Moonshine and mysticism - what is biodynamics all about?

Wine writer Caroline Gilby MW who has a PhD in plant science, finds herself unconvinced by the rhetoric and reverence around the biodynamic approach to vineyard management.

Moonshine and mysticism- what is biodynamics all about?

Supercharged organics with a hint of spirituality?

Domaine Huet in Vouvray has been biodynamic for many years, longtime winemaker and former manager, Noël Pinguet was always sceptical and claimed he didn't understand how it worked, but was convinced by the resultsBiodynamics sounds quite lovely in principle - often billed as a kind of supercharged organic approach to grape growing, complete with more than a hint of spirituality. Demeter, the largest certifying organisation for this system defines biodynamics as 'a holistic approach to agriculture in which vitality is the highest priority,' while French group Biodyvin states 'a wine producing property, like any other agricultural property, is considered to be a living organism.' The wine trade today seems to hold biodynamics in great, and unquestioning, reverence, partly because of some of the renowned producers who have converted.

Where's the science?

There's little doubt in my mind that many biodynamic wines are great, but as a scientist I want to know why and to be able to question which parts of the biodynamic approach are the crucial ones, or whether it is a question simply of belief.

Sadly my experience is more often that I hit a brick wall whenever I try and challenge converts. A little snippet from Douglas Adams' Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy tends to pop into my head - where God is challenged to prove his existence and responds along these lines, 'I refuse to prove I exist because proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing.'

The origins of biodynamics

Biodynamics is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. He invented the concept of Anthroposophy, which he describes as spiritual science, and presented his ideas in a series of lectures in 1924 (all available free on the web if you are curious).

I waded through these to understand where the concept came from and found it packed with references to ethereal, cosmic and astral forces. As just one example Steiner said, 'we must treat the whole agricultural life with the conviction that we need to pour vitality, nay even astrality, in all directions, so as to make it work as a totality.'

The invention of the biodynamic calendar

Moonshine and mysticism- what is biodynamics all about?
The biodynamic calendar was invented by Maria Thun

Other people have also had an influence in biodynamics today, most notably Maria Thun who invented the biodynamic calendar with advice on the best days to sow seeds and carry out other tasks according to astrology and phases of the moon. She went onto to publish a book suggesting that this influences the days on which wine tastes best, depending on whether it is a fruit or a root day. Personally I wouldn't want to be obliged to consult a calendar before wielding my corkscrew.

And what about the biodynamic prepartions?

Biodynamic preparations, as detailed by Steiner, are a requirement for certification as biodynamic but the certifying organisations rather plays down the details of exactly how these are made. I suspect reading the fine details might make a number of readers feel uncomfortable especially if any are vegetarians or vegans.

There are several compost preparations numbered 502-507 that are claimed to have 'the task of promoting humus development by drawing in ordering forces from the cosmos.' The yarrow preparation must be packed into a stag's bladder, while another preparation requires that camomile is buried inside bovine intestines.

Oak bark has to be used but only after it has been 'packed into the skull of any of our domestic animals' and buried for some months, while dandelions are also matured in bovine peritoneum.

It gets worse in that to deal with rodent problems you are supposed to catch field mice, skin them and burn these skins when Venus is in Scorpio then sprinkle the ashes like pepper across your fields. And then after all this, these substances are used in miniscule quantities - for example the contents of one skull treats 300 hectares of land.

A 'special way' or just superstition?

Moonshine and mysticism- what is biodynamics all about?
Burying cow horns

Dissolving these preparations in water and stirring in a special way for an hour or 'dynamising' is specified too. To me this all smacks of superstition, though in Demeter's words, 'produced in this special way, the preparations develop a strong yet subtle power whose effect may be compared to that of homeopathic remedies.'

Burying cow-horns, one of the more well-known biodynamic preparationsPerhaps most famous are the cow horn preparations which involve filling cow horns variously with cow manure or with silica and then burying them for months. Back to Steiner himself for the explanation, 'The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism. Thus in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature, to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life. In the horn you have something radiating life - nay, even radiating astrality.'

Some aspects make sound viticultural sense

I guess I may sound a bit cynical about all this, and I must admit I am - but at the same time I can see parts of the biodynamic approach that make sound viticultural sense. For instance, nitrogen inputs are limited to be no more than the manure that a farm's own animals can produce, which will help control vigour.

Use of home-produced animal manure and compost are encouraged and synthetic agrochemicals are forbidden, thus building humus in the soil. Biodiversity is encouraged by insisting on natural reserves on the property, which is potentially good for beneficial insects as well as wildlife, and cover crops must be planted.

Careful attention is also paid to vital aspects of raising a good healthy grape crop such as canopy management to allow good airflow and plenty of light penetration. And if you aren't uncomfortable with use of slaughtered animals, there are animal welfare standards in place.

Striving for sustainability, a laudable approach

All in all, I think the wine industry has a duty to become more sustainable, after all wine is a luxury, not an essential food crop. It's not so long ago (until 1998) that some of the world's most valuable vineyards in Champagne were regularly fertilized by spreading the 'dechets' or rubbish from Paris.

The sight of vineyards stripped bare of anything but vines through routine use of herbicides is still common, leaving them hardly any better than green concrete in terms of biodiversity. However, I believe that sustainable practices are the best solution to this - more on this another time.

Nothing more than mysticism, moonshine & marketing hype

So however many great names head down the biodynamic route, I remain to be convinced that most of it is anything more than mysticism, moonshine, and marketing hype overlaid on top of some sound and pragmatic grape-growing practices.

Frequently, biodynamic producers are those who would be making great wine anyway (and often were before their conversion) because they have fantastic terroirs and pay utter attention to the details of growing top-quality grapes and making the best wine they can. Who needs anything more?

The Society view

The Wine Society is of the view that in order to produce high-quality wines that speak of the place where they were made, growers, by definition, need to take great care of their vineyards to ensure their long-term health. If they are able to do this by farming organically or biodynamically then this is a bonus, but ultimately the wine has to taste good first and foremost.

Caroline Gilby MW

Guest Writer

Caroline Gilby MW

Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and a scientist by training. She is a wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe and contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.

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