Understanding biodynamics three ways
Cow horns? Moon phases? Here’s what you need to know about Biodynamics.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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What you’ve heard is true. Biodynamics is as complex, shapeshifting, and mysterious as wine itself. Even winegrowers who have invested a lifetime in studying and practicing it surrender to a pervasive element of unknowability.
So where to begin when we try to wrap our heads around a practice rooted in generations of farming, philosophy and spirituality that stretches from the tiniest building blocks of life to the vastness of the cosmos?
One way may be to look at biodynamics through the eyes — and wines — of the growers themselves. Here are three leading winemakers who followed their own paths to biodynamics, offering three perspectives on what brings biodynamic wines so vividly to life.
Rudolf Trossen: The Spiritualist
It is hard to find a grower more steeped in the spirituality of biodynamics than Rudolf Trossen.
He and his wife Rita have grown vines and made wine in Germany’s mid-Mosel for more than 40 years. At a young age, Trossen inherited a few hectares of vines and a garage-sized press and cellar. This was in the late 1970s and German counterculture was raging (yes, that was a thing). Trossen, who has an instinctive distaste for authoritarianism, no formal schooling, and a remarkably supple mind, happened to encounter anthroposophy — Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s world view and the seedbed in which biodynamics grows — around that time.
The empirical-spiritual nature of biodynamics appealed to Trossen viscerally.
“Biodynamics involves an increase in interest in everything,” he says. “It’s as big as a mountain and can, with Steiner as a guide, be approached from various sides.”
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an unlikely catalyst for a farming revolution. Just a year before his death, he was asked to apply his spiritually centred philosophy to agriculture. His audience was a group of demoralised farmers in eastern Germany. Mechanised, chemical agriculture was fraying their ties to land, crops, and traditions. They hoped Steiner would map a path of reconnection. His response was a series of lectures that have come to be known as the “Agricultural Course.”
Steiner, a teetotaler, didn’t address wine growing or making. But Trossen takes an expansive view of Steiner’s teachings. He sees biodynamic farming and winemaking, in their essences, as forms of energy transfer: from cosmos to earth, earth to soil, soil to vine, grape to wine, wine to human.
An icon of biodynamics — the manure-filled cow horn — supplies a concrete example. Trossen explains the practice of burying a horn in autumn and unearthing it in spring as charging the contents, like a battery. By then stirring or “dynamizing” those contents with water, he believes he releases these stored earth forces, and mixes his own mood and intentions into the concoction. He then sprays this preparation, known in biodynamic parlance as BD500, in homeopathic doses on his vines. This, a Steinerian holds, returns the energy of both cosmos and grower to the vines. (Biodynamic practitioners can buy these preps and still call their wine biodynamic, but the difference in intent can’t be ignored.) “This does nothing to generate higher yields,” Trossen points out, “but appears to lead to greater inner quality.”
Through the lens of biodynamics, the press room and cellar become what Trossen calls “loci of intensive enlivening”. He accepts the influences of grape ripeness and yeasts, fermentation vessel and temperature, but just as importantly the burning of candles and incense, the presence of gemstones, even his own mood on the final wine. “If people are moved by a wine,” he says, “that comes from the maker having added an energetic input. The success of a fermentation also depends on me.”
But those are the only cellar additions he permits himself. Though his wines exceed all standards required for biodynamic certification, the only official seal of approval you’ll find on his bottles is that of EcoVin, an organic certifying body he helped call into life in 1985.
Trossen’s bottlings express his belief that wine is “one of the most sensitive beverages that exists, a kind of matrix for all the fine pulsations, substances, and emotions that arise from the vineyard and cellar. Farming, working with the earth, is an art. And it’s an unbridled joy to be part of it. Wine receives the mood of the milieu, the terroir, imprints this and can carry the tidings of its origins, the melody of its creation into the world.”
Wine: Pyramide Pur’us
Trossen’s myriad small rituals add up to mystical, transcendent wines. The Pyramide, open and expressive from the first sip, builds from a base — salty, juicy, and very fresh, adding layer after layer of intensely concentrated apricot, quince, and caraway and lemon balm. Proof positive that these are wines that age on a fascinating trajectory of their very own.
Alex Zahel: The Pragmatist
Viennese vintner Alex Zahel arrived at biodynamics from a very different place.
His family’s estate Bio Weingut Zahel is a big operation — dozens of plots spread over 33 hectares — in a major European capital. It might seem impossible to scale up the intimate dance of observation and response biodynamics entails in this way. But it was actually big, mixed-farming estates that Steiner had in mind when he gave his lectures.
A key tenet of biodynamics is the closed-system farm and its individuality. Steiner held that, like Earth itself, every farm should supply all of its own needs: nothing added, nothing taken away. At the centre of this system stands the grower, a guiding intelligence orchestrating processes that cannot occur without the human hand.
Alex Zahel was fresh from wine school when he took over his uncle’s estate and led its conversion to organic farming. Over the years that followed, Zahel, convivial and well connected, had opportunities to taste top wines from across Austria and around the world. Glass by glass, he became convinced that biodynamics and quality went hand in hand.
As a pragmatist, he was drawn to certification from Demeter, a global organisation that scrutinises everything from the percentage of farmland to be reserved as native habitat, to which compost and plant preparations, or “preps” (more on these below) may be applied and when, to a host of “wine processing standards” in the cellar. Demeter has gone so far as to trademark the word “biodynamic” to ensure it is only applied to products that meet these standards.
Zahel gained certification for the estate in 2018. “But that’s not the end goal,” he notes, “It’s just the start of a learning process that will take years to show an impact on wine style or complexity.” In broad strokes, though, Zahel feels that now, five years into biodynamic farming, his wines are “more on the savory side, show more balance in acidity and texture, and have less alcohol — even though we don’t harvest any earlier.” But measurability has its limits. “Something is changing,” he says. “The wines are definitely more individual.”
Wine: Orange T 2018
From the Zahels’ first Demeter-certified vintage. Orangetraube is a light-skinned aromatic rarity discovered in Germany in the 1840s. It has since migrated to the banks of the Danube and become a signature for the Zahel family, who have 2.5 hectares of old vines and make this monovarietal beauty from them. Crunchy, slightly off dry, and deeply mineral, with Traminer spice, and the unmistakable, nose-twitching aroma of orange blossom and dancing vitality.
Deirdre Heekin: The Healer
Deirdre Heekin, and her husband, Caleb Barber, had no choice but to be open-minded about their farming. Working four and half hectares of vines in a remote corner of Vermont, a state in the northeastern US that resembles the Alpine foothills and has a climate to match, was an odd choice for wine growing when they started more than a decade ago. But their bold and singular claim for this terroir has paid off and biodynamics arguably has everything to do with their success.
Their wines, which carry the La Garagista label, are wild, vital, elegant expressions of place. Heekin has an unshakable faith in once-dismissed hybrid varieties. This is rooted in her commitment to giving these grapes fresh, clear voices through scrupulously attentive farming and sensitive winemaking. Her inclinations and experience opened her mind to the possibilities of biodynamics early on. The wines kept validating her path.
For Heekin, the lure of biodynamics is its emphasis on medicinal teas and ferments (again, the “preps”) and the space it gives the grower “for adaptation and evolution” based on the specific needs of her particular piece of land. Crucially for Heekin, biodynamics “teaches the grower how to be an observer and then to develop his or her own philosophy based on those tenets.”
What’s missing from the conversation around biodynamics today, she believes, is an acceptance of the scarcely understood science underpinning it.
“The preparations, the teas are all about fermentation and inoculation. The appropriate vessel — a cow horn or stag bladder, which may sound suspect in our highly technological age — actually, scientifically, has the right molecular structure to be used as a fermentation vessel, and inoculated with other plant materials like dandelion, yarrow, oak bark, or animal manures. When they ferment, they create a new form, a new molecular structure, that then becomes a very important tool in farming. It’s physics and chemistry. ”
You won’t find any formal indication on La Garagista’s bottles that the wine they contain is biodynamic. Heekin holds strong, sensible views on why conventional producers, not organic or biodynamic growers, should be required to bear the cost of certification, not the other way round.
What matters to her is the clear pathway biodynamics helps to create between the land and her relationship with it, the fruit and the wine.
“It’s like a tuning fork for the expression of the landscape you’re working in and your relationship with that parcel and those vines.”
Wine: Vinu Jancu 2017
Vinu Jancu 2017 is a paradigm for the palpable vivacity of biodynamic farming and winemaking. An orange wine from the American hybrid grape La Crescent, fermented on the skins from grapes Heekin farms with meticulous attention to vine health through inoculations and ferments. The wine is all fine-wale tannins and heady aromas and flavours of orange peel, chrysanthemum, eat-this-moment apricot, and a sharp note of caraway seed and fresh bay leaf. All in perfect attunement.
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