Viticulture Biodynamics as Agricultural Precedent
by ALEXANDER CASSINI
With a growing pursuit for more environmentally-conscious lifestyles, the past decade has seen an exponential increase in the production, distribution, and consumption of organic products. In addition to these health benefits, consumers have also found that organic food tastes better and that their agricultural methods of production are more respectful of the environment (given the smaller scale of farms, the better treatment of animals, and their limited carbon emissions). Yet, even though organic food production is arguably more respectful to plants, animals, and soils than conventional growing, it has also become highly commercialized: a profitable and globalized market that—increasingly—is losing its romanticized image of providing people with locally grown food from small-scale farms. More generally speaking, with the need for pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO’s on industrialized farms to maintain productivity, our whole agricultural system is becoming monopolized by profit-seeking, global corporations which force farmers to seek maximum yields—thereby cutting corners and harming the environment. Thus, despite the expansion of the organic foods movement as well as the growth of ecological consciousness in recent decades still falls short of provoking a complete rethinking of the agricultural world—it is slowly offering a more holistic vision that encompasses various biological and temporal timescales.
Biodynamics as Alternative
Viticulture, or the cultivation of grapevines specifically for wine-making, has proven, in particular, to be a specific field of agriculture where the results of specific practices have a notable effect on the product (since wine is all about taste). Within viticulture, biodynamics thus emerges as an alternative method for producing higher quality wine with a means of production that is neither environmentally destructive nor intrusive.
Despite its promise, biodynamics remains a fairly unknown term, referring to a school of thought centered on the plant as a living organism. The biodynamic movement began in the 1920’s with a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner who proposed new methods of agriculture that include all forms of energy present on a farm whether mineral, animal, or solar. As he states in his Agriculture Course Lecture 1, “The earthly and cosmic forces, of which I have spoken, work in the farm through the substances of the Earth...” Put simply, biodynamics encourages a return to traditional practices of agriculture as they were prior to the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides—an idea that even predates the organic food movement that we see has become so popular today.
And, it is within viticulture that biodynamics has found its most profound resonance and has made promising strides towards a comprehensive understanding of live matter and its associated energies. In other words, wine, perhaps, is the best medium to express and capture an alternative mode of agriculture. Because of its relationship to soil, climate and milieu or, collectively, terroir, wine is positioned at the intersection of taste and landscape. The importance of wine’s taste relative to its variety, its location of production, and its wine making methods make viticulture a perfect locus for biodynamics. The passion of the wine clientele also adds to the search for unique systems of production that emphasize individuality and particularity. This is how the AOC or Appellation d’Origine Controllée system, for example, came about in the 1930’s—classifying wines by locality rather than variety.
At the end of the 19th century, the devastating Phylloxéra disease caused by an insect destroyed the entire wine production of France. The French viticulture authorities sought to replant the vineyards with grafts from American grape varieties that were disease resistant. This method worked extremely well and was able to restore France’s production. Concurrently with the establishment of AOC’s, wine in France started to reflect a combination of a particular location with grape variety and wine-making methods. With the popularity of this regulatory system, the wine market grew very lucrative and vineyard growers were searching for new ways to increase their yields which they eventually found in the advent of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These substances originated from chemical weapons used in World War II and became increasingly popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. By the early 1970’s the state of French vineyards was desperate with extremely low nutrient content in the soil and wine quality deteriorating. This gave the opportunity for several key winegrowers in France to test out “natural” and biodynamic methods on their vineyards instead.
Along the Loire River in western France, there is a niche of several biodynamic wineries which I visited this summer. My first encounter was with Nicolas Joly, a biodynamic viticulture pioneer that spoke passionately with me about his ideas on wine-making. Joly had worked in finance in New York City for over 15 years before returning to his family vineyard in 1970 in Savennières, along the Loire River in western France. His wine called La Coulée de Serrant (which is one of the most exquisite white wines in the Loire region) is named after the impressive valley on which the vines have been growing since being planted by Cistercian monks in the 11th century. After studying the writings of Rudolf Steiner, Joly decided to convert the vineyard entirely into a biodynamic farm, citing Steiner's philosophy that, "...[a farm] should be able to produce within itself all that it needs.” Joly, in line with Steiner, advocates for a “return to terroirs” or a return to creating truthful wines...wines which reflect a soil, a micro-climate, and a variety. In order to reclaim the “truthfulness” of the wine, he reinvigorates the vineyard soil with microbial life every year found in animal and plant-based preparations, based on Steiner’s experiences and research. The preparations are subsequently dispersed in extremely small dosages throughout the vineyard but have an extraordinary effect.
And over the years, Joly has transformed the entire vineyard into a living organism. He explained how his biodynamic viticulture techniques respect and benefit from all cycles of life whether mineral, animal, or vegetal; his role is only to help the vines capture the most of what surrounds them. As he mentioned in our interview, the vine plant vitis vinifera is “the ideal plant to express a locale as the roots penetrate deep into the earth to capture its micro-geology and the leaves extend upward towards the sun to capture the micro-climate.”
Biodynamics as a whole encompasses many agricultural “acts.” For example, letting animals into the vineyard (for grazing) or planting trees with specific soil, atmospheric or solar attributes are all methods that maximize the quality of biodynamic viticulture. According to him, planting a cypress or allowing the presence of a pig in the vineyard will have different influences since cypresses are solar trees and upward-growing whereas the pig is terrestrial and ground-oriented. Every living being, site, and biodynamic method will influence the wine in its own way. It is in revealing these intricacies that Nicolas and Virginie Joly (his daughter, now in charge of the vineyard) achieve their wine making: a process where, for them, the wine grower becomes “nature’s assistant.”
Several other vineyard growers in the Loire valley have adopted biodynamics as their motto. Eric Dubois from Clos Cristal near Saumur was also another great encounter. The uniqueness of the vineyard undoubtedly lies within the three kilometers of parallel walls in the vineyard; they created a unique cultivation method that allowed the red wines from the Cabernet Franc grape to gain notoriety thanks to an advanced maturation of 3 to 4 weeks. After a delicious lunch accompanied by Clos Cristal 2012 Vintage, I was able to watch an afternoon of “décavaillonnage,” an organic agricultural method that aerates the soil and clears the weeds from the vine to improve water infiltration—all done with the help of two horses.
On one of my final excursions through the Loire Vallery, I met Xavier Amirault in Saint Nicolas de Bourgeuil up the river from Savennières and Saumur. My interest in his winery was for the replanting of hedgerows and maintenance of habitat patches to bring animal wildlife closer to the vineyard. This, in turn, helps with both pest control and ecological biodiversity. My visit to his winery was full of excitement as he welcomed me with great enthusiasm. After he explained a couple of details about the winery, we went on a truck tour through his vineyard, an ideal way to appreciate a condensed version of the viticulture landscape. Amirault pointed out the diversity of bird songs when we passed by these groves. In managing his vineyards, he strives to maintain these groves as best as possible and potentially increase their size because of the ecological benefits they are providing.
With all these growers, biodynamics strives to bring back traditional viticulture methods with an increased knowledge set based on Steiner’s research and cues from organic practices. For many wine growers, organics is simply the non-use of chemicals but, as should be clearly outlined, biodynamics is an entirely new mindset. Today, biodynamics is not only limited to the (often expensive) wine market but is slowly gaining popularity with other foods. Its success in viticulture for instance has led to the establishment of an independent certification label called Demeter.
However, biodynamics, although popular in viticulture, has sustained some criticism due to its (perhaps) less scientifically rigorous (though more holistic) methodologies. Nonetheless, the techniques used in biodynamics have become increasingly more diffused to the scientific community through other agriculture practices, horticultural sciences, and even in the new field called “Vinecology.” In the article Vinecology: Pairing Wine and Nature for example, the authors state that “butterfly diversity and abundance [is] higher in vineyards that maintained land in various states of fallow non-production (from grassland to secondary forests)”—exactly the methods used in biodynamic viticulture. Furthermore, the emergence of vinecology as a discipline which “considers the agricultural landscape in the context of the surrounding natural habitat and the full array of ecological processes and functions that support that habitat” has considerably augmented the role of the vineyard in promoting biodiversity and nature conservation. Ultimately, the in-depth study of biodynamics and its applications have an incredible potential to be be utilized as a model for use in agricultural practices as a whole.
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After a comprehensive flyover in a small aircraft of the wineries I had visited, I came to the realization that viticulture activities in the Loire Valley make up a large percentage of the land use, cultural landscape, and heritage of the region. Therefore, it struck me that highlighting the practices of these biodynamic winegrowers is key to transferring this knowledge from viticulture into mainstream agriculture and bringing ecological conservation goals to one of the largest and most consequential consumers of land.
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Biodynamics viticulture has seen a significant development that has made the wine consumer more aware of what they are drinking, how it is produced, and how it reflects a specific terroir. Although wine is a luxury product and consumed for pleasure, it epitomizes the need for a broader understanding of food production and agricultural goals in the 21st century. The influence of biodynamics on a wine’s taste is sufficient reason to believe in its effectiveness and its potential application to other foods. Basic knowledge and transparency concerning what the consumer is eating and how that food is produced is necessary in today’s mainstream agriculture. New agricultural methods coupled with an expanded field of action for ecological agricultural practices (including educational, social, conservationist, and projective goals) can truly have a notable impact on human development and our relationship to the greater environment we live in.
All photographs by Alexander Cassini.
Interviews with selected biodynamic wineries in the Loire Valley including Nicolas Joly, Eric Dubois, and Xavier Amirault (among others) were completed between June 13 and June 23, 2015.
Please visit Landscape Viticulture by Alexander Cassini for more information on the interviews and field-study of biodynamic wineries in the Loire Valley.
Crinnion, Walter J. Organic Food and Health Benefits. Alternative Medicine Review: a Journal of Clinical Therapeutic 15:1, April 2010. pp 4-12. Accessed: July 31, 2015. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/20359265
“Viticulture”. The Oxford Dictionary. Oxford Dictionaries. 2015. Accessed: August 2, 2015. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/
Steiner, Rudolf. The Agriculture Course Lecture Series. The Rudolf Steiner Archives. Lecture 3. June 7, 1924. Accessed: June 30, 2015. http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA327/English/BDA1958/19240611p01.html#sthash.132M5FJ1.dpuf
Viers Joshua H., Williams John N., Nicholas Kimberly A., Barbosa Olga, Kotze Inge, Spence Liz, Webb Leanne B., Merenlender Adina, Reynolds Mark. Vinecology:Pairing Wine and Nature. Conservation Letters 6:5, 1 May 2012. pp.287-299. Accessed: April 22, 2015.
Alexander Cassini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.