One of the new catch words in the wine world is "Biodynamic." Producers may boast that their wines are Biodynamic, as if this makes them better or more special. But what does Biodynamic really mean, and are they really better than other wines?
Biodynamic agriculture originated in the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a writer and philosopher. He spent time investigating the spiritual world and this led to his development of anthroposophy. This philosophy alleges that that spiritual world is accessible through inner development. Using this philosophy as a foundation, Steiner developed biodynamic agriculture. This was detailed in his "Agricultural Course" of 1924.
Biodynamic agriculture is considered one of the earliest descriptions of organic farming. It treats a farm as an individual organism, with a unified relationship between the soil, plants, animals, and farmer. Everything needs to be in a proper balance. There is a definite spiritual aspect involved.
Though Biodynamics includes organic farming, it goes beyond that. It includes more esoteric items such as using fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays. It also relies on using an astronomical calendar, especially the moon phases, to determine the proper times for planting and harvesting.
The term Biodynamic is now used as a trademark by the Demeter association, which certifies farms as Biodynamic. Demeter International is an organization of member countries, each with its own Demeter organization. Demeter International has a set of production standards that all their organizations must meet. The original Demeter organization was founded in 1928 and the the U.S. branch was formed in the 1980's.
But does Biodynamic agriculture make better wine? That is an area of controversy. Obviously those who practice this form of agriculture believe it works. And there have been a few studies that seem to give some support to them. But there are many opponents who question such studies and claim that Biodynamics does nothing more than what can be accomplished through organic farming.
Robert Parker uses Biodynamics in his vineyard in Oregon, which he owns along with his brother-in-law. Jancis Robinson, another leading wine writer, has also supported Biodynamics.
I am certainly not qualified to determine whether Biodynamics works or not, though I will state I am skeptical of such claims. The mystical aspect of their agricultural methods does stretch my idea of credibility.
I recently read a new article debunking the idea of Biodynamic wine in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (Nov./Dec. 2007). It is an interesting article and if you are interested in the topic you might want to pick up a copy. The article is currently not available on their website though it might be in the future.
The article, "Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle" is written by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin. Smith has a PhD in philosophy and an Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine & Spirits Education trust. Barquin is director of the Instituto Andaluz Interuniversitario de Criminologia at the University of Granada. In 2006, Barquin was also awarded the Spanish Nationa Prize in Gastronomy for his writings on food and wine.
First, the article examines Rudolf Steiner and his writings on Biodynamics. It states that "They are marked by clear falsehoods, disgressions, and odd fantasies." (p.46). And it points out some specifics. One example is that Steiner claims plants are never really diseased. It just appears that way because Moon influences in the soil are too strong.
Second, the article moves on to a discussion of the research findings concerning the alleged efficacy of biodynamics. Many of the studies have compared Biodynamics to nonrganic farming. This is not an effective study though as most agree organic practices are better than nonorganic farming. And Biodynamic farming is also organic so it would not be a surprise it does better than nonorganic farming. What would be a better comparison is Biodynamic vs regular organic farming. But few such studies have taken place.
There was one such major study, a 21 year old study, that seemed to support Biodynamic over regular organic but the study does have problems. Other such studies have found nothing different between Biodynamics and regular organic.
The article ends with asking whether there is any harm to farmers using Biodynamic practices. It concludes that it is a waste of time, effort and money. And that can lead to higher prices for wine, especially if the winemakers can convince the public that Biodynamic wines are better than regular ones.
The article does provide a number of references, both books and websites, for the information in the article.
I am sure this article is not going to settle the controversy over Biodynamics, but it does add some things to consider. If anything, it points out that further research studies may be needed to prove matters one way or another.
So what are your thoughts on Biodynamics? Do you feel there is a difference in taste in Biodynamic wines? If so, what is the difference? And how do you know it is from the Biodynamics and not just the fact they are also organic?
(Just a quick update: Smith and Barquin have another similar article in The World of Fine Wine that you might want to check out as well.)