In the Vineyard

by Wikus Pretorius, April 29 2009

"Biodynamics under the Microscope"

As a producer determined to find every way possible of maximising quality, you need to be aware of emerging trends. You also need to stay up to date with wine and viticulture research, and business 'best practice' systems. If you're not moving forward, then you are actually going backwards. It's that sort of game.

If you are in the wine game, the only way you wouldn't have heard about bio-dynamics is if you have been buried under a rock for the past few years. An agricultural system developed by Austrian Rudolph Steiner in the 1920's, bio-dynamics is essentially (although this definition would probably be hotly debated) a non-interventionist approach to farming, deeply rooted in organic philosophy but with certain spiritual leanings.

Bio-dynamics is being adopted at a rate of knots by wine producers all across the globe. For most, it is a part of their quest for quality and authenticity. For some, the attraction of a unique selling proposition that resonates with high end consumers and key critics alike makes perfect sense, and is too hard to resist.

Anecdotally, there is some fairly compelling evidence in the marketplace that hitching your wagon to bio -dynamics is a winner when it comes to sales. And so, it seems reasonable to at least learn enough about it in order to work out whether there is something in it for you.

Of course, such blatant commercial opportunism never occured to guys like Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill and Nicholas Joly of Coulee de Serrant. Both producers were at the forefront of bio-dynamics, true believers before most of the wine world even knew how to spell it. No doubt they would be rolling their eyes at the current feeding frenzy taking place.

We're gradually moving towards a system of minimal intervention in the vineyards. All of our winery and vineyard waste is recycled, composted, and put back into the vineyards in order to add greater organic matter to the soils. Healthier soils will eventually result in healthier vines, and better quality grapes, with vineyards that are better able to withstand pest and disease pressures. We're also removing pesticides from the spraying program by instead utilising natural predator systems. This means introducing bugs that eat some of the less welcome insects in the vineyard, in the process allowing the natural eco-system to exist and govern itself.

The difference between this type of organic approach (this is not to suggest that we are organic yet) and bio-dynamics lies in a deeper commitment to a philosophical stance that involves an observation of moon cycles and the application of certain 'treatments' in the vineyard. To find out more about this we took the modern route and googled it, in the process finding this discussion which typifies the passionate divide between those who are committed to the practice and the polemicists. But with regard to the vineyard and compost preparations, which are numbered, the following provides an understanding of the products involved, and their use (taken from the link above),

* # 506, 35 pounds of dried dandelion blossoms in one (1) bovine mesentery will make about 5 gallons or 3,000 units of preparation: enough for 45,000 tons of compost on 15,000 acres.

* # 503, the chamomile in one (1) cow's intestine will produce about 7 or 8 gallons or 4,800 units of preparation: enough for 72,000 tons or more of compost on about 25,000 acres.

* # 505, the oak bark in one (1) cow's skull will produce around a quart+, or 200 units of preparation: enough for 3,000 tons of compost on 1,000 acres.

* # 502, the yarrow flowers in one (1) stag's bladder will produce about 100 units of preparation: enough for 1,500 tons of compost on 500 acres.

As you can see, the by-products of cows are a central part of the system, with the skull, bladder and horns all used as vessels to contain preparations that are added to both soil and compost.

With regard to pest issues, the following remedy is suggested for getting rid of field mice: take a mouse, skin it, burn it and then spread its ashes on your field when "Venus is in the sign of the Scorpion."

There are numerous other preparations involved, but the ones listed are enough to establish the fact that this is a particularly alternative approach to agriculture. How you view the need for such additions is likely to depend upon your open-ness to experimentation and belief set.

To debate the veracity of bio-dynamics is pointless. It's a bit like religion. If you believe, then no proof is necessary. So, we won't bother to do so here other than to say that we'll stick with continuing to work towards building a sustainable viticultural model here, with a goal towards eventually maintaining a system that is in balance with the environment.

In the meantime, we'll continue to learn an observe and see where all this leads.

Click here to go to Dombeya Wines website.