Unlocking biodynamic wines

Biodynamic wines are both admired and controversial. Felicity Carter pays a visit to Odinstal to see biodynamics first hand.

Susan Scholz and Andreas Schumann
Susan Scholz and Andreas Schumann digging up horns.

Weingut Odinstal isn’t easy to find. The challenge is to spot the narrow path from the nearby village of Wachenheim, and follow it up a steep slope – at 350 metres above sea level, these are the highest vineyards in the region. Finally, there is the stone house with the wide kitchen, where owner Thomas Hensel offers coffee.  

This is the Mittelhaardt in Germany’s Pfalz region, whose warm climate is similar to Alsace, and which shares the Alsatian mountain range of the Vosges Mountains, here known as the Haardt Mountains. But there’s no time for geography, because winemaker Andreas Schumann wants to start. Odinstal is a biodynamic winery and it’s time to take the manure-filled cow horns out of the ground. Schumann has been interested in biodynamics since he began at Odinstal in 2004. “We started to do the first experiments in 2006, and with certifications since 2008,” he explains. “We’re becoming better each year.”
Previously, he worked for Dr Bürklin-Wolf, a Pfalz winery that was an early adopter of the practice. Schumann is somewhat sceptical about the number of people who now seem to be embracing it. “There are a lot of people who just want to fulfil some basic rules so they can call themselves biodynamic,” he says. But he thinks it’s generally a positive thing. “Even if it’s only for marketing reasons, they will see that something happens in the vineyards.”

Outside is a vineyard and a couple of fields surrounded by forest. The green grass contrasts with the intense blue sky and an abundance of plants spring between the vines. “That’s a carrot,” says Schumann. “Those are lupins.” The flowers are there to keep the insects well fed. “It’s important to have insects in the vineyard,” he explains. “If you have insects that eat the things that eat the grapes, then you have balance and you never need insecticides.” Raw wool is tied to the end of each vine row to keep the deer away, because they don’t like the smell of fleece.

The next field, bordered by fruit trees, will soon be occupied by Charolais cows, whose manure is used for compost. In winter, the cows go back home. It’s a good arrangement, says Schumann, though difficult to arrange. “Do you know any cow farmers in Deidesheim?” he says, naming local villages. “In Neustadt?” A rhetorical question, the answer is “no”. “Everything here is a monoculture,” he says.
Assistant winemaker Susan Scholz is poking around a circle with wooden staves sticking out of it. This is the pit where the horns are buried. Schumann insists that mobile phones be switched to flight mode, so nothing electromagnetic affects the procedure, and starts digging. The soils here are a mix of sandstone, basalt, and the Keuper marl and limestone soils also found in Alsace. “In biodynamie, we think that the farm is like a human being, but turned around,” explains Schumann, “so this area, where all the humus is, is more like the stomach where all these processes are going on, and the plants that are growing out are more like the arms and the legs, and down in the mineral area is the brain.” So the horns have spent a season in contact with the farm’s brain.

Schumann finds the first horn, packed with manure that now smells like cellar earth. A tiny quantity – known as preparation 500 – will be diluted in water that’s vigorously stirred for up to an hour (‘dynamised’) – before being sprayed over the vineyard. The use of this preparation is mandatory in biodynamics; observing the lunar calendar is also important. 

Despite the extra work involved, there is growing interest in biodynamic techniques, as more specialist importers and leading wine figures champion the wines. Winemaker Paul Dolan, president of Demeter USA, says the US has about 80 certified wineries and/or vineyards. “We’re noting that some of these large organic brands are starting to recognise that there’s something beyond organic, so they’ve been exploring the idea of biodynamics,” he says. Not only that, but Whole Foods is so keen to stock more biodynamic product, it’s partnering with farmers to help them convert.

The sceptics

In 1909, German scientists Haber and Bosch created the first artificial fertilisers, increasing yields by a factor of six. But this new bounty came at a cost: small farms disappeared and farmers noticed a deterioration in the health and quality of their crops. Austrian philosopher and polymath Rudolf Steiner was appalled by the scientific materialism that was changing farming. An influential ‘spiritual scientist’, he was renowned through Austria and Germany for his insights; people found him convincing, even when he was expounding on gnomes, or explaining how cosmic forces kept the British Isles from floating away. 

In June 1924, an influential group came together in Koberwitz Castle in Poland to hear Steiner’s solutions to the agricultural crisis. Steiner said the farm should be considered a self-sustaining organism. Only that which was found in nature could be used; further, farmers should draw cosmic forces down into the soil, which they could do by spraying the fields with special preparations. His eight lectures are now known as the Agriculture Course.

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, one of Steiner’s followers, spread the principles of this new ‘biodynamic’ farming internationally, yet it never really took off outside Germany. Although the growing environmental awareness of the 1970s brought a few people into biodynamics, they remained relative loners. That changed when a handful of top European wineries, such as Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy, began working biodynamically in the 1990s. The presence of such players gave biodynamics enormous credibility – and generated a backlash.

Steiner grew up in the countryside, where he was exposed to farming methods, and some of his views were prescient, such as his prediction that the use of chemicals would endanger bees. Yet many of his other pronouncements came from his spiritual beliefs. In 2015, Antonio Saltini from the University of Milan denounced biodynamics as “peasant witchcraft”. In the World of Fine Wine, Jesus Barquin and Douglass Smith wrote: “… the biodynamic landscape is a vista of starry eyes and good intentions mixed with quasi-religious hocus-pocus, good salesmanship, and plain scientific illiteracy.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the criticisms as scientism, the belief that the only form of knowledge comes through the scientific method. But since biodynamics claims to have an impact on the material world – the realm of science – the science can’t be ignored. 

When it comes to ‘cosmic forces’, the literature is sparse, with few robust studies done of lunar planting. What’s known is that the popular idea that the moon affects tides, and therefore must affect anything with water (such as plants) is based on a misunderstanding. In response to Meininger’s questions, astronomer Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy blog replied, “The idea that the moon affects wine in this way cannot possibly work.” He said it relied on the mistaken belief that the moon affects things made of water. “What’s really happening is that the moon’s gravity weakens with distance, so it pulls on the side of the earth facing it a teeny bit harder than the side facing away. That stretches the earth a little bit, causing bulges on either side of the earth that we call tidal bulges.” As the earth moves, the oceans slosh. Plait says plants are simply too tiny to be affected by the moon’s gravity.

Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, associate professor at Washington State University, says “the moon has no direct effect on terrestrial plants”, though she references a paper about insects that feed by moonlight. They eat more at full moon, so plants produce protective chemical responses; the moon’s influence is indirect. In 2013, Dr Chalker-Scott reviewed the research on biodynamic preparations, concluding “no evidence exists that addition of these preparations improves plant or soil quality in organically managed landscapes.”

A different view

Geisenheim University has run a field trial of biodynamic viticulture since 2006. While other trials, such as the Swiss DOK trial, have been criticised for methodological failings, Geisenheim’s is the gold standard. One of the researchers, doctoral candidate Johanna Döring, said that while the trial hadn’t demonstrated differences in sugar concentration, acidity or pH, the grapes treated with biodynamic preparations were moderately water stressed. “There must be some implications for secondary metabolism of the plants, or secondary metabolism in the berries, the phenols or other substances, that are triggered by this water potential,” she said. “There was a difference between organic and biodynamic management and it must be due to the preparations, as this was the only factor that varies.” She said an Italian trial had demonstrated the same thing. “I’m personally interested in biodynamic farming and I’m pretty sure there is something about it that’s doing something,” she added. “I’m still not sure exactly what is working.”

A 2015 study by the Australian Grape and Wine Authority and the University of Adelaide, in conjunction with Gemtree Wines, compared wines made from grapes grown organically and biodynamically, and from low-input (LCON) and high-input (HCON) conventional methods. The report concluded: “In the 2010-2014 wines, ORG and in particular BD wines were consistently described as being more rich, textural, complex and vibrant than LCON and HCON wines.”

Across all the research, it has to be said, the reported differences between organic and biodynamic are generally small. What the research doesn’t capture, though, is the liveliness of so many biodynamic farms, with their profusion of plant and animal species.

“What it’s opened up to me is what I like to call the possibility of this regenerative approach, to build the restorative capacity and the resilience in our soil,” says Dolan. “We’re so oriented to an exploitative, extractive paradigm. The things that Steiner recommended are really looking at the farm from a long-term perspective.”

Schumann says the real pleasure of working exclusively with what comes from the land is that “there is only the taste of the place. What else could there be?” He takes the horns up the hill and removes the manure, pleased with the result. Nearby are some quartz crystals, ready to be pounded with the pestle made by a local smith. Making the silica preparation is hard work – your correspondent barely managed to smash a single rock before giving up. Schumann heads into the tiny cellar and pours samples: Riesling, Auxerrois, Weissburgunder, and Gewürztraminer. Although still in tank, these wines are well structured, with a lovely balance of fruit and acidity. Odinstal produces around 30,000 cases a year, and never advertises or enters competitions, as their wines are snapped up by the on-trade.
In the end, it’s possible that biodynamics works because it forces the farmer to pay close attention to the land. Or it could be there are active ingredients in the preparations. Regardless, Odinstal’s wines are beautiful.

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