Some thoughts on organics and biodynamics

Here's a letter to the editor from the June 2010 edition of La Revue du Vin de France June 2010 about the rise of biodynamic wines in France (translated):

"It's with regret that I see that your experts have become affectionados of biodynamics ... While I'm in agreement with the rules of organic agriculture, which mark a return to common sense, I am unable to entertain quasi-cult like practices developed by Steiner about 100 years ago. For example, horns which will boost cosmic forces with cow dung .. and other nonsense which culminate with astrology ... I am surprised that your competent reviewers are supporting a questionable practice that will not save the decline of French wine in the face of the growing competition and quality of foreign wine ..."

Rather thought provoking, I thought. I too have noticed a certain tacit acceptance locally in Australia that equates "regular", "organic" and "biodynamic" with "good", "better" and "best" respectively.  I think I get the organics argument.  While apparently a clear definition is unavailable for "organics" (and therefore, cynically, I think capable of being filled by anyone trying to make money out of its caché), it seems accepted that organically grown grapes won't have permitted man-made inputs such as pesticides, chemical fertilisers, genetically modified organisms or chemically derived food additives.  I grow my own vegetables organically, so I guess I must think it does something.  But t
here is of course the small matter of what is and isn't organic, with copper and sulphur apparently permitted as organic, yet both are plainly chemicals.  I also wonder whether the "evil" chemicals are really just a more efficient version of what the plants are asking for, and so we are kidding ourselves if we think that providing it indirectly through organic preparations will produce a better result.  But I like the look, smell and touch of a good soil, and organics seems to help that along rather nicely compared with synthetic solutions.

Biodynamics, I think I am less keen on.  So what then is it? According to the "Biodynamic Agriculture Australia" website, it is a:

"regenerative agriculture, holistic in approach and practice, through which the farmer and gardener brings the substances and forces of nature into a quality and sustainable production ... Biodynamic farming practices are of an organic nature, not relying on bringing artificial fertilisers on to the farm, although some organic or natural mineral fertiliser may be necessary during the establishment phase."

All clear then ... To those of a more practical bent, perhaps like me, it looks largely like a form of organic farming with some mystic add-ons.  Those add-ons, I believe, include 
filling cow's horns with manure in Spring, burying ground quartz in cow horns in Autumn, creating certain organic composts and then observing the phases of the moon and planets in the decisions to plant, cultivate, spray and harvest grapes.  Adherents, including many in Australia (and wine writers such as Max Allen), are convinced it makes a difference to both wine quality and soil health.  I, on the other hand, haven't been able to test the merits of biodynamics so closely.  What I would like to see is an analysis of how much of a difference a biodynamic approach would make compared with a wholly organic approach.  Applying organic composts can improve soils too.  It also would be interesting to see whether the contribution, or otherwise, of the astrological component would be capable of scientific isolation.  I may be wrong, but aspects of biodynamics seem too mystical for me.

Despite these doubts, the wine producers who have reportedly adopted biodynamics are a seriously heavyweight group. They include, among others, Leflaive, Leroy and Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy, Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley, Cullen in the Margaret River and Jasper Hill in Heathcote. So, perhaps there is something in it, and I guess the ecosystem (other than perhaps the cows providing the horns) is unlikely to collapse if more wine producers adopted it.  For another view, see Campbell Mattinson's writings.

* This article has been amended since its original publication.
Wine Thoughts
June 19, 2010


Anonymous said…
One of the things I like about Biodynamics is that it challenges the way science often seeks to find a magic bullet ("...scientific islolation.") to solve an issue when a more holistic view is what is needed. When science can't even explain what a large % of the universe is made of there must be some room for the unknown! I'd be suprised if Leflaive et al were doing it for marketing purposes given they were already selling out of some of the world's best wines prior to becoming biodynamic. Rather it makes good sense to not follow the agrochemical pathway that science guided us down for the last 60 years.
Thank you for your comments. I agree that there's certainly sense in looking at alternative approaches and that an agrochemical approach is not necessarily going to result in sustainable outcomes. And we certainly still don't know a lot of things (or at least I don't)! I do wonder though whether an organic approach with the due respect to the environment that that can entail, could result in similar positive outcomes without resorting to some of the more ritualistic (at least for me) elements of biodynamics.

Anonymous said…
Why is burying a cow horn with dung in it 'holistic'? It always irritates me when the woo-hoo mystics appropriate words like natural and holistic. Examples are acupuncture = natural (really, what's natural about sticking pins in yourself?) or chiropractic = holistic (how can something that is entirely obsessed with the spine and an imaginary defect [subluxation] be holistic?). The French have embraced all things biodynamic even more than organic and they are always grabbing the wrong end of the stick (see their obsession with homeopathy for example).

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