines, Margaret River, Australia
--Domaine Huet, Vouvray, Loire Valley France
--Michel Chapoutier, Rhône Valley, France
--Bonny Doon, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
--Bonterra Vineyards by Fetzer Winery, Mendocino County, CA

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[Note to Readers:  Sandra Taylor, our newest columnist at Wine Review Online, was just appointed to the position of Falk Professor of Socially Responsible Business at Chatham University, located in Pittsburgh.  This is a dual appointment to the Business School and the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment.  Sandra...congratulations!  Michael Franz, Editor]