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German winegrowers discover the benefits of biodynamic cultivation
By Michæl Olbrich-Majer
DARMSTADT (NNA) – Perhaps it is because Germany has started importing more wine than it produces. Or perhaps it is the dilution by the EU of the laws governing the production of wine. But one thing is certain: German winegrowers and vineyards are urgently looking for ways in which to distinguish themselves through quality from the European mass market and the techno-wines from overseas. In doing so, they have discovered the methods of biodynamic cultivation as a means of quality enhancement.
Wine market: the threat of a global mass product There are more than 30 000 winegrowers in Germany, about as many as there are in Austria and one fifth of the number in France. Less than one percent work using organic methods, and not even one tenth of those apply biodynamics. In Germany that leaves the grand total of 22 Demeter accredited winegrowers.
But it is precisely the higher quality vineyards which undertake their own marketing and which have an interest in maintaining quality which are seeking ways of standing out from the crowd. Because it is not just the wine, but also the ambience and personality of the winegrowers which play a role in marketing.
The competition from overseas has grown exponentially and at the start of the year succeeded in breaking down the laws governing wine production in the EU in order to achieve access for its winemaking methods: fractionation and blending. The German news magazine Der Spiegel referred to “Frankenstein wines”. Farmers’ associations are calling for purity laws. Furthermore, the wine market is becoming subject to increasing globalisation and of interest to private investors with a lot of money to spend.
New methods of wine growing which buck this trend and yet still promise success are therefore in great demand.
Growing demand for biodynamics As a result, the demand for biodynamic know-how has grown significantly in the last two years. The first conference on biodynamic winegrowing organised by the German Forschungsring research association for biodynamic agriculture in April 2005 was followed by two practical days, and an organic winegrowing conference at the start of this year focused on the biodynamic approach.
Many vineyards have expressed an interest: if they are going to convert, they might as well go straight to biodynamics. Some already use “biodynamic” in their advertising without having the proper certification. The viticulture research centre at the Geisenheim am Rhein university of applied sciences has been investigating biodynamic preparations since 2003 and in Switzerland the FiBL institute for organic agriculture is running a programme until next year to investigate the effect of biodynamic measures on grape and wine quality.
Why now? After all, biodynamic winegrowers have been operating successfully in France – at least as far as quality and awards are concerned - for a good ten years. Leading wines such as those from Fleury and charismatic winegrowers such as Nicholas Joly, who vigorously calls into question the excessive use of technology by chateaus und eloquently paints a biodynamic picture of moon rhythms and the use of horse power, are well-known and have encouraged vineyards across the world to convert. Joly’s book has been translated into several languages and is long sold out in German.
In France, the biodynamic winegrowers have separated from the Demeter organisation – perhaps the need to develop an independent profile was greater than the wish for a common label. Perhaps winegrowers are too independent – which may be the reason why it took so long for biodynamic wine to cross the border from France to Germany.
Biodynamics and alcohol
Even organic viticulture did not really get going until the 1980s apart from a few solitary pioneers. Organic farmers had long been organised by that time. But the fact is also that the German biodynamic institutions for a long time resisted the idea of including an alcoholic drink under the Demeter label. There were intense debates as to whether a declaration such as “Demeter wine” or “wine from biodynamic cultivation” was not a contradiction in terms. This was because the anthroposophical source of biodynamics is based on a particular method of training spiritual abilities, something to which the consumption of alcohol is not conducive.
The French adopted a more pragmatic approach. There are vineyards in Germany, as in France and Austria, who have long been working with biodynamic methods but “Demeter wine” first became available in France. The furthest the Germans would go was “wine from Demeter grapes”. That, however, is likely to change with the current legislative developments regarding wine.
Formulating the ideal
In the 1990s, a dozen German biodynamic winegrowers met to look at the matter in greater depth from an anthroposophical perspective, supported by the biodynamic old hands from the Forschungsring Ernst Becker and Kurt Theodor Willmann. Utilising the experience of these two old gentlemen, the debate about cultural and practical issues was initiated.
As a result, an elixir was developed using the whole grape – Kristdyn, consisting of the fruit, pips and leaves. A model concept for biodynamic viticulture was prepared and the Association for Biodynamic Viticulture in Central Europe (Verein für biodynamische Rebbaukultur in Mitteleuropa) was established. Processes in cultivation and processing were qualitatively optimised using imaging methods. Gradually a higher public profile was adopted when a first wine growing conference took place with the presentation of the model concept which was finalised with the help of leading members of the Forschungsring in 2005.
The culture of the grape and wine production
The aim is to separate the grape as a plant encompassing special qualities of devotion from its close association with alcohol. The issue is viticulture also with regard to the conservation of landscapes and making available spiritual forces through nutrition – we need only think of the role played by the grape throughout the history of western culture from the Greeks through to its role in the Christian sacrament. As a result, alternatives to wine such as juices and other products are to be developed. And with regard to wine, the focus is to be particularly on the experience of its inner and outer qualities. In cultivation, too, objectives have been specified: Vitis vinifera, the European grapevine, which nearly disappeared a hundred years ago because of vine pest, is to be brought back into use.
The character of biodynamic viticulture
As clear as the objectives are, as differently the various wine growers present themselves on closer inspection. Biodynamics is not a uniform recipe book and, indeed, nature varies from place to place. The researchers in Geisenheim discovered a great variety of approaches. In cultivation, Joly for example places great value on the constellations and using horse power, others spread the biodynamic preparations by tractor in order to have more time for the grapes and their processing.
Some are happy to experiment such as Hartmut Heintz from the Zwölberich vineyard, others are purists and were until recently considered rather old fashioned, such as the Saahs family from the Nikolaihof in Austria. That has not stopped either of them from being successful – they both produce prize-winning wines. In production, too, there are various approaches. The consultant Andrew Lorand therefore recommends a close study of the principles – the use of biodynamic preparations alone is not sufficient. The deeper insight into the workings of nature, the character of the living context in which the vine grows, also provides an insight into the role and tasks of human beings in nature. Such insight is very attractive says Wilfried Jacobus, wine grower on the river Nahe. One can practice and learn. As the Mosel wine grower Rudolf Trossen describes it: “A wine grower cannot produce a good wine without a sensitive feel for things.”
What about the quality?
Terroir – being able to taste the origin of a wine, experiencing the soil in the wine - is deemed to be one of the most important quality characteristics of wine. And that is where the approach of the biodynamic wine growers could not be more spot on because that is precisely what biodynamic methods support: the intensive connection between the vine and the soil, using the power of the sun to best advantage.
But that cannot be achieved overnight. Biodynamic wine growers have to undertake years of quality tests to understand which measures, be it in the vineyard or in the wine cellar, produce what effects. To this end the Kristdyn group, for example, or the Nikolaihof also use imaging methods.
The conventional wine tasting methods – smell, taste, spit – which only last a few seconds are also being challenged. Christine Saahs from the Nikolaihof comments: “A wine must also be able to pass a sensory test if it has been open for a few days.” She knows what she is talking about for her wines are highly praised in respected wine guides such as Parkers, Johnsons and Clarkes and served in top restaurants. For biodynamic practitioners, quality is much, much more than merely the brief impression on the palate. It must be possible to feel the quality, the quality must contribute to wellbeing.
“Wein und Reben, biodynamisch”, Lebendige Erde 2-2006 (special issue focusing on biodynamic viticulture). From: Forschungsring, Brandschneise 1, D- 64295 Darmstadt, Germany, www.lebendigeErde.de, €6 plus postage and packing.
“Biodynamic Wines”, Monty Waldin’s wine guide from Mitchell Beazley, Classic Wine Library, London 2004, ISBN 1- 84000-964-0.
“Wein aus Ökologischem Anbau”, free guide to organic wine growers in Germany, ECOVIN Weinwerbe GmbH, Wormser Str. 162, 55276 Oppenheim, Germany, tel. +49 (0)6133 – 1640.
List of German Demeter wine growers from Demeter Bund, Brandschneise 1, D-64295 Darmstadt, Germany, tel. +49 (0)6155 – 8469-0
Item: 060914-02EN Date: 14 September 2006
Copyright 2006 News Network Anthroposophy Limited. All rights reserved. See http://www.nna-news.org/copyright/
More NNA reports at: http://www.nna-news.org/
The methods of biodynamic cultivation are beginning to spread also among winegrowers – not just as a way of distinguishing themselves in a mass market but also as a method of real quality enhancement which brings to full expression the unique quality of each terroir. In this two-part series, NNA investigates this “Renaissance des Appellations”. In part 1, Tom Raines and Rosemary Usselman report from London on the international aspects of biodynamic winegrowing as reflected in the group Return to Terroir, while in part 2 Michæl Olbrich-Majer, editor of the German biodynamic journal “Lebendige Erde” discusses Germany as a case study and looks at the deeper principles underlying biodynamic winegrowing.
Return to Terroir - biodynamic wines at the London International Wine Fair
By Tom Raines and Rosemary Usselman
LONDON (NNA) – “The real task of the group Return to Terroir is to bring the results of biodynamics to the world.” So says Nicolas Joly, French winegrower from the Loire region and passionate proponent of biodynamic winegrowing. As the founder of the group, he has become something of a globetrotter in his efforts to do this and is kept busy organising promotional and informative visits of Return to Terroir members to as many places around the world as possible, including Europe, North America and Asia. Nicolas even plans to stop off in China on his way back from Japan this autumn.
Joly was speaking at the London International Wine & Spirits Fair earlier this year where biodynamic wine producers from nine countries gathered together at the ExCel centre, East London, to share the enormous conference space with conventional wine producers from all over the world.
Located in rooms overlooking the River Thames at the former site of one of London’s dockland areas and surrounded by glasses, wine bottles, plain crackers and spittoons, seventy-five biodynamic wine growers presented their wines for tasting. This was the first opportunity in the UK to encounter such a broad range of biodynamic wines under the same roof; they came from Austria, Australia, Chile, Corsica, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Switzerland and USA.
The biodynamic wine growers who participated in this event were all members of Return to Terroir (“Renaissance des Appellations”). The group was founded in 2001 by Joly with the intention of reintroducing the authenticity of “terroir” – the unique quality and essence of a particular place which is imparted to whatever is grown there. Members of this group recognise and maintain the existence of their own particular microclimates in which the relationship between soil and climate produces the unique characteristics of the wine produced from the grapes grown there.
In joining the group, members agree to adhere to a Quality Charter that specifies “vineyard methods that pursue the true and inimitable expression of terroir” and “cellar practices that respect the high level of originality and unique characteristics of each terroir.” Members of the group must have been cultivating their vines biodynamically – making every effort to “reinforce the organic life of the soil, avoid use of synthetic chemicals and reject viticultural and winemaking practices that interfere with the true expression of their terroirs” – for at least three years, throughout the whole of their vineyard, before they can achieve the biodynamic Demeter certification.
The conventional wine-making industry has, over the last few decades, become increasingly dependent on chemical sprays in the form of fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc., all of which drench the vines and soil with toxins and weaken the life forces of the plants and soil. Biodynamic viticulture, on the other hand, “taps into life forces” and increases the overall health and strength of the vines, as it is only when the vines are unimpeded by chemicals that can they absorb the essence of their terroir. The wine industry is having to accept the fact that biodynamic wines are becoming ever more popular, with wine drinkers increasingly turning to them because of their superior flavour and ageing qualities.
The biodynamic winegrowers themselves are fast approaching the stage where demand will outstrip supply. There is, inevitably it seems, some opposition to this drive towards biodynamics – not least from those with a vested interest in maintaining the dependence of the vineyards on chemicals. Wine-tasting events such as this one in London give Return to Terroir a valuable opportunity to publicise its aims and ethos – and also to let the fine quality of the wines produced from biodynamic methods, speak for itself.
Two wine producers at the fair, Chris Benziger and Robert Blue, from the USA – the fastest growing country in the world in terms of conversion to biodynamic viticulture – shared their experiences of biodynamic growing; telling of the complete commitment it involved, not only from themselves, but from all the workers on their estates and of the value that they placed on belonging to the Return to Terroir group as a means of support, colleagueship, exchange of information and pooled marketing opportunities.
“Wine is probably the most ‘tasted’ substance in the world,” says Nicolas, but as a natural follow-on from his avid promotion of biodynamic viticulture, he has already begun to organise “blind” food tasting tests involving biodynamic foods, such as milk and cheese, in his home country, to which are invited chefs ever on the look-out for better quality ingredients.
A deep concern for Nicolas is that in not too many years from now the world as a whole may well reach crisis point. Perhaps no-one will be drinking wine at all, being more concerned with how to find drinkable water! He believes the only way to avert an ecological disaster will be the increased use of biodynamic methods.
Item: 060914-01EN Date: 14 September 2006
Copyright 2006 News Network Anthroposophy Limited. All rights reserved. See http://www.nna-news.org/copyright/
More NNA reports at: http://www.nna-news.org/