“How would all of you like a cellar full of wines from Domaine Leflaive, Michel Chapoutier, Domaine Leroy, Cayuse and Huët?” senior editor James Molesworth asked the audience, who could be heard murmuring agreement. Those producers all have at least one thing in common: They farm biodynamically, as do more than 450 certified producers worldwide.
While biodynamics has become a hot topic among winegrowers, many wine consumers are still unfamiliar with it. In short, it’s a set of agricultural methods developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s in reaction to the rise of industrial farming and the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. To provide more personal insight, Molesworth brought together four vintners from different areas of the world to share their stories of conversion.
“Biodynamics is not without its detractors,” Molesworth acknowledged, mentioning some of its quirkier techniques. “Many of its ideas and concepts have not been proven scientifically.” But biodynamics emphasizes observation and a deep respect for the land, he said, and many growers use it to learn their vineyards in a more intimate way.
While consulting in remote Patagonia, winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers stumbled across a site with old Malbec vines dating to 1932 and convinced Noemi Cinzano, of Tuscany’s Argiano winery, to become a partner. After researching biodynamics in 2003, they sent the manager on a hunt for cow horns in good condition so they could fill them with dung and bury them in the ground over the winter, to create a special preparation meant to improve soil fertility. He arrived with six different types and shapes; unsure which was the right type, they buried them all. Six months later, when they dug them up, they were all still cow dung—except one, which contained a pure, rich humus. “That really struck us,” Vinding-Diers said.
Now the winery’s gardener steals the preparation meant for the vines to help the vegetables grow. “In Patagonia, in the arid environment we have, we are managing to grow things you would not believe,” Vinding-Diers said. To demonstrate the level of quality at the estate, he poured the Bodega Noemía de Patagonia Río Negro Valley 2009 (96 points, $105), a 100 percent Malbec.
Napa vintner Bart Araujo, who bought the famed Eisele Vineyard, switched to biodynamics in 2000 and 2001 after reading an article about “these wackos doing certain winegrowing practices without clothes,” which got his attention. But when he read the list of great biodynamic producers, he decided he had to try it.
In Araujo’s area of Napa, growers expect a couple heat spikes above 100 degrees each summer, resulting in sunburned grapes and leaves. “But in 2003, it got up to 110 degrees, and I went out in the vineyard, and there were no sunburned leaves and berries,” said Araujo, who is convinced biodynamics results in more resilient vines. “In the last decade, we’ve had about every different kind of growing season you could imagine—cool, warm, wet, dry—and our vintages have been amazingly consistent.” Now, he said, he hears words such as “tension,” “purity” and “poise” used to describe his wines, all apt for the Araujo Syrah Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard 2009 (NYR) he poured.
Alfred Tesseron, owner of Château Pontet-Canet, a Bordeaux fifth-growth now producing among the best wines in Pauillac, took the biodynamic plunge in 2004. This approach is still rare in Bordeaux; he admitted, “In our Atlantic weather conditions, it’s not the easiest way of farming.” In 2008, to avoid compacting the soils, Pontet-Canet began replacing tractors with horses, which now cover 40 percent of the vineyards. Tesserson said, “We aim to have the vineyards balance themselves. No more green harvest, no more taking leaves off. We use natural yeast and the result of all this work is today in front of you”—the Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 2009 (96, $180).
One of the world’s greatest white wine estates, Zind-Humbrecht produces as many as 30 or more different bottlings, primarily Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. Olivier Humbrecht spoke passionately about the unique geography of Alsace that allows Zind-Humbrecht to make so many different wine styles, like the Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Alsace Turckheim Clos Jebsal Sélection des Grains Nobles 2001 (95, $209/375ml), which comes from a warm south-facing terrace with rich, deep marl soil that can consistently produce sweet wine every year. “Biodynamic cultivation enhances the character of the place where the wine is grown,” said Humbrecht, an early adopter in 1998.
Humbrecht had his own story about manure. When Zind-Humbrecht first started to make their own compost, they bought manure from a neighboring farmer and enriched it. “It stayed a heap of shit for three or four years,” Humbrecht declared to laughter. It turned out the farmer was using a great deal of antibiotics. The difference between it and the biodynamic manure they later sourced was “mind-boggling.” Humbrecht wrapped up with this summary: “Biodynamics is observation, understanding how the vine grows in its environment; it’s also respect of the soil, of the grapes, of the people that work in the vineyard, of the wine and also of our customers.”
“And obviously,” Molesworth quipped in conclusion, “it’s about having the right shit.”