Niagara College was the site of an important event on August 23: the Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture Workshop (OBVW). This event was co-sponsored by the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College, Southbrook Vineyards, Grape Growers of Ontario and the Water Superstore.
As the name of the event suggests, this sold-out workshop focused on grape cultivation and, so, grape growers made up the vast majority of the participants. There were several winemakers and students in attendance, a demonstration of growing interest in sustainable grape growing practices.
The workshop was designed to be a practical demonstration of the concepts of biodynamics, and did not spend any meaningful time on the more esoteric, theoretical aspects of the underlying philosophy originally documented in the 1920’s by the prolific and controversial Austrian philosopher, Dr. Rudolf Steiner.
The morning was occupied with a series of presentations in the Yerich Auditorium at Niagara College, followed by lunch, vineyard presentations and a wrap-up tasting at Southbrook.
The speaker roster featured Monty Waldin as the headliner. Monty is the current leading proponent for biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. Monty is an Englishman who now lives in Tuscany but who travels the Old – and New World consulting to growers and winemakers who wish to embrace sustainable vineyard practices.
Waldin is a direct and immodest speaker, very matter of fact in his style, with none of the evangelistic affectations that put off most observers when the topic of biodynamism arises.
Monty launched into a presentation that was intense in content and intensely delivered by a man who believes in biodynamism simply because it yields better fruit, it is self-sufficient and it is a lower cost way of growing grapes. He went on to elaborate…
Biodynamic viticulture – or winegrowing as biodynamics adherents call it – relies on a set of preparations which are best made on site by the grape grower, but which also can be acquired from other biodynamic farmers where needs are greater than supply. Waldin spent the first part of his presentation explaining the preparations and the role each plays in the vineyard.
The preparations are one of many sources of derision which non-believers direct at biodynamism. Why? Because the preparations are made from substances that sound like something from Pliny’s pharmacopeia, not the stuff of modern agri-science.
As Waldin states in his materials for the workshop: “ Rudolf Steiner created the nine biodynamic preparations from natural substances – medicinal flowers and bark, cow manure and our most abundant mineral, quartz. Making the preparations involves sheathing some of these substances in specific animal organs to enable the medicinal properties to become fully effective once applied to the farm via compost or as sprays.”
Consider preparation 501, or horn manure, which is one of three preparations sprayed on the soil. This preparation is made with cow manure encased in a cow’s horn which is buried in the winter in shallow soil, open end down so the manure stays dry. In the spring the plug of composted manure is diluted in water, stirred for one hour and sprayed at the minute rate of 30 -120 grams per hectare. This compost spray is rich with microbes that stimulate root growth. The result is a vine system that is strong and vibrant below ground as well as above ground. The vine expression thus derived is the basis for the strong sense of place (terroir) in wines made from biodynamically-grown fruit.
Anyone who composts for their home garden will understand the basic principle behind these preparations; they act as stimulants for soil activity by adding nutrients and feeding earthworms. This enriched soil, or humus, as Waldin describes it, is noted for its spongy character; something you can feel as you walk between rows of biodynamically-cultivated vines. The effect of the leavening of the soil with the sprays and the compost preparations is to slow down the vineyard, regulate its activities and re-introduce life forces that are sustainable, unlike the temporal effect that manufactured fertilizers have on soils.
There is a counter-intuitive dimension to biodynamic farming that may deter growers who focus only on top-line revenue. Monty repeated twice the fact that vineyard yields will go down 10-15% following conversion to biodynamics. This may seem extreme but needs to be considered in light of the fact that biodynamic vines typically should not require a green harvest to deliver concentrated fruit. If costs truly are lower under biodynamic regimes and if a green harvest is unnecessary, then biodynamic farming could deliver higher gross margins in the vineyard, despite lower gross yields.
One area that Waldin downplayed was the use of the moon to determine vineyard activities, other than to note that ascending and descending phases of the moon are relevant for timing: of pruning, applying the various sprays and compost preparations. In fact, the timing Waldin described for these activities is essentially no different from that used in conventional viticulture. His observation: it’s more important to get the soil right than to worry about the moon.
Monty gave some advice to Ontario wine growers. His view is the only way for Ontario to distinguish itself is to focus on quality. The best way to address the quality challenge is to adopt the best vineyard practices possible and to embrace biodynamism as a central element of this strategy. He also sees high potential for Cabernet Franc in our climate and geological setting, along with Semillon. Cabernet Franc has now established a solid foothold in Niagara. Semillon, the grape of Sauternes, has been grown successfully by several makers in Ontario; primarily for blending with Sauvignon Blanc to make a Bordeaux white blend. Rosewood and Stratus each bottle single-varietal Semillon. Maybe we should be thinking about a sweet, botrytized wine from Ontario which would complement Icewine…?
Monty’s presentation was sandwiched between two other presenters. The first was a very good opener on sustainability as a business strategy by Alex Gaunt, director of Ontario for Trialto, a Canada-wide agency with a focus on wines made using sustainable practices. The second was also very relevant, a presentation by Ann Sperling, winemaker at Southbrook. Ann spoke of the steps necessary to convert from conventional wine growing to biodynamics with a particular emphasis on pest control during the conversion period. This was real-world stuff – no biodynamic hocus-pocus.
The tasting featured a handful of wines with a Waldin/Sperling connection:
AOC Savenièrres-Coulée de Serrant Clos de La Coulée de Serrant 2009–
This is one of the iconic wines of France made on a single-appellation slope in the Loire Valley largely owned by Nicolas Joly, the most visible philosophical crusader for biodynamic wines. This wine seemed quite developed for its age and was jarringly out of balance – the alcohol was a booming 15.5% by volume, too high for a dry wine made in the cool Loire. Despite these negative elements this is a true wine of place: smoke and ripe brown apple dominate the nose with concentrated flavours of spice, earth, ripe golden delicious apple on the palate. The mouth feel is supple, the acid is juicy and the mineral are sleek. Except for the high alcohol this would be an exceptional wine: complex, concentrated and memorable (approximately $90.00 per bottle from the agent, The Living Vine).
VQA Niagara on the Lake Southbrook Whimsy Chardonnay 2009 – The Whimsy line is a small portfolio of premium, limited-production wines made by Ann Sperling. This is a special wine with a bright medium-gold colour and a developing nose of apple, ripe pear, earth and smoke. The palate is dry with bright acid and a leesy and juicy texture. Ripe tree fruit flavours are accompanied by spice, vanilla and smoke. The fruit is intense with a long, clean, butterscotch finish. $34.95 per bottle at the winery (just released this week).
IGT Toscana Monty’s Red 2009 – This is one of several Monty’s wines made by Monty Waldin (he also makes a red and a white from grapes grown in the Languedoc). This wine bears out Monty’s advice to decant before serving; it smelled of barnyard when first poured. The nose opened up shortly to reveal an appealing youthful, ripe berry fruit character. This is a blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot and is described by Monty as a wine to be consumed daily, ideally with pizza. The body is light with cherry, blackberry, spice, grainy tannins, chunky minerals, earth and medium acidity. This is a well-balanced wine, very drinkable and a perfect wine for pasta in tomato sauce, or pizza. Approximately $19.00 per bottle from The Living Vine.
All three wines displayed very fresh, assertive fruit and soil character. There is a biodynamic difference and it is notable if you are a lover of expressive fruit and terroir – minerals, earth and mouth feel.
This workshop was special when I consider the composition of the participants. The bulk of the group were those people who grow fruit for winemakers, both big and small, and whose fruit contributes, in large part, to the quality of Ontario wines – good or bad. The content of this workshop will contribute to improving the quality of Niagara fruit, even if growers don’t embrace every aspect of the biodynamic way of vineyard management. I believe events such as this have positive effects on our growers and producers, raising performance for our wine industry.
So, I suggest more events of this type be considered by the leaders of the Ontario food and wine industry. That is, events where world-renowned experts in viticulture and winemaking came to share their lore, experiences and advice with grassroots members of the Ontario wine community.
In this vein I suggest the directors of i4C add a professional program to next year’s Cool-Climate Celebration with a similar focus to the OBVW: growers and winemakers sharing vineyard and winery practices in a structured way. The value of sharing lies not only in the knowledge transferred but also the community and enduring relationships that form in such meetings. The goal here is to improve quality and build a strong brand for local wines made with Ontario fruit. As Monty encouraged, focus on quality. Let this be where Ontario will achieve differentiation.
The organizers of this event should be congratulated. The practical approach to the topic, the speakers selected for the workshop and the tastings all provided content and proof to demonstrate there is something to biodynamics that must be taken seriously by those who seek wines that reflect the place of their origin.
Thanks to John Ogryzlo (Dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Insitute), Ann Sperling, Monty Waldin, Alex Gaunt and Jen Selvig, event coordinator. Well done!
Check the workshop website for more information, including a very good paper written by Waldin: Biodynamics in Brief. It is one of the best, concise descriptions of biodynamics I have seen.
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.