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BUT DOES IT WORK?

Biodynamics is controversial, and inspires a lot of impassioned discussion. On this page you’ll find some of the most frequently asked questions and hotly debated issues. If you want to contribute to this debate, please email me at max@redwhiteandgreen.com.au

For an extensive sceptical discussion of biodynamics, read this essay by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin, then read the huge debate it inspired on the World of Fine Wine web site (I recommend you pour yourself a glass of something nice before you trawl through it all – as well as the mud-slinging, there are lots of links to various other articles and research).

 

These two clods of soil were dug from under vines in a biodynamic/conventional comparative trial in Paxton’s Gateway vineyard in McLaren Vale. The soil on the left is ‘conventional’ – meaning that undervine weeds were burned off with herbicide - and is lighter in colour, more sandy and less well-structured. The soil on the right – dug from from vines ten rows away from the conventional block – is biodynamic: no herbicide or other chemicals have been used, and 500 and 501 have been applied for two growing seasons. As you can see, it’s darker; it also has good, sticky, humus-rich structure, and smells more earthy/fungal/composty.

 
 
What’s the difference between organics and biodynamics?

Biodynamics is a system of organic agriculture. All the principles of organics - not using synthetic fertilisers, pesticide or fungicide in the vineyard, for example, or using low levels of preservatives in the winery - also apply to biodynamics. Many organic (and, indeed, older generations of conventional) grape growers share methods with their biodynamic counterparts such as following the cycles of the moon. Where biodynamics differs from (or expands on) organics, is in the homeopathic use of ‘preparations’ such as the cow-horn manure, developed by Rudolf Steiner, to re-connect the earth and plants with cosmic life forces.

 

So do biodynamic wines have preservatives in them or not?

The short answer is that you can find Australian biodynamically-produced wines with no added preservatives (Robinvale Wines, Bunn’s, Haywards of Locksley), but most biodynamic wines will have some preservatives in them. Like organic winemakers, biodynamic winemakers tend to use less of the preservative sulphur dioxide during winemaking than their conventional colleagues. But because preservative-free wines (more correctly described as ‘no added preservative’ wines as some sulphur dioxide can be produced naturally as a result of fermentation) and organic/biodynamic wines have both traditionally been aimed at health-conscious consumers, there is lingering confusion that the two are inextricably linked, which is not the case.

 
Can biodynamic grape growers spray their vineyards with copper and sulphur?

Yes. But again, the allowable levels are lower than those allowed for conventional viticulture. And again, in practice, most biodynamic growers keep sprays of copper and sulphur to a minimum, or don’t use them at all (especially in warm, dry seasons like 2006/2007), preferring to use whey or skim milk to prevent mildew, or compost teas to build up the vines’ resistance to mould.

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Where’s the proof that spraying a tiny bit of fermented cow poo on your vineyard actually works?

There have been a number of scientific studies comparing biodynamic, organic and conventional agriculture and viticulture. One long-term US trial, for example (reported in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture), found that while there was little difference between the soil measurements in the vineyards being observed, the biodynamic vines were in better balance and produced riper, darker-coloured red grapes. You can download a copy of a fascinating article about this research here: Taking a Scientific Look at Biodynamics

Every single Australian grape grower and winemaker I have spoken to or visited has told me that using the BD methods has made a difference in their vineyard. For example, many growers relate how, when they run their sheep through the vines, the animals will immediately gravitate towards the grass growing in ground sprayed with 500, instinctively knowing it is tastier and more nutritious.

Claudia Weersing of Pyramid Valley vineyard in New Zealand tells a story of making four compost heaps, two with the biodynamic preps added, two without: after six months the BD compost heaps were fully rotted down and ready, while the other two were still cold and going nowhere.

Ray Nadeson from Lethbridge vineyard in Geelong says thanks to BD his vines are now healthier and more resistant to disease because of thicker leaves and thicker grape skins. Vanya Cullen tells how Margaret River vineyards ran out of botrytis spray in the difficult, cool 2006 vintage because of the widespread incidence of the mould - but the BD-run Cullen vineyard wasn’t affected by it. And Barry Morey of Sorrenberg vineyard in Beechworth has been composting and using the BD preps since 2000, and has seen a measurable increase in the organic matter in his soil.

 
Isn’t it much more time-consuming and expensive, though, to grow grapes biodynamically?

Time-consuming, yes, and costly, initially, if you spend up big on under-vine weeding machines and your own whiz-bang flowform for stirring the 500. But according to David Paxton, a large-scale McLaren Vale grower and winemaker who has converted all his vineyards to BD: ‘We reckon once we’re on top of it, even though it’s labour intensive, it’s going to cost us less than working along the chemical path.’ Paxton’s viticulturist, Toby Bekkers, is also positive about the labour-intensive side of BD: ‘One of the best things about it is that we’re in the vineyard all the time now - and we’re having a lot of fun,’ he says. ‘It’s reinvigorated the people who work here.’ All of which can only be good for wine quality.

 
Do you have to use all the biodynamic preps to be biodynamic?

Well, yes ... there are very specific reasons why Steiner advocated using all the various preps, so dropping a couple from the list would seem to be defeating the purpose. But then again, biodynamics is also about developing an intimate understanding of your own particular piece of dirt - and if that means adapting the ‘recipe’ to suit, then perhaps that’s okay, too. This is certainly the attitude of sixth generation Barossa grape grower and winemaker Troy Kalleske’s: ‘We spray 500 and occasionally 501 and use a little bit of compost, but we don’t use the other preps,’ he says. ‘Hard-core practitioners would say that means we’re not really BD. But I’d say that we have a pretty good idea by now of our property and how healthy it is, and if we feel we don’t need to, then why should we?’

 

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Why are some vineyards certified biodynamic and others not?

Ah, now, this is the curly one. Hard-core biodynamic wine people reckon you’re only legitimate if you go the whole hog and certifiy - which means you are audited by an Australian government-accredited certification body. The little certification logo on your label certainly gives the person who buys your wine confidence that the grapes were grown and the wine made according to a set of standards.

On the other side of the debate, many winemakers using BD methods argue - equally passionately - that it’s the ‘conventional’, chemically-dependent growers who should be subjected to the rigorous auditing, rather than the other way around. New Zealand BD wine pioneer James Millton, for example (who in fact is certified) asks: ‘Why should I have to tick the boxes to prove that what I’m doing is working, when all I need to do is show you the bees and worms and flowers ...?’

And then there are winemakers who use some or all of the BD methods but choose not to certify because they know they wouldn’t meet the certification standards. Which becomes a bit of a grey area when these winemakers choose to use the word biodynamic on, say, the back label or their web site.

Which is another reason for setting up this web site. I intend to visit every single vineyard in the country using biodynamics, so that I can talk to the winemakers, taste the wines and literally kick the dirt. I’ve already started this odyssey, and it’s become obvious very quickly that ‘to certify or not to certify’ is not a simple issue.

Just as there are fully-certified, ridgy-didge biodynamic vineyards making crap wine, there are also biodynamically-run vineyards that wouldn’t be certified in a million years because they don’t conform to the ‘standards’, that not only hum with good vibrations, but also produce spectacular wines. To be honest, while the ideal is somewhere like Hochkirch in western Victoria - a fully-Demeter-certified vineyard that also produces increasingly brilliant wine - I’m going to rave on this site about uncertified biodynamic producers if I think the wines are good enough.

Interestingly, though, a number of Australian producers who have been resistant to certification on philosophical grounds are now considering it because of pressure to do so from their distributors, both locally and in export markets, who see the increasing importance of green credentials and accountability.

 
Aren’t some winemakers just getting into biodynamics because it’s the latest trend, and they think they might make money out of it?

That’s certainly something I’ve heard many BD producers accuse other BD producers of (who says the wine industry isn’t bitchy?). And I’ve also come across some who play down their BD activities because they don’t want to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon. Victorian winemaker Gilles Lapalus, for example, is typical of many in that he runs his vineyard biodynamically but doesn’t make a big noise about it, and certainly isn’t seeking certification: ‘The day we start to use biodynamics as a commercial marketing tool, the word loses its meaning,’ he says.

Not surprisingly then, the hardcore BD people view statements like this, from Paxton viticulturist Toby Bekkers, with disdain: ‘We’re doing it because we think it can help us grow better fruit. And we’re doing that because, to be honest, we’re chasing the extra point - whether that’s the extra point on the grading scale of the wineries we sell grapes to, or an extra point from the judges or the critics.’

But I would argue that the motivation isn’t important: the only way Bekkers will grow better fruit is if he uses the preps and the compost and all the other techniques properly. And if he does that, then the vineyard benefits, the business benefits and wine-drinkers benefit (and it looks as though this is already happening). If on the other hand people start using BD for the ‘wrong’ reasons, and they don’t put their heart into it, the soil and the vineyard won’t improve, the wine won’t be better, and the perceived benefits - financial or otherwise - won’t eventuate.


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