The world of winemaking is an elaborate and ancient art. Wine has been enjoyed since 5400 BC, with the methods of vinification remaining largely untouched until the advent of chemicals after World War II.
France was the largest producer of wines prior to the war, but the fertile vineyards were desecrated by Nazi occupiers. When the war was over, winemakers returned to vineyards destroyed by battles and strewn with landmines. Vines were infested with pests, and caches of rare wines had been claimed by the spoils of war. Building back what was lost would take decades — but could be aided with a cutting edge technology: chemical fertilizers.
DDT And The Rise Of Chemical Vineyards
As an insecticide, DDT gained popularity in the latter half of the Second World War to control outbreaks of malaria and typhus. After the war ended, it was a seemingly easy solution to restore the pest-infested vineyards to their former glory.
However, even though dosing vineyards in chemicals was a reliable way to ensure that pests stayed away, some winemakers disliked the effect it had on the produce.
“After the war, chemistry came to the vineyards, and now most wine in France, all over the world, is poison, undrinkable. It tastes of the things added to it and not the grapes, not the ground.” says Claude Courtois, who owns a vineyard in Soings-en-Sologne.
DDT was responsible for causing cancer, destroying wildlife, and polluting the environment. It was eventually banned during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but modern day pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not exempt from causing pollution and jeopardizing human health. The collapse of bee colonies, a bona fide environmental catastrophe, is thought to be due to pesticides.
Before DDT took over the vineyards in a post-war France, a German scientist and philosopher named Rudolf Steiner prophesied that the chemical revolution would have unforeseen consequences. Steiner was the pioneer of biodynamic agriculture, an orphic constellation of chemical-free farming practices and cosmic energy.
Steiner believed that biodynamic farming could increase the fertility of the soil, and the yield of the crops, without using chemicals or pesticides. In order to do this, viticulturists had to view their vineyard as one living organism. The vines, the soil, local flora and fauna — along with lunar cycles and cosmic energy — needed to be seen as an interdependent system. If one part was out of balance, the whole organism would fail.
Sommeliers and Masters of Wine are notoriously stiff-lipped and no-nonsense; so, the notion of harvesting seeds under a full moon and ritually burying animal parts in the name of viticulture was unlikely to impress the staunch traditionalists. In the early stages of biodynamic winemaking, converts of the practice were considered either hippies or occultists.
For instance, the following preparations are the bedrock of biodynamic winemaking, and sound more like oenophilic voodoo than traditional winemaking.
A cow’s horn is packed with manure, and buried in soil over the winter. In spring, the horn is excavated. The manure inside the horn is mixed with water and sprayed on the soil of the vines during the afternoon. The horn is often reused.
Cow horns are filled with ground quartz crystals and buried during the summer. At fall, the horn is dug up, and the quartz is mixed with water and sprayed on the vines at sunrise.
In the beginning of summer, yarrow flowers are inserted into a stag’s bladder. The yarrow-infused bladder is hung outdoors throughout the summer, and then buried in the winter. The following spring, the bladder is unearthed. The yarrow is removed from the bladder and laid into the vine’s compost.
The same process as 502, except chamomile flowers are used in lieu of yarrow, and buried in a cow intestine.
Stinging nettles are buried during the summer. The nettles are dug up during the fall and added to the compost.
An animal skull is filled with oak bark, buried over the winter, and dug up in spring. The skull is buried in watery soil. The oak bark is then added to the compost.
The same process as 502 and 503, expect dandelion flowers are buried in a cow mesentery, then added to the compost.
Valerian flowers are steeped in water, and the mixture is sprayed over the compost.
Common Horsetail is brewed as a tea and applied to the vines or soil.
Some practitioners of biodynamic viticulture are more enthusiastic than others.
Devout converts will mix the wine preparations with rainwater, and painstakingly stir them in alternate directions, preferably by hand, for a full hour. Instead of harvesting by the seasons, the preparations are buried on the dates that fall on the equinox. Wine critic Alan Meadows recalled the strange stipulations of wine tasting by biodynamic growers:
“The biodynamic growers want me to taste their wines only on fruit or flower days, never on leaf or root days.”
Those days reference the biodynamic lunar calendar, which dictates when wine tastes the best. If you’re interested — there’s an app for that.
But perhaps the strangest practice of all is how some avid biodynamic viticulturists chose to deal with their sworn enemies: the mighty pest.
Although pesticides are off the table, taking revenge on pests is a merciless business. “Peppering” as it’s called, is not for the faint of heart. Mammals are flayed, their skin is placed inside a wood-burning oven, and the ashes are sprinkled around the vineyard. Insects are likewise toasted to a crisp, and their charred carcuses are ground in a pestle and mortar before being flung over the grapevines.
It may sound like the secrets of biodynamic wines are straight out of the Sanderson sisters’ spellbook, but the results are pretty potent. Eventually the Sommeliers and Masters came around to admitting that when it came to full-flavored results, biodynamic wine was a winner.
The success of biodynamics didn’t just silence the critics. Several prominent vineyards in France became converts. Anne-Claud Leflaive, owner of the esteemed Batard-Montrachet vineyard in Burgundy, claimed that biodynamic farming saved her vines from rot and disease that threatened to desecrate her entire crop. Vogue Magazine interviewed another Burgundy winemaker, Thiébault Huber, who said,
“The first thing you notice when you start farming biodynamically is the vineyard transformation. The soil is much more alive, the vines stronger. Then the wines are more alive, too.”
Maybe it’s not just a bunch of hocus pocus?
Although vegans may feel understandably queasy about some of the bizarre practices, chemical fertilizers are destroying soil and water. The environmental impact of pesticides is well documented, with one study reporting that pesticides “could pollute the tissues of virtually every life form on the earth, the air, the lakes and the oceans, the fishes that live in them and the birds that feed on the fishes.”
Biodynamics may be weird. But it’s sustainable.
List Of Biodynamic Wines
Lutea Wine Cellars (mix)
Domaine de L'Arlot
Domaine Comte Armand
Dom. de la Boissonneuse
Domaine de la Cadette
Chandon de Briailles
Domaine Bruno Clavelier
Dominique & Catherine Derain
Domaine Dujac (org, bio-d methods)
Domaine des Epeneaux
Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot
Domaine Henri Gouges
Domaine des Comtes Lafon
Les Champs de l'Abbaye
Château de la Maltroye
Château de Monthelie
Domaine Roblet-Monnot (converting)
Domaine Romanee Conti (DRC) (converting since 2007)
La Soufrandière (org + bio-d methods)
Laurent et Céline Tripoz
Cécile Tremblay (converting)
Domaine des Vignes du Maynes
Domaine de la Vougeraie
For a complete list of biodynamic wines, visit the Fork & Bottle.