The author D.H. Lawrence had it right when he wrote: “The fairest thing in nature, a flower, still has its roots in earth and manure.” The wine business is rooted in agriculture – perhaps prettier agriculture than other crops, but it’s still a dirty job that, to be successful, requires a connection to the soil and the vineyard. I’d venture to say most winemakers have a pair or two of heavy gloves and probably a good shovel, too.
While the practice of biodynamics isn’t limited to any particular crop, viticulture seems to be the poster child for the process. Talk to any farmer who farms organically or biodynamically and they will probably mention at some point that, way back in history, all agriculture was organic. Organic farming is farming without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones or the like. Biodynamic farming is a little more extreme than that.
Biodynamics as a practice began with philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, so it is a relatively modern development. Steiner’s method involved reducing outside inputs to the land such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as adhering to a biodynamic calendar that dictates the best days to undertake certain endeavours in the vineyard. According to biodynamics, each plant has four components – root, leaf, flower and fruit – and each of these components is favoured at a certain point during the moon’s cycle. (It sounds a bit like Druids dancing in the moonlight, doesn’t it?)
Less fantastical, biodynamic farming includes setting aside a certain percentage of the land as a natural preserve to encourage biodiversity, insect habitats and a healthy encouragement of ground cover. The Demeter Association is the primary body that regulates and monitors biodynamic producers and oversees the transition process for growers wanting to become biodynamic. One producer, California’s Bonterra vineyards, has long been associated with organic farming, and now about one third of its 960 acres are farmed biodynamically. As Bonterra’s vineyard director David Koball puts it, “[Biodynamics] grows the vines to the capacity of the vineyard – and not beyond.”
There is very little scientific proof that biodynamic farming is a significantly better way to farm. Generally, there is an increase in the biomass of the soil – the worms, bacteria and other microscopic critters that thrive in healthy soil – but the quality of the farm’s production is a little harder to pin down. Undeniably, the sustainable aspect of the farm’s output is vastly improved as the land is well cared for, and a significant factor to consider should be the enhanced relationship the farmer has with the land. Maintaining a healthy, balanced ecosystem within any plot of land is a noble goal for any agricultural enterprise, let alone for the grapes that make it to your glass.
According to Koball, there is an added cost to farming biodynamically – about 20 per cent for winemaking, specifically. A conventional chemical treatment that can be applied via irrigation to a vineyard for a minimal cost of $10 per acre may [cost a biodynamic] producer $200 per acre to apply by hand. On the other hand, a biodynamic vineyard in good health may have a natural immunity to a certain disease or an already existing predator in the area for an incoming pest.
Only a handful of substances in biodynamics are permitted to be added to supplement the soil or the crop. Called “preparations,” two are for preparing fields, while the remaining six preparations are for compost. These can include such natural elements as cow horns, oak bark, quartz and silica, but, interestingly, these preparations are generally intended to jump-start or support the self-regulating capacities of the soil. These natural preparations are alive with various microbial life and could, in a sense, be viewed like a “sourdough starter” for the soil or compost.
Some proponents believe the biodynamic calendar affects how wine tastes. Root and leaf days aren’t the best days to taste wine, as these are days that the plant would be focusing on – you guessed it – root or leaf endeavours. In this sense, fruit days are the best days to drink wine, but, for the aromatic varieties such as viognier, a flower day should suit you just fine.
Several calendar apps are available, but a word of caution: there aren’t very many empirical ways to figure out if a wine will taste better to you on a certain day. (Do yesterday’s oranges taste better than tomorrow’s bananas?) With regard to the overall quality inside your bottle of biodynamic wine, biodynamic farmers have a strong connection to their land and the health of their vineyards that might be lacking in a purely commercial vineyard, and you can’t make a good wine without good grapes.
3 perfect pairings
Double Zero: Chianti Classico and Pizza
Good pizza without Italian wine seems rightly out of place. Next time you are craving good pizza, consider the Querciabella Chianti Classico ($78 by the bottle). Tart cherry fruits with savoury spices work perfectly with several pizzas on the Double Zero menu such as the wagyu pepperoni or the sausage. By the glass, the also-excellent Mongrana from Querciabella is also available.
Two locations, doublezeropizza.ca
Model Milk: Teroldego and Lamb
Interested in trying a new grape? Elisabetta Foradori is making a wonderful, structured and earthy red with the right sort of fruit to handle flavourful meat or poultry, but the earthiness to balance the shitake flavours in Model Milk’s preparation of Driview Farms lamb. $79 on the list.
Model Milk, 308 17 Ave. S.W., 403-265-7343, modelmilk.ca
Vintage Chophouse: Ahi Tuna and Sauvignon Blanc
There is another whole page to sauvignon blanc that doesn’t involve the Kiwis. Napa Valley’s Ehlers Estate is simply one of the best sauvignon blancs around. Crisp and lean, in a completely modern style ($91 per bottle), it is stunning with the ahi tuna at Vintage Chophouse.
Vintage Chophouse and Tavern, 320 11 Ave. S.W., 403-262-7262, vintagechophouse.com
6 biodynamic wines to try
Bonterra 2009 The McNab, Mendocino County, Calif.
Based around merlot, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon and a smattering of malbec, year after year, it’s about exuberant fruits, chocolatey cocoa-ness and well-integrated tannins. Drinking well now, it keeps very well in the cellar for up to 10 years or so. $33.
Summerhill 2014 Organic Dry Riesling, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
This well-known organic producer in the Okanagan has been certified as biodynamic since 2012. Its crisp riesling is quite dry, but not bone-dry, with plenty of green apple, rock candy and mineral tones. Tasty and very quaffable. $24.
Dominio de Punctum 2014 Rosado, Spain
Based around grenache, this cool little ros shows peaches and strawberry fruits with plenty of juiciness and jelly character. Quite dry, there is a drop of sweetness that pumps up the “have a second glass” factor. $20.
Paxton 2011 AAA Shiraz Grenache, McLaren Vale, Australia
With a focus on minimalist winemaking and biodynamic farming that treats the farm as a living, integrated unit, the folks at Paxton seem to have figured it out. The shiraz grenache is about pure, berry-fruit expression with easy tannins and juicy, cocoa-like finish. Enjoy with beef, of course! About $24.
Littorai 2012 Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Calif.
Simply put, a beautiful glass of pinot: plums, cherries, herb and vegetable leaf, along with a distinctly strawberry tone. I’d drink this sleek, seductive and layered wine on its own any day or with the finest beef or pork dish I can find. Delicious. $60.
Domaine de l’Echevin 2012 Saint Maurice, Ctes du Rhne Village, France
Adrien Fabre is a true believer in biodynamics, preferring to call his wines “natural wines.” He even rebuilt his cellar to match up with the magnetic nodes underlying the vineyard. Rich and toasty on the nose, with black fruits, licorice and deep, violet aromas, the palate is every bit as good with an earthy, smoky finish. $23.