What is Biodynamic Wine? – Nicolas Joly (Clairview, Reprinted 2011) – R185
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 4/5
Coincidentally for South African readers, biodynamics and Pinotage are of remarkably similar age. They date back to 1924 and 1925, respectively. Biodynamics is an alternative attitude to agriculture that draws on the teaching of its German founder, Rudolf Steiner. It was the first organic movement and emphasises a holistic and systems approach by treating the earth as a ‘living and receptive organism’. Plant growth and livestock care, together with soil fertility, are ecologically inter-related. Biodynamics eschews the use of chemicals – herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers – whilst highlighting the application of manures and composts. Further, sowing and planting are governed by an astrological calendar to add to the mystical and spiritual practices. Opinion is divided, almost 100 years later, as to whether biodynamics is a pseudoscience or not and whether the reported benefits would happen with organic practices alone.
Turning to wine, vineyards make up circa 5% of biodynamic agriculture. It is difficult to obtain reliable up to date figures but in 2013 there were over 700 certified biodynamic wine estates adopting the strict criteria set by Demeter, the certification organisation. South Africa has just 75 hectares of biodynamic vineyards. Three wine estates are recognised: Waterkloof, Reyneke and Elgin Ridge.
Nicolas Joly, the author of ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of biodynamic wine and has been working with the approach for 30 years in the Loire Valley, France. Born in 1945, his formative years do not perhaps mark him out as a major protagonist. He studied at Columbia University and worked for merchant bank JP Morgan in New York and London. However, he left in 1977 to run his family’s vineyard called Coulée de Serrant in Saviennières. The 7-hectare estate has produced all its wine biodynamically since 1984. Coulée de Serrant single vineyard has the rare distinction – along with Romanée-Conti and a handful of others – to be granted its own AOC.
My aim in writing this piece is to review Nicolas Joly’s book rather than offer a critique or my opinion of biodynamism. This is not an easy task. First, it is difficult to avoid consideration of the efficacy of the approach and some of its more esoteric practices whilst reading the book. Second, and as an applied biologist with a Doctorate from Cambridge University, I fall into the ‘scientific cul-de-sac’ that is imprisoned by its misplaced ‘materialistic dogmas’ and so, according to Joly, I am unable to pass judgement anyway.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is a slim volume that stretches to little more than 100 pages. The paperback was first published in 2007, this being a reprinted 2011 edition. Make any internet search for books about biodynamics and this book will show high up in the listings, such is its standing and importance. Joly sets the scene in the first chapter by describing how the 1930s appellation contrôlée concept of ‘regulated wines of origin’ gave ‘Lady Vine’ a place where she felt at ease. He introduces biodynamism by describing the 4 states of matter, drawing from Plato’s ancient wisdom. These are gravity, heat, air, and light, together with water. This secret language affects different plants at different stages in their growing cycle in different ways. Should the vine, for example, have help to raise it up to ‘escape the earth a little’ by trellising or pruning? Or should it re-connect with gravity by annual pruning?
Chapter 2 deals with the so-called errors in agriculture that since the 1950s have destroyed the original, authentic taste that the AOC system once guaranteed. Joly lays the blame at the feet of modern agricultural practices with their use of chemical fertilisers, general/systemic herbicides, and technology. These have inter alia killed the micro-organisms in the soil leading to impoverished, industrial-scale cultivation. He continues, in the next Chapter, to comment on like industrial processes in the cellar that have changed viticulturalists and winemakers from ‘nature’s assistants’ to factory workers. Joly cites interventions such as the use of commercial yeasts, temperature control during fermentation, osmosis, and micro-oxygenation. The modern cellar, with its electrical and magnetic pollution from HT cables, mobile phones etc, disrupts the ‘’form waves’ of nature and the solar system that naturally occur. He ties in his thinking from earlier by describing how the rain, heat and wind of climate affects vine flowering and fruiting to imprint on each vintage in the unique AOCs. We have, he suggests, lost our way by substituting our intuitive experience of energy and natural forms by cutting ourselves off from life and relying on physical matters and modern science. Rather than being (as opponents argue) ‘sectarian …for the wealthy … esoteric … and obturantist’, biodynamics derives from real laws and offers the way ahead.
The fourth Chapter is where Joly brings the practical application of biodynamics to the fore. ‘Bio’ means life whilst ‘dynamism’ accelerates or stimulates life. Here, he describes Steiner’s 1924 suggestions to improve the well-being of plants by using natural preparations from medicinal plants that have been inserted into their corresponding animal organs to amplify their effects. He explains the thinking behind enclosing camomile in a cow’s intestine, together with manure or fine silica quartz in a cow horn and their multiplying effect on soil bacteria and to activate photosynthesis when atomised and sprayed onto the vines at appropriate times of the year. The pace of the writing accelerates too as Joly furthers develops the idea of ‘invisible energy information’ and how biodynamism seeks only to activate what nature has already in place. He starts to link biodynamic application to the solar and stellar system and hence season.
This well leads to the final Chapter that connects these celestial systems to the earth. Joly returns to the complex world of energies and how the earth is bombarded all sorts of frequencies of differing cosmic wavelengths that impinge on the varying rhythms that sustain life. ‘Matter is never the mould, only the content of the mould’, he argues, and so the earth (and all life) is composed of particles made up by specific informational forces. We must therefore understand these formative forces – visible and invisible, centripetal and centrifugal, spring and autumnal, earthly and cosmic, solar and stellar – and use this knowledge to improve the vine. This relates to the states of matter in Chapter 1 – fruiting + heat impulse, blossoming + light impulse, growth + water impulse and root growth + earth impulse – that act in different ways according to the positions of the planets in relation to the earth and the stellar constellations behind them as they orbit the sun. Agriculture has destroyed the living agents so that the plant has become ‘deaf to the invisible’ with the result that our food quality and human nutrition are poor. This can be visibly demonstrated by crystallisation tests with copper chloride powder. The resultant petri-dish images show greater uniformity and size of structure for organic and naturally produced food and wine than for over-processed products. Joly then introduces the sowing and planting calendar by German Maria Thun for which she measured each planetary and stellar influence on the plant world. The relation of every planet and the earth has a different energy effect based on mathematical laws. Thus, if we understand the health-giving forces of the moon or Saturn or Mercury or the stars, we will be able to apply them to (say) fruiting and when to harvest the grapes in the biodynamic vineyard.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ ends with a short (2 page) concluding chapter, ahead of Appendices that set out a Quality Charter to permit an appellation to express itself fully. Joly summarises by describing biodynamism being not a pseudoscience or some illusory sorcery but ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’. He returns to the Greek Gods, their forces and ‘mortality’. Real wine should transport us into a far-off, ethereal, and magical world that is distant from earthly forces. That, according to Joly, is achieved and sustained by a knowledgeable and respective biodynamic agriculture.
As explained above, this is not a book one can read without applying one’s own values and beliefs, indeed experience and thinking, to the topic. Joly argues his case well and coherently. The simple style of his writing, with little jargon or (if used) simply explained, makes for an easy read. There are minimal photographs and illustration other than to amplify or explain specific points. This lets the book flow, but I would have liked more than the 5 main chapters or the use of section breaks, or both. Much of the information is new and challenging and these would have allowed me time to reflect and think as I read through the book.
I enjoyed how Joly told his story. He builds up the case for biodynamic wine making in a logical way, with each step built on the previous one and with good linkages. I liked how he closes the open threads by returning to the centre stage every so often. Predictably, there was much that made sense and much that did not. I am a child of the late 1950s and brought up in very rural England. I can therefore well relate and understand an agriculture that was far more ‘organic’ and far less reliant on agro-chemicals. I thus empathise when Joly talks about and posits that human animal husbandry practices have caused avian flu, encouraged mad cow disease, or sheep scrapie and swine fever. Should we use the anti-biotic and medical approach of veterinarians to combat animal disease? Or practice better methods of production? Do we treat the cause or the effect? And, what is health anyway? These commercial arguments apply as much to the vine and winemaking.
I also empathise with the organic movement and the related one, surprisingly little mentioned, of sustainability. One test for me on the concept of biodynamics is whether its effects are sufficiently large or significantly different and distinct to those of organic agriculture. Joly does not tackle this question head on and that leaves room for wonder. ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is written more for the converted and the evangelist than the doubtful which I, as an evidential scientist, am. Thus, many of the more far-out claims and statements cause me to question even more. These include the suggestion that a vine can be protected from sunshine by treating it with teas prepared from seaweed, or that biodynamic wines improve several days after being opened, that breeding either at full or new moon determines the sex of an animal (80% male or female), or that certain people can alter the rate of growth of a plant by their very presence and thinking. I would have liked to have seen the ‘scientific demonstration’ of these claims refenced in the Bibliography at the end of the book. The observation, for instance, that some church spires appear like an inverted amphora intrigues. Science is about making proven and predictable connections. Observations such as this must pass the ‘so what?’ test for me, otherwise they become meaningless. Does their likeness prove the existence of opposing calling down cosmic forces (the church spire) and calling up terrestrial forces (the sunken amphora)? Where does coincidence begin and end? Otherwise, it becomes possible to bring together any two pieces of information – whether related or otherwise – and draw conclusion from them.
Ultimately of course, and I am trying to resist the temptation to comment on the efficacy of biodynamics rather than the book – though the persuasiveness of the latter drives the reader’s opinion on the former – and therein lies the rub. Here is a poser. I buy 2 identical shirts. They are indistinguishable from each other. One is made by an ethical producer with well-paid staffs working in safe and healthy working conditions, whilst the other comes from a sweat-shop factory using cheap labour. Without this background information, is one shirt any better than the other? Well, not if they are identical. If anything, the sweat-shop shirt will likely be priced cheaper and so offer better value for money. Apply now to a biodynamic wine. Is the biodynamic wine any better than an organic wine or an old vine wine or a vegan one or a commercial one? The ultimate test for me is whether the biodynamic wine tastes better and how much better. Blind tastings, so far at least, have proved inconclusive.
Meanwhile, I do agree that the back story has a role to play. It will increasingly do so with the conscious marketing of ethical and sustainable products and services, and not only for the environmentally aware millennials. The shirt may not look any different or the wine taste any better but just knowing how each was made matters. The emotional link and connection with the consumer are real. This could have been more emphasised by Nicolas Joly. He does mention personal connection, already touched on above, in the sense that biodynamics is ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’.
Joly is nonetheless an authoritative author and, after all, a biodynamic practitioner with 30 years winemaking experience rather than an academic theorist. He concludes ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’, as I shall here, with these wise words. The farmer would say, “You are what you eat”. The viticulturalist would say, “You are what you drink”.