Even among the members of the wine trade there is a fair degree of confusion and controversy as to what Biodynamism actually is and its relevance to the modern consumer. the sceptic dismisses it as unscientific hocus pocus and howling at the moon. the messianic convert proclaims it the saviour of viticulture by throwing off the corporate stranglehold of the chemical fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers and the shackles of increasing mechanisation.
Biodynamism is a system of agriculture which has its origins in a series of lectures, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. At its most extreme it goes far beyond mere farming practicalities. The true Biodynamist thinks holistically of the farm from the soil upwards as a living organism to be nurtured in a self-sustaining manner in harmony with lunar and cosmic cycles. On a sliding scale of environmental awareness, with a fully mechanised vineyard churning out formulaic wine to a supermarket's specifications and price point demands at one end, Biodynamism is the opposite extreme. It is super organic-plus. In the vineyard biodiversity is reintroduced by encouraging a variety of cover crops between the vines. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are replaced with a series of preparations, such as flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag's bladder (BD502) and stinging nettle tea (BD504), applied in keeping with natural rhythms and phases of the moon. Ideally these are all prepared within the fully self- sustained model farm, but they can be purchased. When introducing Biodynamism at Viñedos Organicos Emiliana in Chile, Alvaro Espinosa ran into difficulties as neither yarrow nor stag's bladders were easily obtainable locally. Now he produces sufficient to sell them to other aspiring Biodynamists.
The movement is slowly but inexorably growing. With eloquent advocates such as Nicolas Joly holding regular seminars and flying consultants such as Jacques Mell in France and Alan York in California spreading the word, momentum is building. And the converts are an impressive bunch Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, Huet in the Loire, Anne-Claude Leflaive and Dominique Lafon in Burgundy and Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero to name but a few.
Reasons to convert fall into two categories environmental awareness and sustainability on the one hand, and a potential impact on the quality of the wine on the other. Supporters argue that by treating the soil as a living organism it is able to express its true nature through the vine. The result is distinctive wines that absolutely embody their terroir the Holy Grail for wine lovers.
Others are more pragmatic. Aubert de Vilaine of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, who recently announced their conversion from organic to Biodynamic, is not entirely convinced by many of the details. He believes that Biodynamic practice does by necessity result in an intimate knowledge of each vine, which can only be a good thing. It is arguable that these people would be making outstanding wines in any event. Anyone sufficiently engaged with the life of their vines to convert to Biodynamism is likely to produce impressive wine even by less environmentally aware methods.
Johnny Goedhuis of Goedhuis & Company is enthusiastic about some of the wines produced but believes it is the commitment and talent of the individuals involved that makes the difference. "If a Biodynamic estate has excessively high yields the mere fact of being Biodynamic will not save the quality of the wine."
There is no doubt that many in the wine trade embrace the results if not necessarily the philosophies of Biodynamism. At the London International Wine Fair 2008 organic and biodynamic wines are to be the theme of the Top 100 tasting. James Booth of New Generation Wines says "There is an exciting story and point of difference to biodynamic wines and good examples have a vivacity which leaps out of the glass." Warren Adamson of New Zealand Wine Growers agrees. "There is definitely a place for Organic/Biodynamic and Sustainable wines within the UK wine sector, specifically the UK on trade. We have seen an increase in the number of people seeking these wines. We will only see this grow as we move forward with environmental issues coming more into the main stage of the UK media and trade."
But what does the consumer think? Very little it would seem. In a Wine Intelligence report published in 2007 a survey of 2000 drinkers revealed that there is minimal interest in organic or Fair Trade wines. This is in stark contrast to the growing numbers of consumers embracing these concepts in the food market. Moreover almost no consumers have any concept of what Biodynamism is and it is certainly not a factor in their wine choices.
Neither Alessandro Bonuzzi, Chef Sommelier of Restaurant One-O-One, (recipient of Tatler's Best Wine List 2008), nor Sebastiano Ingaliso, Head Sommelier of Mosimanns Dining Club, could recall any customers ever having specifically requested biodynamic wine. Alessandro added that customers were interested once the concept was explained in the context of a particular wine but that it is very much a case of hand-selling each bottle on its own merits.
Richard Hamblin, formerly of D&D Restaurants and now with Dhillon Hotels comments "Only in exceptional circumstances are bio-dynamic wines relevant to the on-trade. For example where there is a long established and successful buyer then this can add a further dynamic to an already mature list. It also has relevance to certain niche restaurants which are espousing their green or ethical credentials. In general and for now in the vast majority of the on-trade I do not see bio-dynamic wines as either an essential listing or as likely to be a revenue driver." As with any innovation there are a few pioneers laying the foundations for what ultimately may turn into a groundswell of opinion. When working on a new structure for the wine list at Hakkasan, Christine Parkinson wanted themes which expressed her reasons for buying wine. "I realized that Biodynamic producers always impressed me with their passion and their attention to detail. I remember talking to Andre Ostertag .... and realizing that there should be a page to highlight growers like him, who work biodynamically." The listing has been a success, "Guests in the restaurant are definitely interested. With the themed list, people look through the whole list first, then pick a page that interests them, and choose a wine from that page. I think it's often women who look at the biodynamic page, but whoever it is we certainly find that those wines sell well."
Carolyn Day, On-Trade Account Manager at Justerini & Brooks comments: "I am getting more requests from the on- trade regarding 'green credentials' and sustainability of wine making processes - from minimum intervention with pesticides and sulphur dioxide to fully biodynamic. In some cases this is to tie in with menus sourced organically/free range from local food suppliers therefore, it makes sense that wines are chosen that are local or Biodynamic." At Moti Mahal, a Fine Dining Indian restaurant in Covent Garden, a Biodynamic wine and food pairing menu featuring a series of wines from Domaine Josmeyer will be running for the next three months.
The tide is turning, but ever so slowly. There is undoubtedly a place for these unique and exciting wines within the UK on-trade, although only in the cases where their sustainable status is matched by quality in the vineyard and winery. Encouragement and education must come from the trade if consumers are to engage with organic and Biodynamic wines.
Certainly there is an instinctive appeal to the rich and varied plant and animal life in a biodynamic vineyard by contrast to the almost military rows of vines and bare earth often seen elsewhere. Standing with Noel Pinguet in his Le Mont vineyard on a sunny early summer afternoon, sweet-smelling grasses and flowers covering the ground and butterflies flitting amid the vines it is hard to apply pure science. These are wines which demand our attention.