Half-science, half-mysticism, the world of biodynamic wine is weird and wonderful

Steve Hogarty
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The experimental radial vineyard at Avignonesi, a biodynamic vineyard in Tuscany

Crates filled with horns sit in a corner of a wine cellar in Tuscany. Outside, the summer air is stifling, but underground a chill draught snakes around the dozen or so giant barrels that line the corridor like great oaken sentinels. Amid all the winemaking paraphernalia, the piles of cow horns look incongruous, like an Amazon delivery gone wrong.

Our guide picks up a lone horn resting atop a casket and begins to explain one of the most peculiar aspects of the biodynamic winemaking process. This hollow horn is packed with cow manure and crushed quartz crystals, she says, and then buried in the earth for six months. After it is exhumed, the dirt is scooped from inside the horn and carefully mixed in a vat of rainwater, before the diluted potion is spread across the 200 acre vineyard. “Wow,” remarked the most credulous members of our tour group.

At Avignonesi in Montepulciano, and every other biodynamic vineyard around the world, the established science of viticulture and the strange world of spiritualism go hand in hand. A cynic might roll their eyes out of their skull, but a storeroom holding hundreds of barrels of aging wine worth around €4m lays to rest any notion that the process isn’t at least profitable. A tasting session (and my subsequent checked luggage clanking with bottles) also proves that their methods, however much they seem like medieval sorcery, produce high quality wine.

Organic, biodynamic and natural wines are increasingly apparent on menus across London’s restaurants and wine bars, though most customers are unaware of the distinctions between them. Organics are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, and with far fewer chemicals, colourings and preservatives than conventional wines. On organic vineyards farmers will avoid intervention, opting instead to plant a diverse selection of plants and vegetables to attract wildlife that naturally help keep the vines disease and pest-free. At Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux, they lace the soil with butterfly-attracting pheromones.

Tending to the vines at Avignonesi in Tuscany, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic vineyards

Biodynamic farming kicks things up a gear, and utilises agricultural principles laid out in 1924 by the controversial Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which includes treating the earth as a living organism, planting and harvesting according to the motions of the planets and stars, and the aforementioned horns and crystals business. As well as promoting a self-sustaining ecosystem, the mission of biodynamic vineyards is to work with nature and the cosmos at large, rather than bending the natural world to their will. Only the naturally occurring yeasts of the vineyard may be used in fermentation, and so biodynamic wines are often described as “super organic”.

Natural wines are a separate beast entirely. A rejection of every technological innovation made in wine making since the fall of the Roman empire, they defy certification, producing maddeningly inconsistent flavour profiles that the most generous of critics describe as “interesting”. Biodynamic wines, on the other hand, are certified and must follow certain rules and preparations in order to be labelled as such.

I’ve been to a vineyard in Chile where they play classical music to the wine as it ages in the cellar

“We use a number of biodynamic preparations,” says Nick Wenman, founder of Albury Organic Vineyard in Surrey, with a tone that suggests it’s not the first time he’s been asked about his methods. His is one of just a handful of biodynamic vineyards in the UK, producing around 25,000 bottles a year. “In November we bury horns filled with manure from cows that have recently given birth, and then dig them up again in the spring. We make a tea from them and spray that on the vineyard. It helps with vitality.

“And look,” he says, pre-empting the follow up question. “Before you think I’m completely crazy, many of the top vineyards in the world are biodynamic.”

Biodynamic Preparation 500 involves burying cow horns packed with dung

It’s true that biodynamic wines are big business, especially with consumers increasingly shying away from the ill-defined bogeyman of “chemicals”. Sales of organic wines increased 22 per cent in the UK last year (compared to less than three per cent for conventional wines), and since first appearing in the 1970s, biodynamic wines are now produced by most of the top estates in France and Germany. While it has yet to be proven that the preparations are at all effective, long-term studies find that organic practices do improve the quality of a vineyard’s grapes, and consumer scores for biodynamic bottles are higher.

The more mystical aspects of biodynamic agriculture are usually complemented by a degree of empiricism too. In one corner of Avignonesi is a radial vineyard, with rows of vines emanating from a central point, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Here they experiment with different crop densities. Near the centre there are 10,000 plants per hectare, while around the circumference there are just 3,333. The results reveal that vines planted too far apart spend too much of their energy spreading out, while in the densest section the competition for nutrients and light is too great. A sweet spot at around 5,000 plants per hectare produced the best grapes in this particular terroir.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux, where the soil is laced with special pheromones to attract butterflies and promote biodiversity

This marriage of evidence-based agricultural techniques and the additional care and attention biodynamic vines generally receive, is perhaps the reason why these vineyards are producing critically acclaimed and award-winning wines.

“If you are attuned to what’s going on in your vineyard and what’s happening with your plants, chances are you’re going to be pre-emptive in the way you farm, and stop problems happening before they take hold,” says Neil Palmer, director and co-founder of organic wine merchant Vintage Roots. He describes the biodynamic preparations as “like witchcraft, a bit bonkers, but that’s all part of the attraction for some.

“I don’t think people would be going to these lengths if it didn’t have a positive effect,” he adds. “I mean, it’s quite onerous some of the stuff they’re doing – burying horns, digging them up, mixing up preparations – but ultimately it doesn’t do anybody any harm. The belief is there, and you know, the placebo effect is a real thing.”

Whatever the mechanism enhancing biodynamic wines – “I’ve been to Emiliana in Chile where they play classical music to the wine in the cellar,” says Palmer – the consensus seems to be that if something works, it works, and it’s probably best not to think too hard about the reasons why.

“I don’t have proof that biodynamic practices on the vineyard produce very different or more exciting wines,” says Wenman of Albury. “The only evidence is that people seem to love our wines.”