Myths and Scientific Reality of Biodynamic Farming

Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines have all been gaining popularity throughout the world both with consumers and producers. But while organic and sustainable wines are easy enough to understand, biodynamic viticulture is more confusing and often surrounded by an aura of mystery and mysticism. While the amount of biodynamic vineyards has been steadily increasing, it is still a controversial practice. While some believe the use of biodynamic principles produces the highest quality wines, others believe the entire practice is a pseudoscience akin to magic.

History of Biodynamics

Biodynamics was created by a man named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. He was an Austrian philosopher, spiritualist, and lecturer. He spoke on plenty of different topics, but his two most lasting ideas were the Waldorf School, a new schooling system for children that now exists around the world, and biodynamic farming. His lectures on biodynamic farming centered around the idea that the farm itself is a living organism and the use of synthetic chemicals on the farm were detrimental to its health. Steiner’s talks on biodynamic farming were progressive, and actually predated the organic farming movement by a few decades. But when Steiner came up with biodynamics, its intended use was for farming, not viticulture. In fact, Steiner did not drink alcohol, and believed it was detrimental to a person’s health.

Did You Know: Rudolf Steiner started giving talks on biodynamics about two decades before the organics movement began.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that biodynamics was first applied to viticulture. François Bouchet, who inherited a vineyard in the Loire Valley, was one of the first to use biodynamic principles on a vineyard. Another winemaker, Claude Monzies also began experimenting with biodynamic principles along with Xavier Florin in the 1960’s. In the 1980’s one of today’s biggest champions of biodynamics, Nicolas Joly converted his Loire Valley vineyards. Today the movement has been spread throughout both France and the world, and has been steadily increasing in the past decade.

Dr Rudolph Steiner

Dr. Rudolph Steiner

What is Biodynamics

Many people believe biodynamics is just organic farming plus a few extra steps, but there is really a difference in the main philosophies of the two farming methods. The heart of biodynamics is the belief that the farm or vineyard is itself a living, self-sustaining organism. And in order to keep this organism healthy all the interdependent systems within need to be in balance and themselves healthy. Therefore it is impossible to have healthy grapevines without a healthy soil, animals, fungus, ect.

Composts & Preparations

Like organic farming, biodynamics does not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Instead they rely on composts and preparations that are sprayed onto the grapevines or crops. Many of these sprays use a mixture of composts and other plants like nettle, chamomile, and yarrow. Depending on the spray used, they are designed to do things like strengthen the vines and foster the growth of helpful fungus and bacteria.

The most famous biodynamic preparation, and one that often raises skeptics eyebrows is called preparation 500. To make this preparation a cow horn is filled with fresh manure and then buried under the ground before the winter. It is then dug up in spring, and carefully mixed with a large amount of water using a special technique. This ‘tea’ is sprayed on the grapevines and soil. This preparation is used to strengthen the soil by adding beneficial microbes and balancing the ph, along with a host of other benefits to the land.

Vineyards on hills landscape

Calendar

Another important aspect to biodynamic farming is the biodynamic calendar. The calendar uses the position, and to a lesser extent the phases of the moon to divide the calendar into four different kinds of days. Each day is either a root, flower, leaf, or fruit day. Certain activities are better on certain days, for example pruning is best done on root days, while harvesting is best on fruit days, and watering is best on leaf days. Following the calendar can be difficult for vineyards, and in practice many wineries only follow the calendar when it is convenient. For instance, the grapes need to be harvested when they are ripe and it is rarely possible to wait for fruit days to harvest.

The biodynamic calendar is also used to find the best day to drink wine. Fruit and flower days are when wine tastes its best, and root and leaf days are when wine is not quite as good. Although, biodynamic producers believe this is not the case with all wines. Many wines that are conventionally farmed, and have many additives will not change day-to-day like biodynamic and more naturally produced wine will.

Myth or Scientific Reality

Skeptics of biodynamics argue that many of the practices in biodynamics have little affect on the land and vineyards, and regard it much like some sort of ineffective magic. But what can’t be argued is that biodynamic wine receives overall higher tasting scores compared to conventional and even organic wines. A recent study by two economists, one based in California and one in France, took wine ratings from three French publications and compared the scores of thousands of different wines. They found organic wines score an average of 6 points higher than conventional wines, and biodynamic wines scored an average of 11.8 points higher. Additionally, some of the most famous wineries in the world use biodynamics including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti which produces one of the most expensive wines in the world.

But some skeptics argue that it may not be the biodynamic farming that is responsible for higher quality wine, but rather that the wineries that practice biodynamics pay more attention to details, and spend more time in their vineyards than conventionally farmed vineyards.

On the other hand believers of biodynamics say biodynamic wine tastes more alive, pure, and is much more expressive of a region’s terroir compared to conventionally farmed wines. Additionally, biodynamic vineyards are better for the environment and the people both working in the vines and living nearby.

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On this Day

1924: The famous German philosopher, Steiner, presented his theory about biodynamic farming. The theory became a basis for such farming in various countries. However, there is no scientific basis for the theory.

2021: Holger Kirchmann published a paper in 2021 which falsified Steiner’s assertions about the impact of living forces on crops. He concluded that Steiner’s theory is not falsifiable and is pseudoscience.

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References:

“A History of Biodynamics in Wine.” n.d. Waterford Whisky. Accessed October 5, 2023. https://waterfordwhisky.com/element/a-history-of-biodynamics-in-wine/.

“Biodynamic Viticulture in the Americas | JancisRobinson.com.” 2023. Www.jancisrobinson.com. June 22, 2023. https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/biodynamic-viticulture-americas.

“Cow Horn Manure Preparation 500: How to Prepare? – Biodynamic Trainee.” 2020. November 2, 2020. https://biodynamictrainee.com/preparations/bd500/.

“ENJOY YOUR FOOD Get to Know Biodynamic Agriculture and Its Holistic, Ecological and Ethical Approach!” n.d. https://demeter.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/220414_DEM_INT_brochure_A5_Web.pdf.

“French Critics Rate Organic and Biodynamic Wines 6-12 Points Higher in Scores Compared to Conventional or Sustainable Wines, Wine Economists Find.” n.d. Www.winebusiness.com. Accessed October 12, 2023. https://www.winebusiness.com/news/article/241973.

“What Is a Biodynamic Calendar and How Does It Work? – Pares Baltà.” 2022. January 26, 2022. https://paresbalta.com/en/what-is-biodynamic-calendar-how-does-it-work/.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: By Published On: November 2, 2022Last Updated: October 22, 2023

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