Biodynamics – are there still skeptics?

I was lecturing on the wines of Loire a few days ago and at one point in the class I put up a slide which showed a hazy winter scene in the Loire valley commune of Savennières, located in the Loire sub-region of Anjou-Saumur.

This picture opened up a discussion which travelled from AOC wines in the commune, to famous producers to finally, biodynamics.  The links: the dry Loire white wines with the longest life-expectancy come from the Savennières appellation; one of the most famous estates in the appellation is Château de la Roche aux Moines, owned by Nicolas Joly, a former investment banker-turned vigneron and, Joly is one of the most visible and passionate adherents/advocates of biodynamics.  I should point out that Joly is not a winemaker: according to the Dr. Vino blog Joly describes himself as a nature assistant and not a winemaker.

Nicolas Joly at Return to Terroir - Toronto 2008

Joly travels the world each winter with a group of biodynamic winemakers who are members of the Return to Terroir movement.  This group is made up some 155 makers representing almost every major wine making region.  Many well-known labels are represented in the membership including Chapoutier, Zind Humbrecht, Leflaive, Leon Barral, Cazes, Alvaro Palacios, Benziger, Frogs Leap and Bonterra. The world tours are aimed at promoting the principles of biodynamism and demonstrating the benefits of this form of grape growing and winemaking, in the glass.

It is interesting to note that most of the winemakers listed do not indicate on their wine labels that the wine is produced using biodynamic principles.  Why?  These winemakers believe they adhere to natural principles in their grape growing and winemaking techniques so there is no need to indicate that fact.  If anything, these people would argue that wines not made in accord with natural principles should indicate THAT fact on their labels!

These proselytizers are passionate about their cause and this often gets in the way of the message: let nature do its work, naturally.  If this is done the vines will be stronger, the fruit better and the wines more pure.  Now, who can argue with that logic?

When I was in New Zealand last April I spent a day in the Marlborough region, best known for Sauvignon Blanc and some of the leading proponents of the pungent grassy, gooseberry style that has made the region famous:  Cloudy Bay, Villa Maria and Montana, among others.

That day I spent time at two smaller properties, both under the radar of new World importers:  Te Whare Ra and Fromm.  Both properties are organic and biodynamic and both make exquisite wines that reflect cool-climate zonal effects and principled winemaking.

In both cases the biodynamic techniques employed only entered our discussions by accident.  At Te Whare Ra it was a question about the four cows grazing at the edge of the vineyard that opened up a very animated and scholarly lecture on sustainability, cow manure and biodynamic potions.  At Fromm it was a question about a mound near the edge of the vineyard – this was a hillock of organic material that was composting, eventually to be mixed into some of the potions.  In both cases the vignerons made their own potions, including extensive use of high-nutrient seaweed (which is not part of any biodynamic preparations). Both wineries want to be known for making great wines, not wines that are great because they are organic/biodynamic.

Fromm Winery - the composting hillock

The character of the wines at both places was stunning.  The fruit was assertive and pure, the structure was consistently high: well-defined tannins, crisp acidity, elegant mouth feel. These wines were the highlights of the day and were anything but what you might expect from Marlborough…although Te Whare Ra makes a Sauvignon Blanc made with fruit from the vignerons’ parents property.

Throughout this comment I have tried to avoid any reference to the core vocabulary of biodynamism: fruit/root days, cosmos, phases of the moon, etc.

I did this for two reasons:  first the hocus-pocus of biodynamism makes many people roll their eyes with derision, taking away from the point of the discussion; secondly, biodynamics is now in the mainstream of agricultural practice and it’s not necessary to use the vocabulary to make the point.

As Anna Flowerday at Te Whare Ra says, the core parts of biodynamic practices make sense. Further, people get freaked out by the ethereal parts of biodynamism. She and her husband have seen the practices of biodynamics work and even for someone like her with a science background and who wants explanations that hold up to scientific scrutiny, biodynamic practices clearly makes a difference. She commented that in difficult vintages her vines perform much better than vines treated with conventional fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides… and so on and so on.

I think we will see more and more use of biodynamic practices throughout the wine world and we, and the cosmos, will be the better for it.

By the way, when I asked the class what did biodynamics mean to them, the answer was “organics taken to the extreme”…reasonably accurate, pejorative and by no means the whole story.

à bientôt…


Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.


Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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