Preference a matter of faith for biodynamic converts
OWdo you make head or tail of the mystical nature of biodynamics? The reality is that many more international winemakers of repute than the handful I mentioned last week are ardent practitioners and that in The Wine Companion database, 117 Australian wineries claim to be biodynamic. A few may be dubious, making poor wine, but the majority are good winemakers.
If there is to be a satisfactory answer, it must lie in the organic viticulture springboard that allows you to make the leap to biodynamic. Jancis Robinson (The Oxford Companion to Wine) uses the 1990 US Farm Bill definition of organic viticulture as a system of grape growing that does not employ industrially synthesised compounds as additions to the soil or vines to maintain or increase fertility, or to combat pest problems.
In broad terms, it allows the use of rock sulphur (not sulphur extracted from oil, even though the compound is the same) and of copper, two centuries-old sprays (along with lime) used to combat downy and powdery mildew, and which have never suffered resistance problems, although copper toxicity is an issue in Bordeaux.
Not permitted are nitrogen or similar fertilisers, systemic mildew sprays, herbicides and pesticides. Nor is the approach of modern integrated pest management allowed, even though (properly run) it should have less long-term adverse impact.
This aside, organic viticulture requires a much closer monitoring of vine health than conventional chemical management and, while initially more expensive (for example, $900 a hectare each year for hand or mechanical weeding v $350 for herbicides), it is cheaper in the long term. It builds soil structure and bacterial content and makes the vines more disease-resistant simply because they are healthier.
It is generally accepted that the step from chemical to organic is more difficult to achieve satisfactorily than the following move to biodynamic. But what does the latter achieve in terms that can be scientifically validated, rather than in terms of the passionate beliefs of the bio practitioners?
I attended a conference at the University of California’s Davis campus several years ago and one of the sessions was directed to this question. One paper examined all the sensory evaluation comparisons that had been recorded over the previous decade.
It found only one with appropriate methodology, including placebo or dummy wines, among numerous tastings conducted by true believers who knew what wines were in the tasting, and it did not give a clear indication of superiority. THE Kalleske family has been growing grapes in South Australia’s Barossa Valley for more than 100 years. The fifth generation, John and Lorraine, stopped using chemical fertilisers and pesticides many years ago and some blocks (including Greenock) are certified organic and managed biodynamically. The 2006 Greenock Shiraz (94 points; $40) is dark magenta , with abundant red and black fruits. Hints of spice to the core of intense, bright flavours lead to a long, full and harmonious finish. An excellent wine. And we will never know how much is due to biodynamic inputs. James Halliday
A lengthy article appeared in the spring 2008 edition of WineSelector magazine involving a number of key bio players in Australia and journalist Max Allen (a true believer), who tasted a selection of bio wines.
Some of the regular panellists were able to detect the extra energy in certain biodynamic wines. Others were simply happy to find the wines were equal in quality to their conventionally made peers. Allen is quoted as saying, ‘‘ Drinking great BD wines is like listening to live music: the best conventional wines are like a standard performance on CD.’’
What worries me is the absence of blind tastings with a mix of bio and non-bio wines from the same varieties, regions and vintage that provide a clear pattern, or any pattern at all.
On the viticultural front, a six-year study comparing biodynamic and organic vineyards from the Washington State lab was published in a peer-reviewed journal, which concluded that no consistent significant differences were found for any of the physical, chemical or biological parameters (of the tested soils).
Looking at the vines, the study states: ‘‘ Analysis of leaves showed no difference between treatments. There were no differences in yield, bunch count, bunch weight and berry weight.’’
What do I make of all of this? The step from organic to biodynamic is a matter of religious faith and just because it embodies tenets that cannot be explained by science, or are scientifically wrong, does not mean it should be attacked or vilified.