Sunday, 8 January 2012

Biodynamics wine explained

‘What is biodynamic wine?’ Ask this question of Christine Saahs, owner of Nikolaihof from Wachau, Austria, and you will receive a two hour lecture, exactly what we had recently!

Biodynamics advocates believe soil is a living thing. Conventional farming, with heavy use of fertilisers, chemicals, pesticides, etc, is like junk food to the soil that ‘kills’ it. Biodynamic farming builds healthy living soil through interaction with and in harmony with the environment so it can nurture plants and produce wholesome food that vitalises humanity. Advocates also believe there is a link between the soil and the moon. The earthly and cosmic powers integrate and create a new quality in the final produce.

Yet while these all sound credible, some biodynamic practices like burying cow horns filled with cow manure and dynamising the compost (stirring a mixture of herbs and water vigorously for a period of time), are regarded as superstitious by many and draw criticism. However, even in those cases I do think there are possible scientific explanations: cow horns consist of calcium, an essential element for improving soil structure and regulating soil acidity, and it may possibly leach into the decomposing manure and then into the soil. Stirring vigorously, like whisking ingredients vigorously when baking, introduces more oxygen into the mixture which could promote micro-organism growth in the soil. I also think that using different herbs and wild flowers to prevent or cure vineyard diseases and pests is akin to the Chinese drinking herbal medicine. Chinese doctors will tell you that their medicine helps restore your internal balance but won’t explain to you how. As for following the lunar calendar, the gravitational forces that cause tides exist on land as well. Biodynamic vinegrowers irrigate when the tide is high on the premise that water will be ‘pulled’ into the vines more easily. Similarly, they prune when the tide is low to minimise sap loss at the pruning wounds.

Aren’t all of these quite logical? Christine summed it up well, ‘Biodynamics is one step ahead of organic farming. Organic farming sustains the health of the soil; biodynamic practices improve the health of the soil’.

Whether conventional, organic or biodynamic, I believe it is the passion and belief of the practitioners that makes the difference. Christine is so convinced of biodynamics and speaks with such passion that she, dressed in her traditional Austrian outfit, looks like a biodynamic human being. But both good and bad wines can be made whatever viticultural practices are used, and only when growers put their heart and attention into the vineyard can they grow grapes that are healthy and of high quality. I suppose this is what home cooking is all about: mums cook with love and care!

Having said that, I do think sometimes biodynamics enthusiasts go a little too far. Christine said biodynamic wine, even after bottling, still responds to the moon. The wine tastes fruitier on a 'fruit day', more vibrant on a 'flower day' and neutral on a 'root day'. I questioned this but didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Yes, wine is a living thing because it evolves in the bottle due to reaction with (or lack of) oxygen, but does it really respond to the moon?

We tasted five wines, all intense and fresh with a common earthy aroma. While I couldn’t tell whether they were biodynamic in a blind tasting, I am certain that they were all very well-made wines from a caring winemaker. By the way, we tasted the wine on a 'root day', so according to Christine, not the best day for tasting.

Nikolaihof's wines are available from Cottage Vineyards.

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