Biodynamism follows the precepts of the educationalist and social phylosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Applied to viticulture it follows on from the biological approach, acknowledging that not only should one be as environmentally friendly as possible, eschewing the use of herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, chemical fertilization and the rest, and that the land should be ploughed in order to be given back its natural level of micro-fauna and -flora; but that there are further interests to be persued, most importantly the influence of the moon, stars and their astrological position vis à vis the earth, and that the vine will respond and flourish if given what are often homeopathic doses of certain naturally occuring plants and other elements.
There are four elements in any plant: the root, the leaf, the flower and the fruit. Indeed there are four types of plant: those reared for ther root, like a carrot; for their leaves, like spinach,; for their flowers, like the flower of a courgette; and for their fruit, like the vine. These respond to the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire as follows:
Earth Root Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn Water Leaf Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces Air Flower Gemini, Libra, Aquarius Fire Fruit Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
Every nine days the moon passes in front of one of these constellations; its force will be greater or lesser depending on the wax and wane of the moon itself and the position of the planets.
What this all boils down to is that there are certain dates when the efficiency of a treatment can be much greater than others, certain dates which are appropriate and others which are not. A friend of mine in Burgundy, no mean gardener, once planted three rows of new potatoes at ten day intervals. The first and the third, she later found out, happened to coincide with a biodynamically recommended day. These thrived. The second row, which didn't, was a disaster.
By and large, fruit and flower days are days which should be set aside for plant work: pruning, de-budding, de-suckering, cluster thinning, removal of surplus leaf growth, and of course for harvesting. Leaf and root days are the opposite. On these days you would plough or hoe, or remove old plants where a vineyard is to be replanted.
The lunar mode also dictates. The best periods are the first and last quarters; the other two are less auspicious. And with the knowledge of this a biodynamic lunar calendar can be created. I have found by experience that fruit days are the best for tasting wines; and root days the worst. And I am not the only one: in Britain the supermarket groups and others now only offer their wines for tasting by the media on a fruit day. We know that the wines are harder, more closed in and less charming on a root day.
The use of sulphur and copper sulphate, against oidium and mildew is permitted. Against other depredations biodynamicists may employ all or any of the following. I list what their use counteracts.
Yarrow Oidium Camomile Mildew Lavander, Absinthe, Citronelle Insects Rhubarb Insects Lucerne Hydric Stress Nettle, Horsetail Reinforces the Cell-Wall Comfrey (rich in Boron) For a more efficient Flowering Nettle, Valerian A better recovery from Hail Damage Silica Aids light
Home-made compost, based on cow dung, is recommended. In some cases the treatment may be placed in a cow horn on one special date and dug up on another, before being diluted by ten million parts before being applied.
However, this is not an immediate process. It takes seven years for a vineyard to become completely biodynamic. Most domaines go through a trial period, before transforming entirely, and quite a number, as I write, are still within this preparation period, even if they started experimenting as far back as 2002.
It would seem odd, on the face of it, that Burgundy, the most disperse and fragmented of all France's vignobles, should have such a large proportion of its territory now cultivated bio-dynamically – 1600 hectares, or 5.3 percent of the total surface, at the last count. After all what your neighbours do, only a few rows of vines away, is bound to impinge on what you have done with your vines. How bio-dynamic is it possible to be in this situation?
But then Burgundy, God bless, is nothing if not a vineyard area of individualists. The refreshing fact is that here the proprietor is the wine-maker, the chef de cave and the chef de culture, as well as probably the book-keeper in his or her spare time. Decisions can be taken, perfectionism persued, without reference to endless committees of finance wizards and shareholders. Bio-dynamism works, though it is more expensive than the lutte raisonnée (the ordinary, sensible, reactive viticultural approach). The wines are better, and more representative of their origins. As important, the vines are hardier, less susceptible to rot and crytogamic diseases. And the wines that they produce are more robust; they hold up better.
Sometimes the extremes of bio-dynamism sound like black magic. But the point is: it works. We should not be in too much of a rush to stand and scoff. Within a decade, I predict that 10 percent of Burgundy will be bio-dynamic.
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Here's a story – a true story – which will infuriate the sceptics. It concerns Nicolas Joly of Savennières' Coulée de Serrant, one of the pioneers of bio-dynamics. Back in the 1980s he had a problem with rabbits, an infestation in one of his vineyards. A friend told him what to do. Firstly capture and kill a couple of them. (And you can make a good rabbit stew.) But preserve the skins. Burn these up until you are left with the ash. Dynamize the ash (stirring it up over a hour, firstly in one direction for a minute and then in the other.) Then – and I don't know whether you have to do this at midnight under a full moon, but I don't see why not – sprinkle a coffee-spoon of the ash at all four corners of the vineyard and in the centre. You have to do this for three years in succession. (In 2012, say the Jolys, the best date to incinerate the rabbit skins is the 13th December, which in fact is the date of the new moon.) And then, as chez Joly, you won't see any rabbits ever again.