Sunday, June 19, 2011

Shoots and leaves: the effect of biodynamics in the vineyard

I don’t pretend to understand how biodynamics works. For critics of the practice like Dr Richard Smart who recently pronounced that many of the concepts it embraces are 'nonsense' that’s precisely why they are sceptical but my recent trip to Alsace in the early part of the growing season (June) was an ideal opportunity to see for myself exactly what happens to the vines.

Many of Alsace's most successful winemakers are biodynamic including André Ostertag (above) and Olivier Zind Humbrecht, a phenomenon that I would have thought should have given the good doctor pause for thought. Touring Ostertag's vineyards you could see the difference between the vigour and health of his vines . . .

compared to those of his neighbour's a couple of rows down. (Note the use of herbicides.)

The shoots push up vertically (right) as opposed to growing out sideways (left) allowing for better air circulation - down to preparation 501 according to Ostertag.

The fruit is also more spaced out on the shoot as Pierre Gassman of Rolly Gassman showed me at his vineyard.

You can also see a marked difference in the texture and colour of the leaves and the strength of the veins seen here at René Muré's vineyards.

Of course there are differences in viticultural practices - fascinating ones - between one vineyard and another. At René Muré the ground between the rows is kept clean. Grass, Veronique Muré believes, makes the vineyards too wet in winter and too dry in summer when it is in competition with the vines for the available water.

But a couple of kilometres away Matthieu Boesch of Leon Boesch lets the vegetation run wild to encourage the insect population, simply forking through the soil to aerate it.

Despite this divergence in approach both producers' wines expressed the local terroir, the rieslings in particular having quite marked similarities in character.

All in the head? I don't think so. Biodynamics may not be susceptible to scientific proof but you wouldn't have as many winemakers converting to the practice if they weren't convinced by the results. As André Ostertag put it 'When I started biodynamics I saw such an amazing difference in the vineyards I realised something must be going on.' I think you can taste it too.


  1. Thanks for this Fiona.

    Pictures, even for us writers, really tell a story.

  2. In multifactorial systems, never reduce effects to one single cause.
    I feel a deep sympathy for André Ostertag and for Olivier Humbrecht (knew his father well too), I’m a great fan of their wines and I’m convinced something they do (or don’t) is responsible for the clearly healthy state of their property. But it’s got NOTHING to do with Steiner’s psychotic errances. This does not mean to say that most of the methods he advocated (most of them also valid in plain “organic farming”) in his 1924 lectures should be rejected. It’s only the “ethereal” or “supernatural” side of it which does not make any sense.
    You won’t like this, Fiona, but concerning your last paragraph: “If God did not exist, why would so many people worship him?” is not a reasoning I accept.
    Scientia vincere tenebras!

  3. Actually I thought that was quite restrained for you, Luc ;-) I admit I thought about the religious parallel but I think there are many more ways of showing - and tasting - the effects of biodynamics than there are to demonstrate God's existence. Why would these already highly successful winemakers go down this route, if they weren't convinced by the results?

  4. Fiona, we share the same views on both the qualities of the winemakers you mention AND their wines (let’s call them .... divine?). Most of them would admit they just experimented and were impressed by the results. I do not deny this, even for one single second.
    I only disagree with the fake explanation some (I do not say all) propose. I think (no experimental data either, I confess) that if André – I really admire this man and have learned a lot from him – had done exactly what he did, but for the spraying of “attribut 501”, he would have got the same result. And he would have saved some gasoil !
    Biodynamics as such doesn’t bother me. What I want to COMBAT is the obscurantism underlying it, the feeling that some adepts always want to “teach us a lesson” and make us adhere!
    This blog is fascinating indeed and you will always find me to counterbalance – in a more and more restrained and collected way, I’m learning to behave like a decent Brit – the weight of overenthusiastic contributors. Thank you for allowing.

  5. I've a different angle on this. I'm fortunate to be able to cycle and walk in vineyard country most days when in the Languedoc. Seeing vines growing out of what looks like scorched earth is frankly unreal and depressing. It also means I can't pick wild salads in their vicinity. Organic/Biodynamic vineyards just look so alive and down here the "weeds" are mainly wild flowers that are better adapted to the sécheuse.
    I've also seem the high vine growth you describe at Mas Gabriel (Caux near Pezenas Languedoc) who are certified Biodynamic.

  6. thanks for sharing, this is really nice, would be nice to see photos next to each other and know more clearly what wineyard is bd and which not.

  7. Fraid I'm not up to such technical wizardry @steens but hope it's clear enough.

    Must check out Mas Gabriel when we're next in the area, Graham (down in Agde this week but don't think we'll have time)

    And I'm impressed and touched at how British you're becoming, Luc. This blog wouldn't be the same without you ;-)

  8. I don't think that biodynamic viticulture does any harm and in general will produce better quality grapes, as most of its techniques are consisten with organic viticulture and/or pre chemical era viticulture. It's the more 'esoteric' aspects that raise eyebrows. I personally am still 'agnostic' as I haven't had time to do research and I don't know any biodynamic growers that i could visit.
    I think in Western though, the emphasis is exclusivly on the rational and on the scientific method using measurable hard evidence. Which is fine of course, but...! Maybe there are aspects which cant be measured (yet) but which doesn't necessarily mean they don't exist!

  9. This has always fascinated me. It is quite clear that biodynamic winemaking produces some magnificent wines. On the other hand some of the mystical elements within it defies all common sense. I am basically inclined to agree with Luc (indeed, if I remember rightly we have exchanged views about this on Jim Budd's blog). There are so many things involved in the biodynamic procedures that you would need to carefully isolate all of them. My view is that the very kind of people who adopt biodynamic procedures are those who take great care and pride in their work and that this comes through.

    Graham Kent

  10. I think there's a lot to be said for that, Graham. The kind of people who embrace biodynamics are also the kind of people who are obsessive about the care of their vines. Yet I think it goes beyond that. It might - it does - sound barking but perfectly rational people embrace it because they can see the results in the vineyard - often to their surprise.

  11. Fiona -

    Thank you for the photos.

    It should be noted that the comparison vineyard shot that you did of Ostertag's vineyard vs. his neighbor is flawed. You see, the neighboring vineyard vines appear to be "less vigorous" because they have been hedged (the shoot tips have been cut off).

    Natural winemakers normally hedge their vines, you just happened to be there before Ostertag performed this action.

    Also, most winegrowers would want less vigorous vines over excessively vigorous ones.

    Additionally, you can always add nitrogen (or forms of compost) to increase vigor throughout the season if it is desired.

    Finally, by letting the weeds/grasses creep into the fruit zone like in the Ostertag shot, you are more likely to have higher levels of disease pressure because of the lack of airflow.

    This does not appear to be "natural" grape growing. It is just simply being lazy.