The cosmic vineyard

By Jo Burzynska

Burying cow horns full of manure and hanging stags' bladders stuffed with yarrow from the trees may seem like the actions of a lunatic fringe. But biodynamic practices such as these are being increasingly embraced by some of the most respected names in the wine world and resulting in some seriously good wines.

It's no surprise that in our rational and science-driven world the spiritual philosophy of biodynamics can initially seem as plausible as fairies and UFOs.

"When I first encountered biodynamics I thought it was way too out there," admits Mike Weersing, whose Pyramid Valley vineyard has been managed biodynamically from the outset. "I didn't approach it from a spiritual perspective, I came to it as an empiricist. I wanted to make the best wine I could and saw it working for others."

A list of biodynamic producers reads like a roll call of some of world's greatest wine producers: Leflaive, Zind-Humbrecht, Coulee de Serrant, Chapoutier, Jacques Selosse.

And in New Zealand there's Millton Estate, Felton Road, Rippon, Seresin, Pyramid Valley - a growing number of producers interested in applying biodynamic principles.

It's a system that's proving increasingly popular in the backlash against the excessive agrochemical use that's decimated the soils of vineyards in traditional winegrowing nations like France.

Here, decades of using chemical weedkillers purged soils of their living organisms, resulting in vines that became dependent on a life support system of chemical fertilisers.

Biodynamics is based on the theories of Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner, who viewed the farm as a whole and part of a wider system of lunar and cosmic rhythms, with which the biodynamic producer works in harmony.

While biodynamics and organics are united in their concerns with soil health and are opposed to synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, it's the following of these rhythms and the use of special preparations such as cow horn manure, which is specific to biodynamics.

Take a closer look at biodynamic principles and they start to make more sense, such as the effect the moon has over vines.

"The influence of the moon is proven to affect large bodies of water," explains Seresin's Colin Ross. "We've all seen the effect of the tides and we're made of 85 per cent water and most living things are around 80 per cent."

So what about that cow horn? Surveys have shown that manure dug down in a cow horn contains 80 times more bacterial activity than that left in a flower pot.

When it comes to the grapes themselves, many biodynamic growers report that their grapes have thicker skins. As well as making them more resilient, one study found them to have higher levels of the tannins, phenols and anthocyanins responsible for texture, colour, aroma and flavour in a wine.

Although much mainstream science has steered clear of exploring biodynamics, there have been scientific studies which suggest it's not just New Age nonsense. One carried out in New Zealand compared biodynamic and conventional farms and found that the biodynamic ones had far better and more microbially active soils.

Sceptics may demand need more scientific support, but the proof of biodynamics is in the drinking.

Some of my favourite wines are biodynamic. They're wines with real personality made by people with a deep connection with their vines.

It could be argued that these producers would have made great wines anyway, but what I've seen in the vineyards and in the glass is enough to convince me that biodynamics has played its part.

A BIODYNAMIC TRIO

Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc Gisborne 2007 $26
This concentrated chenin blanc from New Zealand biodynamic pioneer Millton is one of the rare examples in this country. A textural wine with notes of honey, almond, mineral and beeswax, and crisp lemony acidity, it's testament to the fact that more should be planted. From Fine Wine Delivery Company, First Glass, Wine Box.

Felton Road Central Otago Dry Riesling $29
Felton Road is one of the country's highest profile biodynamic producers and its wines continue to go from strength to strength. Propelled by a vibrant line of mineral and lime with undertones of peach and apricot, this dry riesling exhibits great intensity. From Caro's, Maison Vauron, La Barrique.

Seresin Leah Marlborough Pinot Noir 2006 $35
After embracing organics for some years, Michael Seresin has adopted biodynamics at his Marlborough estate. This soft and elegant pinot, with its pure and juicy plum and cherry fruit, notes of new leather and dusting of spice, is a blend from Seresin's three vineyards. From Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine Vault.

- NZ Herald

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