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What I Learned Exploring Biodynamic Vineyards in the South of France

Organic wines are like a gateway drug, opening up an entire underexplored kingdom with distinctive production methodologies in the vineyard and in the winery, different flavor profiles and possibilities, and different mission statements. As you continue navigating and developing your knowledge, you’ll come across terms such as natural wines and biodynamic wines. And you may need to pause and go back to square one, asking yourself: What does all of this biodynamic jargon even mean?

How are biodynamic farming practices put into place for vineyards, what kinds of strategies are used for what reasons, and how does it translate into what ends up in your bottle? The best way to explore such weighty wine matters is to head to the vineyards and see it for yourself, which is what I did, spending a number of days visiting the estates of Gérard Bertrand in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France.

Botanical Infusions

Botanical infusions are one of the key tools that biodynamic farmers use in the field. The botanicals are steeped in hot water and misted in small quantities over targeted areas of the vineyards, with the six main botanicals used being yarrow, horsetail, chamomile, dandelion, nettle, and valerian flower root, all with a highly specific purpose. Each botanical is used to essentially provide the soil and the crops, in this case, grapevines, with a particular attribute of the plant which is the base of the infusion.

“See a plant not only by its components but also by how it behaves, an image of what it creates,” instructs Gilles de Baudus, Gérard Bertrand’s biodynamic expert, and estate manager.

For instance, dandelions thrive in wet, grassy, and shady areas. Therefore, a dandelion infusion is used when the vineyards have received too much rain, there’s too much wetness or not enough sunlight. “Think about it as a big sun in a green sea,” de Baudus says.

As another example, yarrow grows with a tall stem and an umbrella of flowers atop, providing a canopy effect which translates to protecting plants. “The role is to create a protective environment in arid soil,” de Baudus says, again, essentially taking advantage of a natural property seen in the plant and attempting to provide that trait. “It’s used for high temperatures to refresh vineyards.”

Proactive and Reactive Approaches

Botanical infusions and other biodynamic practices are used on both a proactive and reactive basis. Ideally, the emphasis is on proactive work done in the fields to create the right conditions for the vines to thrive, and biodynamic work was done after the harvest is proactive in nature, as there’s no urgency. “The objective is to use these preparations before they’re needed,” de Baudus explains.

Reactive measures, though, must be taken while the grapes are grown in order to quickly adapt to whatever environmental stresses may have occurred. “The work of a biodynamic practitioner is in the moments of challenge, to make sure the vines grow in the right way,” de Baudus says. “The great wines of the world do not come from stress.”

By pinpointing a specific issue in the fields, the idea is that there’s a specific remedy that can then immediately be put to use. “The biodynamic practitioner will see if there’s an imbalance and react,” de Baudus says.

Of course, biodynamic practices aren’t magic cure-alls. They can aim to restore certain balances or fix certain problems and to maximize the healthfulness of the plant, but they can’t do everything. “There are two limits to biodynamics,” de Baudus says. “Biodynamics can stimulate life, it can help, but it can’t replace or create. Biodynamics cannot create living soil—it cannot create what’s not there.”

Another important takeaway is that all of these ideals do not directly impact flavor. “Does it affect flavor? It helps with harmony,” de Baudus says. Nettles or chamomile or dandelions aren’t used to produce minerality or acidity or the flavor of blackberries, for instance. Instead, a healthier grape is a better tasting one, and a grape grown naturally without chemicals is also the truest expression of itself and the most authentic reflection of its terroir.

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

The lunar calendar and zodiac constellations are of great importance in the world of biodynamic farming. While astrological signs are used in discussions of biodynamics, it’s about the constellations themselves, not the signs, and therefore the positioning of the Earth, moon, and other planets in relation to themselves and the sun.

The calendar is further broken down into four types of days—root, leaf, flower, and fruit or seed, and there are even specific times of the day when those particular characteristics of the plant come into action or can be maximized or impacted. Three of the 12 zodiac constellations also belong to each of those four categories.

The analysis goes far deeper than that, and to most on the outside looking in it seems to be anywhere from curious to outlandish. Instead of getting bogged down with those principles then, consider that lunar phases and the zodiac constellations have always been traditional agricultural lynchpins and that the lunar calendar remains a foundational attribute of relied upon standard-bearers such as the Farmers’ Almanac.

Connection to the Vineyard

The ideals of biodynamics are best put into place not by machines or modern technology, but by farmers walking the fields, with a hard-earned connection to the vineyard. To an extent, it’s the difference between book knowledge and street knowledge. You have to be there yourself, seeking to understand conditions, and assessing and reacting as necessary.

Biodynamic practices are also fluid. Stay within the system but find what works for you, your field, and your vineyards, at this particular time, with these particular conditions. Test and improve upon principles and continue adapting.

Additionally, the goal is to create thriving, multifaceted fields and ecosystems, with all of the natural flora and fauna that comes with it. “In our work and research, you cannot have a perfectly healthy vineyard with a desert around it,” de Baudus says.

So, Is Biodynamics Legit?

Now, do you have to believe, in a literal sense, every facet of biodynamic practices in order to believe in the value or purpose of the whole? I don’t think so. I certainly see the benefits that biodynamic farming can have on vineyards, but I may not specifically swirl my wine glass seven times to the right and left in order to ensure I’m maximizing its energy and potential, nor do I necessarily believe in the merits of burying cow horns under the field beyond a seasonal ceremony or rite of passage, or of only tasting a wine on a particular day due to the current lunar stage.

Biodynamic practices in many ways simply bring agriculture back to its roots—that connection with the land, being able to respond and react to conditions in the field and also adapting to larger changes, the kind that global warming is already bringing to the forefront in many regions across the globe. And if it’s our modern technology bringing that peril forward, then it’s only fitting that a natural approach and old-school methodologies may offer the solution.

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