Biodynamics and the liveliness of RAW wine…

RAW wine fair - London

RAW wine fair - London

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend both the RAW and REAL natural wine fairs in London. Both fairs had more than 200 exhibitors each and were very well attended by the public, trade and press. For 3 days I tasted some great artisan wines, had the opportunity to speak and learn about the winemaking process from the winemakers and learned a whole lot more about biodynamic grape growing.

Biodynamic farming is something that has always intrigued me, yet I never really understood the finer points and just thought it was an extreme form of organic farming. I had heard of moon influence and burying of cow horns in the soil but did not really get the point of it all – that is until I attended my first workshop on the topic at RAW – Biodynamics & the Authenticity of Taste by Nicolas Joly.

Nicolas Joly explaining balance and harmony in nature

Nicolas Joly explaining balance and harmony in nature

Nicolas Joly is one of the pioneers and leading personalities of the biodymanic wine movement. After a brief career in finance in the US, Canada and London he returned in 1977 to France to take over the family vineyard. Right from the start, Nicolas was pretty sceptical about the impact of the chemicals, which were used in modern agriculture, on the environment and from 1980 he started to experiment with biodynamic farming on his estate. In biodynamic farming the emphasise lies on the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals. Nicolas started off his presentation with the following statement:“Life does not belong to the earth – earth is a gift of life – it is a system in its own with lots of complex exchanges. When earth does not have enough life, eventually we will loose a little of life itself”. He went on to explain the holistic element as energy forces of the atoms which make up all life on earth. It reminded me of a chemistry lesson I took a long time ago and where I learned that everything in our world is made up of atoms and combination of atoms. The amount of single atoms remains the same yet these small chemical parts will form different bonds and become different things over the years. This made explanation made sense, and with it the holistic element became more scientific and less airy fairy for me :-) Joly continued his biodynamic lesson by stressing the importance of balance. He believes true balance in a vineyard can only be achieved by a deep understanding of life – through this knowledge a farmer can act in a certain (preventative) way to eliminate intervention as much as possible. When the farmer creates a balanced growing environment and maintains a living earth, he invests in the forces the plants needs to prosper, in harmony and respect with nature’s cycles of life. However to learn about nature and restore the land into living earth takes time, there are no short cuts and it is often not very commercial. It is a labour of passion for life istself and the rewards of biodynamic grape farming are wines which express a strong originality and individuality.

Chemically treated soil vs living soil  ©Jean-Baptiste Lemaire - Vinvert

Chemically treated soil vs living soil ©Jean-Baptiste Lemaire - Vinvert

Living soil is a topic which was further explored by Claude Bourguignon, the renowned soil and terroir expert. Claude’s presentation at RAW was very similar to the one he gave at the Natural European Wines Conference organised by VinNatur in Zurich last November. Claude spoke about the different elements and layers which make up the soil, the interrelationship between these soil elements and the vine, as well as other organic and micro organic activities typical for a living soil. He warned for the impact of chemicals (fertilisers and or pesticides) as they erode the soil, and with time take more and more life away. The picture here on the left is a great example of how the soil can be eroded by the chemicals – the arid part on the left is the treated part, the green part on the right has been farmed organically. Thank you to Vinivert who kindly provided the picture. For more info on Claude’s talk do check the video in my other post as the talk was extremely educational and interesting:-)

I attended one another masterclass on “living soil” , this time at REAL, hosted by Tom Lubbe and Craig Hawkins, two South African winemakers. Tom pioneered a biodynamic way of farming in South Africa in the 90′s and is now making wine in the Roussillon at Domaine Matassa and Craig makes wine for Lammershoek and under his own label Testalonga. One of the typical characteristics of a living soils are earth worms and Craig spoke about the earth worm farm at Lammershoek, created to introduce more worms back into the earth, as the soil slowly recovers from all the previous treatments. Tom on the other hand spoke about the relationship about minerality and a living soil, as he believes we cannot have the former without the later. He claims that a living soil, resulting from biodynamic farming will stabilize the PH in he grapes as in the must and thus eliminate the need to use sulphur or other additives. In a way this was pretty close to what Nicolas Joly had said about the wine making process resulting from biodynamic farming which he believed happened naturally in the cellar without much interference of the wine maker. All the winemaker has to do is provide a clean and healthy environment in the cellar.

James Millton makes beautifully balanced biodynamic wines in NZ - where is still today is an exception to the rule.

James Millton makes beautifully balanced biodynamic wines in NZ - where is still today is an exception to the rule.

After all this theory I want to speak a little about what impressed me most in the biodynamic wines I tasted at both events. Providing the cellar environment was indeed clean and healthy, these wines really stood out. They seem to have a pureness and elegance which time after time astonished me. They reflected their terroir to the point that one can almost imagine the land and its beauty whilst tasting. But most of all they were extremely balanced in all aspects – alcohol level, acidity, sweetness and tanin structure – no matter where they came from. (Loire, Roussillon, Alsace, Champagne, Austria, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa).

A few friends have written excellent yet very different reports on the fairs – do check out Simon Woolf‘s Raw, real or just natural? where Simon explores different definitions to speak about wine made in and from grapes farmed in a sustainable way. My friend and natural wine proponent Arnold Waldstein on the other hand posted his views of the London natural winefairs in “A New Yorkers view on London’s RAW natural wine fair“. In this great post, he talks about this purity as well as the aspirational character of natural wine and speaks of the liveliness in the glass. Yes these wines are alive, as they were made from the fruits of plants who were allowed to live a balanced life!!!

To conclude I would like to briefly touch on the unique and individual character of biodynamic wines. The Apôtre vertical Champagne tasting guided by winemaker David Léclapart, who spoke about the differences in climate and balance in the vineyard as he introduced each vintage, was an amazing opportunity to really appreciate this originality. David’s Champagnes reminded me of siblings – where one can clearly see several resemblances yet also individual traits. The grape varieties, the land (exposure, deep soil content & farming) were the same and the winemaking process was pretty uniform too, yet the different balance during the growing season expressed itself in distinctively different wines. To see and taste these differences in a Champagne, where the winemaking process is notoriously elaborate, clearly brought home the biodynamic message for me, and the distinctive individual taste profiles this organic farming method can achieve :-)

About Caroline

Caroline is a certified Sommelier (by the CMS) and WSET diploma student. In order to specialize in the wines of Champagne she moved to the region and currently works as a wine consultant, wine educator and wine writer. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and writes for several international publications including Palate Press, Snooth, Wine-Searcher, Decanter and Vinogusto; further activities include teaching Champagne related courses at Reims Management School and organizing personalized tasting experiences at http://www.tastingswithatwist.wordpress.com as well as being a regular judge at international wine competitions.
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  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Really informative and sensitive post Caroline.

    Biodynamics is a fascinating topic.

    On one hand it touches on a deep belief system that guides life in general. On the other, it invariably raises scientific questions about the why’s of some of the tactics.

    What I hear from winemaker after winemaker, life principals aside, is that it works. Yes…the lifeblood of a healthy plant and the place where taste is born is in the soil. And agree or not with Bio-D, the soil when given a chance to be alive, takes care of itself. With some help of course.

    And I can taste it.

    The liveliness. The freshness. The sense of place. It’s there.

    I can’t separate ‘natural’ from Bio-D. This doesn’t equate to quality necessarily. But there is something there that has a unique characteristic and individuality without a predetermined taste. Like the glow of something so healthy and alive.Translated to taste.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I really enjoy that you and I spent two days in the same place and share such different but similarly passionate thoughts around a similar topic.

    • http://www.missinwine.com/ Caroline Henry

      Thank you Arnold!! Yes it is amazing we spend the same time in the same place yet share such different posts:-) That is the beauty of life – that we each have our point of view and that we can learn from each other – see the world from a different angles and take away food for thought from each other’s posts!

      You hit the nail on the head – what I really love about biodynamics is the lively and vibrant flavours the wines have… The way I see is biodynamics is a form of organic growing with more focus on balance, however this focus comes from the human making the decision not a certificate that states one farms one way or the other. Through knowledge of a place, it’s micro climates, and all the life around it one can make great authentic wines, providing one grows grapes according to nature’s laws – whether this is organic/bio-dynamic or a combination of both as Fabrice Pouillon and Ben Tarlant do. It is there knowledge of their land, soils, and love for the environment which guides them to farm in a certain way, and make the beautiful wines they do. The same goes for the awesome Jura wines we tasted with Wink on the #jurawineUK evening, or Beaujolais, or James Millton’s wines. I am just really happy that at these fairs I had the opportunity to learn more about biodynamics, and it’s focus on balance within the vine’s universe as well as discover some excellent wines!!
      It was awesome to see you and hope to see you somewhere soon – maybe even here to taste some amazing Champagnes :-)

      • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

         Thanks Caroline.

        Love to see the way you are being draw into Bio-D and this whole non interventionist approach towards wine.

        I had this idea the other day about how this will change and make more interesting wine education. People get food and a natural approach. Wine is much more complex of course but the grounding of it to place and soil and taste is complex but rooted in something a bit more tangible than just the words to describe the taste itself.

        • http://www.missinwine.com/ Caroline Henry

          Thanks Arnold! I guess I have always been a hippy at heart – or at least so my father tells me :-) 

          I think with so many artificial things and gadgets in our lives it is really great to aspire to have at least a more natural food and wine intake. I have never been a fan of the microwave dinners and instant meals – because of their “fakeness” if I can use that word… The same goes for wine – I want to drink something authentic, rather than an alcoholic coca-cola (don’t consume any soda btw)… And I like the the whole harmony and balance approach of biodynamic farming – I like the respect for nature and life itself. Life to me is a git, the most precious one we have, and I feel we have to do everything we can to make sure that the people who come behind us can enjoy it as much as we did…

          Wine indeed is a complex product – as there is the farming element as well as the production element – in a way just like food  - unless we just eat raw food… And I do believe like with food we can taste the difference between a meal prepared with organic or home grown vegetables in a simple healthy way compared to an instant mac cheese pack, we can taste the difference in an honest RAW wine produced from vines of living soil with minimal intervention compared to a very commercial and fabricated wine which always will show a certain flavour profile induced by the yeast and winemaker rather than the authentic taste of the fruit…

  • Hank

    Biodynamics does not equal natural. Biodynamics may be one path toward natural. I find it to be somewhat manipulative, as you are constantly introducing “forces” through spraying of the preps. It can heal a damaged farm, but after the healing, it’s better to stop with the “medical” treatments and let the healthy environment find its own voice.

    • http://www.missinwine.com/ Caroline Henry

      Thank you for your comment Hank. Biodynamics is indeed a way toward natural – and for the environment to be truly in balance I feel indeed as little intervention (or preps) are needed. However to undo the damage can take a while – and will require more preparations. I think the overdoing of preps is a commercial view – a shortcut to get the get, use and maybe even abuse the biodynamic label. Whilst I agree with you in allowing the healthy environment find it’s own voice – I still much prefer biodynamic treatments to the chemical ones which are mainly used in viticulture today…

  • Anonymous

    Great to read about some of the sessions I missed at Raw and Real (had very limited time at both), and I love that picture of the chemically treated versus organically farmed soil. However just to play devil’s advocate, we shouldn’t forget that there are conventional farmers who use cover crops, and organic/biodynamic growers  who don’t. I mention this, because arguably the main differences in that picture is the lack of a cover crop on the chemically farmed plot. Of course I realise the implication is that the soil wouldn’t be that bare without some fairly noxious weedkiller to wipe out everything apart from the vines.

    On the subject of biodynamic wines, I’ve had similar experiences to yours – the most amazingly vital, vibrant tasting wines often seem to come from these methods of production. They do of course need sympathetic treatment in the winery as well.

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline

      Hi Simon,
      thank you for your comment and glad you enjoyed my brief review of the sessions on biodynamic soil life. I hear you on the topic of ground cover, as indeed this can be what ones sees in the picture – one side has no cover crop and is pretty barren whilst the other side has ground cover and looks green. I have spoken to many a winemaker on this particular topic, and most make the choice depending on the competition for water and nutrients. Very often there is water a little deeper in the ground, and root instinctively seem to know this (or so I am told) hence they will grow deeper IF they are in a way forced to do so. With deeper roots, cover crops are not really direct competition for the plant – in a way they just protect the soil and may add to the diversity of the natural environment. However if a soil has been treated and or irrigated for years, the root system often tends to spread out horizontally rather than vertically. At that time cover crops would be direct competition for vines…

      Another way to protect the soil is to work it, aerate it on a regular basis – it is difficult to see on this picture but I don’t think this soil was laboured recently – it looks like it was just treated with very effective form of hard core round up:-)

    • http://www.missinwine.com/ Caroline Henry

      Hi Simon, 
      thank you for your comment and glad you enjoyed my brief review of the sessions on biodynamic soil life.  I hear you on the topic of ground cover, as indeed this can be what ones sees in the picture – one side has no cover crop and is pretty barren whilst the other side has ground cover and looks green. I have spoken to many a winemaker on this particular topic, and most make the choice depending on the competition for water and nutrients. Very often there is water a little deeper in the ground, and root instinctively seem to know this (or so I am told) hence they will grow deeper IF they are in a way forced to do so. With deeper roots, cover crops are not really direct competition for the plant – in a way they just protect the soil and may add to the diversity of the natural environment. However if a soil has been treated and or irrigated for years, the root system often tends to spread out horizontally rather than vertically. At that time cover crops would be direct competition for vines…

      Another way to protect the soil is to work it, aerate it on a regular basis – it is difficult to see on this picture but I don’t think this soil was laboured recently – it looks like it was just treated with very effective form of hard core round up:-)

  • Britta Lehna

     Dear
    Caroline,

     

    would you
    like to taste our German biodynamic wine? You can find detailed information
    about our wine estate http://www.zwoelberich.de and our range of  wines online
    - also in English. Just tell us which wines you would like to taste – Riesling,
    Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Noir?  We would love to send you a wine
    sampler. Looking forward to hearing from you.

    With kind
    regards from Langenlonsheim,

    Britta Lehna and Hartmut Heintz,
    Weingut Im Zwölberich. Contact: info@lehna-pr.de