Biodynamics – What is it?

The practice of ‘biodynamics’ was first formally explained through Dr Rudolf Steiner’s (b. 1861 – d. 1925) work and put to paper in the 1920’s through a series of lectures conducted by Steiner in Germany.  It outlines an alternative form of agriculture, similar to (but not the same as) organic farming.  Biodynamics can be most recognised for its two key principles.  The first relating to the cycles of the moon.  The second relating to the reduced usage of chemicals in the vineyard, in line also with earth preparation and compost preparation. 

Let’s discuss the lunar cycle for a moment.  The biodynamic calendar divides the days of the year into Root days, Flower days, Fruit days and Leaf days.  It is generally accepted by those who follow the lunar calendar that wine tasting is more successful (ie the wine tastes better) on either flower or fruit days, where root and leaf days are better for planting/maintenance (leaf) and storage (root). 

The theory is that the energy/gravitational pull from the moon (which controls the ebb and flow of the tides on the planet) affects the four elements (air, wind, water and fire) and in turn affect the four elements of the plant: the root, the flower, the leaf and the fruit.   Aligning planting, harvesting, and tasting with this calendar allows the winemaker and viticulturist to naturally harness the environmental energy of the moon in the vineyard.

The other principle central to biodynamic farming is perhaps easier (in part) for the regular person to understand; that is to drastically reduce (and where possible to eliminate) the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and any other chemicals in the vineyard/garden.  There are many ways of doing this: grazing sheep, guinea fowl, co-planting, and natural composts just to name a few.  The idea here is that the vineyard reaches and maintains optimal health throughout the year.  It requires astute observation and sensitivity on the part of the gardener/viticulturist/winemaker to ensure that ecological harmony is preserved.

It is impossible to discuss biodynamics without mentioning Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines in Margaret River.  Vanya lives and breathes the practice, and has just released four astoundingly complex and ground-breaking wines – for both Margaret River, Australia and perhaps the world – called the Kevin John Legacy Series.  These are four chardonnays (two from 2013 and two from 2014) that explore in incredible detail the effects of following biodynamic practice on wine.  The chardonnays are from the same vineyard, picked on either Fruit days or Flower days, and are aged in barrels from a cooper in France, who cut down the oak for the barrels on a corresponding Fruit or Flower day.  They are treated in exactly the same manner in the winery. 

If any doubt remains about the effect of biodynamics on the qualities of a wine, then these four wines must be seen to be believed.  They are starkly different.  Amazing for the same grape, from the same vineyard, picked only days apart and treated to exactly the same winemaking processes.   Vanya only made a barrel of each of these wines (perhaps 30 dozen each?) so they are also extremely rare.

If you want to give the Fruit Day/ Flower Day tasting idea a burl, then try this: Buy two bottles of exactly the same wine, doesn’t matter what it is, just make sure they’re the same – we’re looking “apples for apples”.  Open the first one on Sunday the 22nd of May (a Leaf Day), taste it, make a note.  Try it again late on Monday the 23rd evening (the cusp of a Fruit day), and again on Tuesday the 24th (Fruit day).  Make notes on each of these days, and compare them.  Open your second bottle (I’m sure the first is now gone) on Friday the 27th of May (a Root day).  Taste it and make a note.  Try it again on Saturday the 28th (a Flower Day) and see how it looks.  I bet the results will be interesting, if not – at least you’ve got some wine open.

There are many great producers world-wide who use biodynamic practices in their viticulture – perhaps more than you might expect.  Wineries that are certified will have a small biodynamic certification emblem on the back label - hopefully next time you pick one up, you might have a better understanding of what it is you are holding in your hand.