Biodynamic Wines: Of Cow Horns and the Cosmos
"The market is full of very good wines with no charm, and I think this is about to change," Nicolas Joly proclaimed, peering at me alternately through and over his spectacles. "Too many wines are perfect but dead. You could say they have been killed by too much aesthetic surgery!"
Joly, owner of the Coulee de Serrant winery in France's Loire Valley, is the mad professor of biodynamic viticulture. He peppers his speech with aphorisms -- "I want a song in the bottle!" -- that are always quotable, often nonsensical. He rails against what he calls "appellation L'Oreal," the idea that too many wines are cosmetically tarted up to taste like some international ideal rather than allowed to express the terroir of their individual vineyards. His wines mirror his personality: They are difficult to fathom. They are also expensive and hard to find.
Joly heads an association called Renaissance des Appellations, or Return to Terroir, created in 2001 to champion biodynamic viticulture. It has grown to include more than 180 like-minded wineries in 12 countries, some of which recently held a tasting in Washington.
Simply put, biodynamic agriculture is Extreme Organics. It goes well beyond avoiding the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, viewing the vineyard as a self-contained ecosystem. A biodynamic vineyard will include livestock, such as cows for manure, horses to pull a plow through the vineyard (and for manure), goats and pigs for weed control (and manure) and chickens for bug control (and really fresh eggs). This living community of plants, soil and animals is meant to nurture the land, restore its health after the abuses of industrial farming and celebrate the interconnections among humans, Earth and cosmos.
Biodynamics's more esoteric practices include making homeopathic "teas" from various plants and spraying them on the vines on a schedule tied to the phases of the moon and position of the planets. The wackiest procedure -- which, to its critics, defines biodynamics -- is to stuff cow horns with manure and bury them throughout the vineyard on the autumnal equinox, then dig them up six months later, when the sun again crosses the equator, to make a spray that supposedly encourages spring vine growth. Equal parts agriculture, philosophy and mysticism, biodynamics somehow stops short of requiring the winemaker to dance naked among the vines at midnight under a full moon.
Biodynamics is not an ancient system, though it claims to be based on ancient methods. It was developed in 1924 by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner to help farmers who were worried that industrial agriculture was stripping vitality from their fields. That same sentiment resonates today among consumers who seek out organic foods at grocery stores and farmers markets. Concern over our environmental impact and the growing market for all things green help explain the rising popularity of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines (my S/O/B triad of Earth-friendly wines, the first two of which I discussed in last week's column).
Practitioners of biodynamics include some familiar wineries, such as Benziger, Bonny Doon, Parducci, Quivira and Grgich Hills, all in California. It's quite popular in Alsace, where Josmeyer, Marcel Deiss and Zind Humbrecht rank among its stars. These advocates argue that biodynamic farming enables a wine to express the characteristics of its vineyard -- its terroir -- better than other methods. Their wines often challenge our preconceptions of what they should taste like, if only because our expectations are shaped by what is considered normal.
Mike Grgich, one of Napa Valley's most renowned winemakers, shifted his vineyards and winery to biodynamics earlier this decade. In conversation, he is modest about it, perhaps out of sensitivity to the kooky perception.
"We like the way our wines taste without pesticides or insecticides," Grgich said during an interview in Washington last November. I could not disagree, tasting his beautiful 2007 fume blanc, a wonderfully complex expression of the sauvignon blanc grape. "The world is going green," he said, "though like everything, you can go too far."
Joly, it seems, can never go far enough. He offers down-to-earth farming advice, prescribing manure from the pig to push vine roots deep into the soil, from the horse to coax vines toward the sun, from the cow if the vineyard is too hot. In the next breath, he turns philosophical.
"I want to have a discussion with the wine. In our group, you may have some wines with rude conversation, but they have something to say. Too many wines are well educated but dull, with no conversation worth listening to."
Biodynamic wines may indeed be different, but they are rarely dull.