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Ask DJ: What is Biodynamic Farming?

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Hi DJ,

What's the whole deal with biodynamic farming? Do you know any great BC examples where this is done? Cheer!

Jess from Victoria

 

Dear Jess,


A well-trodden saying in the wine world is ‘wine is made in the vineyard.’  This truism underscores the importance of farming in the creation of wine. Another truism is appropriate here: ‘you can’t make good wine from bad grapes,’ which means that good, healthy, ripe grapes are critical to wine quality.  Aromas, flavours, balance, ripeness, colour, and concentration are all determined by farming decisions.

So farming matters. But what about, say, the phase of the moon? Or the position of Mercury? Or the life energy of an animal?

Biodynamic agriculture harnesses early 20th Century thinker Rudolph Steiner’s esoteric worldview, which was to grow fruit and vegetables in harmony with the cosmos. You might recognize Steiner as the mind behind Waldorf education, an individualistic approach to learning that places as much emphasis on music and handicrafts as Math and English.  Biodynamic practices in the vineyard are fairly recent, dating to the mid 1980's in France. Nicolas Joly of the Loire Valley is viewed as the modern disciple of biodynamics, and around the world there are hundreds of certified estates. The largest single producer of this type of specialized farming is M. Chapoutier, but the discipline and rigour of biodynamics is developing a strong following from Alsace to Zaragoza.

Biodynamically grown food is organic by default. In fact, you have to convert to organic cultivation before you can transition to biodynamics. It is free from pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and it should be noted that small amounts of sulphur are permitted in biodynamic farming, but it’s highly controlled. But it goes even further.

Farmers might take body parts from animals (stomachs, bladders etc.), fill them with medicinal plants or manure, bury them in fields so they can absorb the energy of the sun; or determine cycles of sowing, harvesting, pruning and fertilizing based on the positions of the planets; or prepare compost teas by stirring them in directions meant to draw down the power of the Universe.  Preparations are administered to both vines and the compost, which is essential for healthy vineyard soils with high microbial activity.  Six well known medicinal plants form the basis of the preparations: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak, dandelion and valerian. 

To the analytic, Western scientific mind, all of this can seem frivolous, if not downright ridiculous. Can the position of Saturn in the night sky have an effect on how a plant grows? How does compost aged in one cow horn fertilize many acres of grapes?

And yet…

Wines made from biodynamic grapes consistently receive awards and accolades. They are critically acclaimed and constantly written about. To understand why, we have to look beyond the hocus pocus. It may be that, just like Mom’s cooking, biodynamic wines’ most important ingredient is love and attention. What is true is that the intricate practices necessary in biodynamic farming make viticulturalists more intimate with their soils and vines.  And the healthier soils encourage healthier, more balanced and disease-resistant vines. If you try a 'bio' wine, be sure to taste attentively. You may notice a special vitality, a humming life force that pervades the biodynamically farmed wine.

The Okanagan’s Summerhill Pyramid winery is the only officially certified biodynamic wine producer in British Columbia. They use the cow-horn-and-manure technique, as part of the eight preparations that comprise the biodynamic regimen.  A few other wineries are incorporating some biodynamic practices as well: Soahc in the West Kootenays, Clos du Soleil in the Similkameen Valley, and Haywire in Summerland.

A lot of extra, detailed work goes into keeping a crop certifiably organic and especially biodynamic. And the hocus-pocus? The viticultural voodoo? Maybe it makes a difference. Maybe it doesn’t. But there is something poetic and meaningful about turning farming into a ritual. Biodynamic methods might not have provable, quantifiable effects. But it’s a way of engaging with farming and winemaking that goes beyond dollars and cents. It’s an ethos and an aesthetic that results in acute attention and care. There is no way a biodynamic producer can use the methods they do and not be tuned into the finest details.

So next time you get a chance to order a glass or buy a bottle of biodynamically farmed wine, look for something ineffable; something with that extra dimension of vitality. The farming might not make complete sense, but the experience of a great wine goes beyond logic. ♦

New District

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