The Old/New Frontier in Great Wine Print
News/Features - Environment
Written by Nancy Rosetti   
Tuesday, 21 April 2009 16:01

Biodynamic farming is an organic-farming method originated by the early 20th Century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf schools) in an attempt to balance the nature of growing without the use of chemical or artificial means. The goal of biodynamic wine-making is to view the vineyard as a complete living system. These methods help preserve the purity and character of the fruit, leading to fantastic wines that reflect an authentic sense of place. It is a viticultural method slowly gaining strength worldwide in response to the unsustainable practice of "manufacturing wine" that has exploded over the past 60 years.

In the 1930s, France established a system that defined and regulated where a wine had been produced (appellation), by what method, and with what kind of grapes. This system, known as Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), was quickly replicated in many other countries. (The criteria for qualification are demanding and can be found in the Wine Lover's Companion by Ron and Sharon Herbst.) The AOC ensured that the aromas, tastes, and balance of a wine began with its literal roots. In French, the word to describe this is "terroir" -- literally translated as "soil." Prior to the late 1950s, a grape's origins meant something; wine was "authentic."

What has happened since?

Nicolas Joly chronicles the demise of viticulture in his book Biodynamic Wine Demystified. The first assault came in the form of the herbicide, meant to take the place of the laborious task of weeding vineyards. The problem with herbicides is that, within just a few years, they kill almost all the soil's micro-organisms. Hence, along came chemical fertilizers -- essentially a salt that then increases the plant's need for water. And when a plant absorbs too much water, Mother Nature wants to restore equilibrium. In this case, viruses and fungal diseases arise as signs of the imbalance. What came next? Systemic herbicides. The vicious cycle continues, stripping away the wine's natural characteristics that then need to be replaced in the wine-making process. Flavored yeasts, enzymes, and temperature control, are some of the modern methods employed to give the wine its character.

You, as a consumer, probably have a heightened awareness of what goes into the food you buy. Food packaging loves to tout "all-natural," "no artificial ingredients," "no trans fats," and "[insert percentage here] organic." People are turning to their local farmers' markets in droves, in part because they want to know from where their food comes.

Many viticulturists -- wine growers -- recognize the opportunity this presents for them. The new worldwide organization Biodynamy boasts more than 140 viticulturists in 10 countries that give the authenticity of the place of origin. They are practicing biodynamic farming techniques that use the vineyard's natural resources to cultivate the highest quality grapes possible without the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, growth stimulants, or genetically modified organisms.

A vineyard that is certified biodynamic meets and typically exceeds the standards and regulations for certified organic farming. The "Biodynamy Charter Of Quality" employs a three-star system of evaluation that "encourages the wine-maker to do his best, and it informs the client of the effects of gestures in the fields or in the cellar on the expression of the appellation." (For more information on the worldwide biodynamic wine movement, visit Biodynamy.com/viticulture-en-biodynamie-en.php.)

Because biodynamic farming is a relatively unknown concept to the general public, people may shy away, not knowing what to expect. The truth is that many biodynamic wines are exceptional, and, often, exceptionally priced. Domestic wineries practicing biodynamic farming techniques include the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California; Frogs Leap Winery in Rutherford, California; and Robert Sinskey Vineyard in Napa, California. The excellent wines of Ehlers Estate in St. Helena, California, hail from its not-for-profit winery held by the Leducq Foundation. All of the proceeds from Ehlers fund research into cardiovascular diseases.

Biodynamic wineries can also be found abroad -- most in France and many in Italy, as well as South Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The beauty of biodynamic farming is not only that it produces great grapes but also that it is a sustainable way forward in our ever-more-toxic environment.

Nancy Rosetti is co-owner of the Faithful Pilot Cafe & Spirits and the online wine store RosettiWineShop.com. The restaurant (117 North Cody Road in LeClaire) will be hosting its second-annual biodynamic and organic wine tasting on Sunday, April 26, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (563)355-4139 or visit FaithfulPilotCafe.com or RosettiWineShop.com.


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