Muck and Magic - Organic and Biodynamic Wines
Originally published at Beltane 2001
In my previous article, The Sacred Vine (Beltane 2000 - Ed), I described the relationship that wine can have to the seasons of the year, its link to the very substance of the earth itself, and how this can be traced through the medium of the vine. This article looks at that particular thread in more detail by examining some of the concepts behind organic and biodynamic viticulture and vinification practices. It focuses on how the use of such techniques may add to a wine's character and fit in with many ideas held by those of "alternative" beliefs and philosophies.
A Bit About Organics
In the EU there is no such thing as organic wine per se. EU Directive 2092/91 defines organic wine as wine made from organically grown grapes. It does not certify the finished product itself. All wines produced in the EU that have certificates provided by bodies in their own country, which are certified by the EU, will get 2092/91 certification. Wines from countries outside the EU must meet the requirements of a body that has been approved by the EU within the country in which the wine is to be sold before they may be sold as wines produced from organically grown grapes.
In the cellar the use of chemicals is forbidden. However, in the EU and many other countries, a minimal amount of sulphur is permitted in processing, although it is carefully regulated as high quantities of sulphur dioxide (SO2) may be harmful to asthmatics.
SO2 is a useful cleaning agent and preservative. It kills bacteria and protects the finished wine from oxidisation. Sensible use of SO2 is often considered vital for the production of clean, healthy wines that last in the bottle.
Curiously in the US a wine may be sold as "organic wine" if it contains no sulphur. If sulphur is present in the wine it may only be sold as wine produced from organically grown grapes. In the EU, sulphur is often a permitted organic component, but it is technically illegal to advertise any wine as organic in the EU.
Many growers and winemakers interested in organic practices are based on small estates and as such do not have the time or the money to get involved in the long and expensive bureaucratic process that leads to certification. This means that there are wines on the shelves and in the glass that, although produced organically, are unable to claim so.
A point of which to be wary is that many people consider wines produced from organically grown grapes to be vegetarian or vegan. This is not necessarily true. Many of the fining agents used to remove colloids from the wine before bottling, which would otherwise turn the wine cloudy over time, are vegetarian - but not all of them.
In the early 20th century there was a growing concern in Europe over the decrease in the quality of agricultural products and the degradation of cultivated plants. In 1942 an Austrian called Rudolph Sterner, who founded Anthroposophy, was invited to give lectures to farmers who were worried about the condition of their soils.
The principle underlying the tenets of Anthroposophy is the attunement of man with the spirit of the Earth and the universe. From these lectures emerged the method used to counter the negative trends emerging in farming; the method now known as biodynamics.
Biodynamics operates on certain precepts:
1. The planet is a living being.
For Sterner, the elements nitrogen, calcium, silica and oxygen were imbued with spirit or astrality. Everything worked on a spiritual as well as a physical level. Soil itself was filled with spirit. Farming was a holistic process in which plants absorbed spirit from the soil and cosmos and man absorbed spirit from the plants.
Biodynamic farming calls for extensive use of natural processes and preparations in conjunction with a calendar of lunar and planetary cycles. These ideas were not all new, for in the first century BC Pliny the Elder wrote on the influence of the waxing and waning moon upon plant growth.
German Anthroposophist Maria Thun developed the most widely used calendar in the 1960s, after forty years of personal research. This calendar groups plants into four distinct sets; flowering, leafy, fruit bearing and root plants. Three zodiac signs are assigned to each group. Under each sign there are subdivisions into fruit, leaf, root and flower days. The best time for sowing, cultivating and harvesting the plant is when the moon is moving through one of a plant's three signs. The use of this calendar is said to maximise the cosmic and elemental forces working upon the plants.
Biodynamicists are concerned about the quality of the atmosphere and soil their plants inhabit. Perticides and herbicides are not used as they destroy the natural microbial life in the soil, which biodynamics enhances.
Biodynamicists use several natural preparations, which are made to exacting recipes. These are Horn manure (preparation BD500), a quartz preparation called BD501, a number of plant preparations (BD502-508) and the dung compost developed by Maria Thun. This latter is a mixture of animal manure, straw and water seasoned with small amounts of the preparations BD502-507, and is applied to the vineyards in autumn on root days. This dung compost is said to support and reinforce the decomposition of organic matter, and is full of bacteria so as to introduce life to the soil.
Brief descriptions of the composition and supposed qualities of the preparations follow. Many of them mention "dynamised liquid". The process of dynamising consists of stirring liquids and solids into water, both clockwise and anticlockwise, to mimic the effect of water at the poles. The stirring tank is usually wood in the Old World (Europe) and metal in the New World (Americas, Australia, New Zealand), and is approximately four feet high. The mixture is stirred for between ten minutes and one hour. The vortex is considered a manifestation of the transfer of energy from the solid matter to the water. Solutions are used in quantities of 30 litres per hectare.
BD500 Horn Manure - Dung is placed in a cow's horn and buried in the vineyard over winter. The Horn manure is applied to the vineyard as a liquid spray of warm water with 2.5oz of horn manure per acre steeped in the water for an hour. This preparation is applied during root days: in spring to halt winter decomposition and bind energy and vitality to the roots, and in autumn to stimulate the germination of the covering crop seeds, which are sown at that time.
The horn is considered to be a natural energy captor and the manure put into it is allowed to fill up with vitalising cosmic and elemental energy while it is buried over winter.
Horn Manure claims to have four principle effects.
1. It stimulates activity in roots, causing them to grow thicker and longer and increasing the absorption and uptake of nutrients. The roots also become less susceptible to drought and disease and the sap circulates more readily.
BD501 Horn Silica/Silicum - Finely powdered quartz crystals are placed in a cow horn and buried during summer. This is to allow the quartz to "capture" the sun's life forces. When applied it is said to enhance the way plants metabolise light and allows them to assimilate micro-nutrients found in the atmosphere.
When applied on leaf days around flowering, at the moment the embryonic berries form, and also when verason occurs (the changing of the grape's colour when it ripens, approximately one month before harvest), it will act as a quality impulse in the vine. This gives a crop with a better colour, flavour, aroma and keeping qualities.
BD501 is also used to stimulate photosynthesis. When applied before and after harvest it hardens the vine for this traumatic experience and the coming winter, while keeping it receptive to the weakening sun to help ward off diseases.
2.5 grams per hectare dynamised in cool water for one hour.
BD502 Yarrow - 1 teaspoon of composted flowers are added per 10-15 tons of Thun compost or as a dynamised spray. It is said to reactivate the vine by allowing potassium in the soil to combine with the sulphur in the yarrow. It works well with BD501 to attract cosmic forces.
BD503 Chamomile - Said to enhance the decomposition of organic matter to provide humus. 1 gram to 10-15 tons of Thun compost or as a dynamised spray. Also stabilises nitrogen within the compost and increases soil life so as to stimulate plant growth.
BD504 Nettle - Said to stimulate a flow of sap in vine roots and trunk even under drought conditions, so the vine keeps its "bones" healthy. In the soil it acts to prevent Chlorosis (iron deficiency in chalk soil such as in champagne and chablis). 1 gram to 10-15 tons of compost or as a dynamised spray.
BD505 - Oak Bark - Rich in calcium it is used to help the plant increase its resistance to harmful diseases. 1 gram to 10-15 tons of compost or as a dynamised spray.
BD506 Dandelion - Petals contain traces of silica crystals which have an affinity with light. The flower itself also looks like the sun. When this silica combines with potassium in the soil it is said to attract cosmic forces to the vineyard. 1 gram to 10-15 tons of compost or as a dynamised spray.
BD507 Valerian - An important source of phosphorous and it also acts as a heat blanket. It attracts and intensifies warmth in the vineyard, protects against frost and augments the ripening of the grapes. It is said to take several years for the vineyard to become acclimatised to it this treatment. The valerian is composted before half is inserted into a Thun compost pile and the other half is made into a solution of 1ml valerian compost per gallon of water, stirred for 10 minutes, and sprayed onto the Thun compost pile. It is said that the valerian allows phosphorous in dung compost to be properly used by soil.
BD508 Horsetail - This has the highest concentration of silica (light) in the plant kingdom. It is said to draw in light, which works against mould and mildew and discourages spores. It is harvested on the summer solstice and boiled into a tea. It is not used on compost but sprayed during flowering at midmorning when the flowers are open to receive the highest concentration of solar forces.
We can see how these biodynamic preparations bear certain similarities to "magical" concoctions and, in fact, many people have described them as sorcery and mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, the goal of harmonising man with the environment and cosmos while embellishing the whole will be familiar to many pagans and occult practitioners. There are good reasons for considering how a wine is produced when purchasing for ritual use. A biodynamic wine may very well enhance the whole experience, as effort has gone to harmonise its production with natural cycles. Of course, it is up to you as to how harmonised you wish to be.
Biodynamics cares for the environment. It is a holistic approach, whether you agree with the spiritual explanation for its efficacy or take a more scientific approach to its application. Belief is not necessary to make it work. As to whether it truly works and if so, how so, well, I'm afraid the jury is still out on that one.