James Suckling on Biodynamic Wines And Soulful Vintages
Some of the most celebrated producers in the world, particularly in Europe, have embraced biodynamics in their vineyards to make even greater, more soulful vintages. But do these principles actually work? jamessuckling.com finds out and selects five top-rated biodynamic wines.
Many wine lovers could easily have written off the mystical concept of biodynamics were it not for the fact that some of the most celebrated producers in the world, particularly in Europe, have embraced it in their vineyards to make even greater, more soulful wines.
In fact, they also frequently appear on the top of our lists. Chacra, a biodynamically farmed winery in Patagonia, released a stunning reference of Argentine pinot noir – Pinot Noir Patagonia Treinta y Dos 2018 – which was our Wine of the Year in 2020. And Clos Apalta Valle de Apalta 2015 topped our list of 100 Andean Wines in 2018, as well as being a contender for Wine of the Year.
The notion of fostering a self-sustaining vineyard can be viewed as a spiritual, almost metaphysical, step up from organic farming. Yet only a few people probably know that the principles of biodynamics, which were first postulated by the Austrian philosopher and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, predate organic farming.
There’s also a political side to Steiner’s principles, as he saw a rural way of life disappearing through industrialisation and wanted to canonise his ideals about that way of life.
The ideology that perceives vineyards as organic, self-contained ecosystems where everything is interrelated has our respect. We feel that biodynamic farming is more of a philosophy or guiding set of principles rather than a cult or definite protocol. And the understanding and execution of it varies from winemaker to winemaker.
Biodynamic farming is based on organic agriculture, which renounces the use of agrichemicals and synthetic fertilisers, but is stricter and much broader in many ways. For example, the amount of so-called “Bordeaux mixture” (a fungicide made of copper sulphate, lime and water) allowed in biodynamic-certified farming is much less than in organic farming, leaving less copper residue in the soil. Whereas outside fertilisers are permitted in organic farming, biodynamic agriculture requires fertility to come from within the farm through composting. This serves to maximise microbial activities in the soil and enhance the vineyard’s “immune system”.
The biodynamic vineyard sustains itself through recycling the “energies” from the animals that live within it, thus providing fertility to the soil. It’s why creatures as small as bees and as big as horses are so crucial in a biodynamic vineyard, as well as two other natural sources of energy: minerals and vegetation. And so, special biodynamic recipes are prescribed and prepared, such as so-called horn manure, also known as Preparation BD 500. This involves putting cow manure in a cow horn and burying it in the soil over the winter to let it ferment. It’s then diluted with water in the spring, stirred precisely and sprinkled on the vineyard soil.
The logic behind this is that manure is considered a source of growing energy that stimulates the microbial activities in the soil to create high-quality humus. Ground quartz crystal prepared in a similar way is applied to intensify the power of sunlight to ripen the grapes while it possibly transmits an inhibitive force on the growth of foliage as harvest approaches (think yin and yang). Other preparations, such as oak bark and horsetail plant, are used to prevent diseases.
Today, more than 800 wine producers worldwide in more than 20 countries are biodynamically certified, mostly through the Demeter federation and Biodyvin. In terms of distribution, Europe is still a stronghold of biodynamic farming, with some of the top producers – especially those from Germany, France, Italy and Austria – delivering compelling wines. In Bordeaux, many top producers have converted to biodynamics from either conventional or organic farming methods. Palmer, a leading Third Growth in Margaux, successfully converted its vineyards to biodynamics from organics in 2014 and has been going strong since, and now Latour is doing the same by converting part of its vineyards to biodynamics.
The rest of the world is gaining ground, too, with some regions that are less climatically marginal, such as Chile and Argentina, showing great promise for organic and biodynamic farming. Clos Apalta, Seña, Emiliana, Araucano and Bodega Chacra make some of the top-rated biodynamic wines we know from South America. On the other side of the world, New Zealand, which is already known for green and sustainable farming, is moving proactively toward biodynamic wines, too, with producers like Rippon and Felton Roads in Central Otago delivering some of the country’s best pinot noirs and chardonnays.
The concept of biodynamics invites growers to think flexibly, beyond that which is already known or perceived. It also gives us a chance to empathise with all the lives in the ecosystem and find harmony with them – but that’s easier said than done in a highly industrialised and materialised society, where efficiency is king and the balance between materialism and spiritualism is easily tipped. At least as far as winemaking goes, biodynamic farming is meant to restore this balance, serving to prevent and heal rather than to fix and cure. Which is to say, the easiest fix is rarely the best, and there are no real short cuts in making a fine wine.
BEST BIODYNAMIC WINES
JAMESSUCKLING.COM’S FIVE TOPRATED BIODYNAMIC WINES
SEÑA VALLE DE ACONCAGUA 2018
This is a very thoughtful Seña that shows unique aromas of warm earth, mushrooms and conifer, turning to dark berries and black olives. The palate is more glamorous with ultra-fine tannins that envelop your palate.
WITTMANN RIESLING RHEINHESSEN MORSTEIN GG 2019
Let go of the narrow human world and fall into this expansive dry riesling that busts out of the conventional framework for the grape variety.
CHRISTMANN RIESLING PFALZ IDIG GG 2019
The deepest waters are the most mysterious, because you look ever further down and never know what you’re going to discover another five fathoms deeper. And just so, this beautiful riesling has seductive fruit that drags you into an abyss of beauty and joy.
CHACRA PINOT NOIR PATAGONIA TREINTA Y DOS 2018
The structure of this is phenomenal and redefines pinot noir in Argentina. Aromas and flavours of dried strawberry, iodine, oyster shell, wet earth, fresh mushrooms and flowers. Full-bodied, tight and focused with chewy tannins and a long, extensive mouth feel.
DR. BÜRKLIN-WOLF RIESLING PFALZ KALKOFEN GC 2019
The lemon-zest and lavender nose drags you into this deep maelstrom of mystery. Enormously concentrated and powerful, yet bright and brilliant in the super long finish. It’s almost too much of a good thing, but not quite. Very limited quantity.
(Hero image: Home to Emiliana, Casablanca in Chile is located between hills, close to the sea. Its vineyards are characterised by white wines, especially chardonnay)
Source: Prestige Online