You’ll have heard more and more of our wines are being produced organically. You may also have heard the word Biodynamics being bandied about a bit. We thought we’d take a moment to discuss what that means, with the help of three outstanding, kiwi biodynamic winegrowers. We’re so grateful they’ve taken the time to so eloquently share their thoughts.
Our thanks to:
James Millton of Millton Vineyards, Gisborne
Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra, Marlborough
Nick Mills of Rippon, Central Otago
In 1924, Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner presented a series of lectures to a group of farmers in what was Germany at the time. These lectures were in response to concerns farmers had about the detrimental effects they were experiencing from chemical fertilisers. It’s from here that biodynamics was founded. It’s now practised in more than 50 countries around the world. It has its own certifications, Demeter being the primary one.
ORGANICS GONE DEEP
The first thing to understand is that biodynamic production is organic. James Millton explains how biodynamics branches from organics.
"It is accepted that certified organic wines are made from grapes grown without the use of herbicides (weed killers), insecticides (poisonous to insect life and humans), systemic fungicides (which get into the sap of the grapevine) and soluble fertilisers (which disrespect soil microbes and earthworms making the vine dependant on a chemical diet).
Taking these principles we move into the wider opera of the kingdoms of nature and progress towards the practices and principles of Biodynamic winegrowing. Bio meaning Life and Dynamic meaning Energy." - JM
A PLACE WITH AN IDENTITY
To progress biodynamically, is to consider the farm/vineyard/garden as a single, living being. It’s a holistic approach that, as Nick Mills explains, is also a personal one.
"We’ve sought to relate to this land in a personal way. To give the farm its own sense of identity, to acknowledge it like we might another person, in a balanced and reasoned way. We try not to talk down to it and we try to give it a seat at the table, when important decisions are being made. If we were concerned about Rippon’s health or productivity, we ask “what might Rippon ask of us in this situation?” This “farm individuality” is the foundation idea of biodynamics and by following where that leads, I think we’ve become better farmers.
This sense of personal identity attributed to place exists in other forms. There are other important examples, particularly in animist and indigenous cultures, including of course Te Ao Māori. As you know, in New Zealand we even have legally binding versions; for example, the Whanganui River has been granted its own legal rights as an individual. Acknowledging it as such empowers the river and automatically people relate to it in a different way." - NM
BENEATH OUR FEET
A holistic approach, and considering the farm as a single organism, thrives through biodiversity. The integration of crops and livestock creates a closed-loop system of fertility. But as Anna Flowerday points out, it’s what we can’t see, what’s going on beneath our feet that really matters.
"We consider our soil to be our greatest asset and most important resource. So often it is the most overlooked aspect of a property. When you drive into TWR the most obvious stuff is what you can see above the ground – the vineyard and the winery building but what spins our wheels the most is all the stuff that you can’t see – that little microscopic army that we have been growing in the soil.
Good farming is all about looking after that microbial soil army – feeding them well, growing their numbers and increasing the diversity of beneficial species of microbes in our soils, and getting the right balance. For us here at TWR that has always been about the 3 Cs – Cows, cover crops and compost. All three of these important aspects are contributing to the microbial life in our soil and to the overall soil health of our property. Compost is hugely important because it is not only feeding the soil with nutrients from the composted organic matter but it is also providing a regular inoculum of microbes as well." - AF
Returning to James Millton’s thoughts of “the wider opera of kingdoms” is the consideration of cosmic influences in biodynamics. These influence where plants are focusing their energy, on roots, leaves, flowers/fruit or seeds. This can be followed with a biodynamic calendar. Some might find this a bit esoteric, but for James it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for us to relate to.
"We follow the rhythms of our life on this planet and how each day we and the other planets move around the sun in our own 365 day cycle. Daily we reflect on and anticipate the opportunities presented to us by the position of the moon as it rotates around our planet on a 28 day cycle; a rhythm which all of us understand quite well. As we have spring, summer, autumn and winter, day and night we learn to appreciate how these events affect the earth, water, air/warmth and light. The plants we grow are also either focusing on the roots, leaves, flowers/fruits and seeds." - JM
And for Nick, if it does seem a bit esoteric, maybe that’s because it is and that’s ok. The results speak for themselves.
"Viewed from outside the farm, biodynamic activities might seem a bit spooky: spreading 500 preparation (cow manure that has been in a cow horn, buried in the soil for a winter) for example, or following a lunar calendar. Whilst we’ve learned to explain much of it adequately for ourselves, there are certainly elements of biodynamics that remain kind of…out of view. But we’re ok with that. We feel, through observation and research, that these activities do have a tangible impact on the life of our soils and quality of our wine. So that, for us at least, should be enough." - NM
DOING THE MAHI
Far from esoteric, we’re left with the impression that biodynamics is rooted in real pragmatism. Anna and Jason Flowerday at Te Whare Ra are keeping their eyes on the prize, a bloody great bottle of wine.
"Our approach is always to look for a natural or biological solution or control rather than relying on an artificial or synthetic one. We are not taking an evangelical approach to growing our grapes and making our wines. It’s not about using natural techniques by rote, but about using informed decisions and our experience to make the best and most expressive wines possible.
- We use compost made from grape skins & stalks, our hay and manure from our cows - rather than chemical fertilizers.
- We make and use biodynamic preparations, seaweed and compost teas to improve the soil fertility and the soil microflora.
- We use cover-crops to improve soil structure and fertility and to encourage beneficial insects into the vineyard ~ rather than chemical herbicides and insecticides
- We use a mechanical weeder and hand weeding ~ instead of using chemical herbicides.
- We make our own hay for compost and stock fodder.
- We graze our cattle in the vineyard in the winter so that we don’t have to mow as often and then they helpfully spread more manure as they go -reducing the use of tractors / diesel" - AF
Using very limited external inputs, and reusing most farm waste, the very tangible outcome of biodynamics is a lower impact on the environment. It also provides an economical way of farming in which most of the costs are met at the time they incur. It offers some solutions to conflicts between economics and the environment.
AND THE QUESTION OF TASTE?
It does beg the question, do biodynamic wines taste? Being a sensory experience that’s not easy to measure, but James senses they do.
"Biodynamically grown wines have a different texture and harmony to conventional wines enhanced by the fact that often they are grown with little or no chemical antioxidants (sulphur dioxide) nor animal products (fish guts, casein, gelatine, milk) which otherwise give those wines a sensation of being “polished”." - JM
What we can confirm, from our own careers working with wine, is that the best tasting wines come from passionate, thoughtful winegrowers who care for, and express their place. And these three growers are certainly case in point. Find out for yourself.