The first time I heard about biodynamic wine, it sounded, to me, like some odd French marketing gimmick. Not an unreasonable thought, considering the fact the bottle of wine being discussed was from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a place known for prohibiting flying saucers or, as the French call them les cigares volantes from landing in their vineyards. I find it reassuring to me to see the French senses humor and creativity so alive and well. Of course, such laws also illustrate an equally French no non-sense approach to what fuels these qualities– wine.
All we knew at the time was that biodynamic winemaking had something to do with the full moon. We all had a good laugh. My boss kept asking if various items around the restaurant — it could have been a chair or a dog for all he cared– were biodynamique. He just liked to say it. In French.
Biodynamism was, we thought, similar to organic winemaking, only more hippie-like.
I feel so ashamed of myself, I could just spit. It might be hippie-like, but it is definitely worth taking seriously.
So what exactly is biodynamic winemaking?
It is a category of biodynamic agriculture, which is essentially an organic farming system based primarily upon eight lectures on anthroposophy given by Rudolph Steiner in Germany in 1924.
Even in 1924, when man’s faith in better living through chemistry was picking up speed, Steiner was convinced that the quality of food was being degraded by the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Sounds very much like our modern, and fortunately blossoming, organic agricultural movement. What set Steiner and his biodynamism apart from the organic philosophy was more than his belief in the spiritual shortcomings of a chemical approach to farming. Steiner considered the world and everything in it as simultaneously spiritual and material in nature, that living matter was different from dead matter. He also believed in the influence of planetary events on agricultural crops. Ah, there’s that moon reference.
Biodynamism is, more or less, a very holistic approach to organic farming.
You are, at this point, either yawning or scratching your head. If the former is the case, go get yourself a coffee and come back when your caffeine has kicked in. If the latter is true, read on and follow these links pertaining to biodynamic agriculture, vitalism and Demeter International and then get back to me. I’m happy to wait. It’s a rather complex topic. One, with a slight bow to irony, not easily digested.
Two days ago, my fellow co-workers and I were fortunate enough to have someone explain it all– or, at least his application of biodynamism– to us.
Fresh from his stint as cover model for next week’s Wine Spectator, Mike Benziger took some time out to both explain his biodynamic approach to winemaking and to let us taste the results– his 2004 vintage Tribute.
He began his talk by asking us about various alcoholic beverages. What does beer do to you? He mentioned that it made one tired and gassy. Tequila? I muttered something about how it renders one stupid and causes one to sleep with people one might otherwise regret sleeping with sober. And wine?
“Wine is a high energy substance, it changes the spirit of the room as soon as the bottle is opened. Wine connects us to the sun, to the earth and to each other.”
In two sentences, Benziger encapsulated what I belive to be essence of biodynamic winemaking, in as much as I can gather. Wine just might be the poster child for this approach to agriculture– a mingling of living and dead matter that, if you will forgive me for saying, creates its own life force, therby enhancing our own. Unless, I thought, one drinks excessive amounts of it and dies of alcohol poisoning, I reminded myself that biodynamism is about cosmic balance and the thought passed.
To Benziger, biodynamism is about a personal connection to the land. And he is certainly connected to his. He’s been working his 85 acres for the past twenty-five years. Only forty of which are planted with vines. The rest, in the closed farming tradition of biodynamism, are occupied by such things as stables, insectaries and pasture.
Biodynamism considers the environment more important than the plant, the whole trumping any of its parts. In Benziger’s vineyard, one might be overwhelmed by environment, or at least cataloging it. His vines are planted in a circle created naturally by volcanic crater. Over the years, Benziger has recognized thirty-one distinct microclimates within that circle– each contributing it’s own particular qualities to the final blend of his wine.
Biodynamism dictates that man work within nature’s boundaries rather than bend it to his own will. This, of course, is a dictum impossible to follow since agriculture is essentially a system created by man to exploit and propagate that nature which serves him best and eliminate–or at least exclude– that which does not. Those rabid enough to adhere to such a strict construction would be reduced, in my opinion, to hunting and gathering. Fortunately, Benziger and, I’m sure, most other biodynamic farmers approach this idea with a more practical spirit.
To eliminate a dependence upon chemical pesticides, plants are planted to attract beneficial insects to the vineyards. Insects are neither purchased nor physically transported, but rather invited onto the property by means of what Benziger refers to as “bug highways”– swaths of specific plants that lure the insects directly into the vineyard.
In addition to insects and creative planting, various animals are utilized to keep down the number of pests– chickens and owls, for example. Grazers, such as Scottish Highland cattle and sheep keep weeds in check and remove any need for chemical fertilizers. “Sheep are a great viticultural tool.” quipped Benziger, “They do three things for us: they eat, shit and turn the soil with their hooves.” Who needs a tractor?
With the removal of chemical pesticides and fertilizer comes the eventual return of native yeasts, which are, he believes, essential to the character of his wine.
The goal with biodynamic farming is a closed environmental system. The borders between natural and farmed areas eventually merge and begin to speak, as Benziger says, “the language of terroir.” Which, of course, is also essential to the character of his wine.
And how does biodynamism apply to the process of winemaking?
Here’s where the moon comes in. Don’t cringe. It makes perfect sense. Wine is racked only under a new moon. Why? sendiment is at its most compact at this time. The tidal pull of a full moon causes it to puff up.
Biodynamic regulations, as laid down by Demeter International, also dictate that no yeast or malolactic bacteria may be added to the wine though sulpher dioxide is allowed. Apologies, I forgot to ask why this was so., I was busy drawing the Demeter logo in my notebook, since the logo on Benziger’s bottle did not photograph well:
The logo sums it up, I’d say. From the top left and working clockwise around the four quadrants are: fire, air, earth (which I drew somewhat inaccurately) and water. Everything in the universe, according to the Ancients, was comprised of some combination of these elements. What the logo does not show, however is a fifth element; one created when the four other elements get together– spirit. It does sport a rather intriguing symbol directly under the name Demeter. Being the strong fertility goddess she was to the Greeks, I am not certain if the symbol represents some sort of budding plantlife or not. I prefer to see it as a highly stylized hermaphrodite. One with enormous breasts and a penis dangling between its legs. How much more fertile can one get than that?
Okay. We’ve heard about how the vines were tended and how the grapes were vinified. But what about the taste? Benziger poured.
It was good. It was more than good, truthfully. Everyone in the room agreed. I must add here that I am talking about a room full of people who have, at one time, more or less rejected California Cabernet Sauvignons and blends thereof as showy and often juvenile– an embarrassment to be around. Not that they all are, but more in the spirit of rejecting one’s parents as an embarrassment in one’s teenage years.
Benziger’s 2004 Tribute is a well balanced wine, with soft-but-present tannin, hints of cedar, black cherry and, not surprisingly given todays topic of biodynamism, a certain earthiness. The finish lingered. It doesn’t try to out-macho its neighbors with an over-powering amout of oak. Silver Oak is a man who wears too much Brut and tells time by his gaudy Rolex. Tribute stands by its own, natural masculine scent and tells time by the position of the sun in the sky. Orthe moon, depending upon the time of day.
More importantly, I imagined I could taste everything that went into making the wine– the volcanic crater, the bees, even the Scottish Highland cows. Not literally, mind you but, knowing the effort and, well, the love that went into making this wine made the experience of drinking it even more pleasurable.
After the Benziger’s talk, my wine director was excited. “You’re going to see a lot more of these wines coming along.” I’m glad. It’s the wave of the future that many winemakers are considering riding. Wave of the future. Odd how a technique older than Charlemagne can be considered futuristic. Winemaking has now made a full circle– or is it full cycle?– like the moon that rules over the biodynamic process. It’s about time.
I’ll stop giggling now. I promise.
*Note. The pyramid diagram is borrowed from the Benziger website.