Praise him sun and moon; praise him all you stars above.
Now you are getting used to ideas of organics and sustainability in the food department, you may be aware that the same ideas extend to wine, with some caveats. Because you are talking about the grape growing and not necessarily the winemaking process, where there is no substitute for sulfites.
But in the vineyards themselves, the winemaker can go beyond organic farming to employ the metaphysical concepts of biodynamics first developed by Rudolph Steiner.
All of these methods are sensitive to reducing synthetic inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers and considering the entire ecosystem the grape vine inhabits.
Biodynamie, like these less extreme methods, stresses the organic fertility of the soil, down to its microscopic microbial ferment, but adds to that terrestrial focus a cosmic dimension from the astronomical sphere.
In its purest form, most industrial pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But small amounts of certain inputs, such as quartz dust, may be used to intensify the sun’s rays on the grape leaves, along with vegetable compounds such as yarrow, chamomile, and valerian for other purposes.
In addition to this earthbound regimen, in the most far out extension of biodynamic principles, vineyard operations are guided by the positions of the planets and the phases of the moon. And certain constellations, as the moon passes through them, are thought to favor the growth of either roots, flower, leaves, or fruit, depending on their astrological association with the Aristotelean elements of earth, air, water, or fire.
This may seem a counter-intuitive development, if not a regression to mysticism, in the same age that computers are being programmed to identify and replicate the precise molecular structure of wines in the belief that the noblest St Estephe can be recreated in a test tube. At the same time, though, some who place their faith in an intuitive art to winemaking believe that it is just such materialistic chemistry experiments that are the true insult to the integrity of the vine.
But biodynamics can also be viewed as more acutely sensitive to scientific principles than other methods. For example, a purist biodynamic winemaker will assess such properties as the magnetic resonance of the wine. And that will be some super duper winetasting that explores those electromagnetic principles to find nuances in the most minute molecular structure.
Just when all of America’s nouveau wine connoisseurs were getting comfortable with the concepts of nose, palate, back-end, and bouquet, along comes the entire Stephen Hawking universe to complicate matters.
Thus it opens up new dimensions for perceiving wine and approaching winemaking, though it remains to be seen how useful these will be in addition to the usual factors of temperature, humidity, acidity, and mineral composition of the soil that are already on your Master Sommelier exam.
Just the same, many American winemakers are incorporating some aspects of biodynamie into their winery operations. There are biodynamic certification programs, the best-known run by an international association called Demeter, but many growers who endorse the basic philosophy still avoid the lack of flexibility inherent in certification programs, whether for organic or biodynamic farming.
Even skeptics of the quantum mechanics and metaphysics concede there is definitely something to the concept of “lunar pressure,” raising the levels of sugars and minerals from the soil that rise into the grapes when the moon is full, just as the tides rise in our oceans and much of our bodily ebb and flow is governed by an undeniable lunar monthly cycle.
And most growers agree that the closer overall attention to all dimensions of the ecosystem can only result in healthier vineyards and better, more naturally produced wines.
It is also true that every truckload of chemicals that does not have to be delivered by an internal combustion engine and every ton of fertilizer that does not have to be manufactured reduces production costs and removes pollution from the global ecosystem.
Though biodynamie sounds like just the kind of idea that would flourish in the lotusland of California, it is actually more firmly rooted in France. Domaines converted to biodynamic viticulture in the early 1990s included Domaine Leflaive of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Leroy of Vosne-Romanée, Coulée de Serrant of Savennières, and Domaine Huet of Vouvray. At the extreme end of the zodiac, Chateau Romanin carries out all important work on the vine when the moon is in the best position to reflect down to earth the influences of fire-related constellations.
It may seem surprising for something so New Age to come from the most traditional wine culture, but biodynamie is also as ancient as it is trendy. For better or worse, it is rooted in the same primordial science that dates from the music of the spheres. It incorporates the same perceptive tracking of the stars and seasons once done from Mayan pyramids and Stonehenge. Although imbued with spirituality by these progenitors, it was also the beginning of the scientific method of observable effects and the deliberate measure of time, applied in part to agriculture. There is nothing to stop the winemaker, like the Psalmist, from observing a spiritual panegyric in the ticking clock of the natural world.
But when all is said and done, the ultimate question is whether biodynamie really produces better grapes. For that, the proof is in the glass. Taste some for yourself and see if it deepens the mystery of the wine.