Digging for gold
3rd March, 2009
Once again, Monty Waldin gets down on his hands and knees to pay homage to the cosmic forces bringing flavour and strength to biodynamic wine
For three days last autumn, during a seminar in Woolwine, Virginia, on how to make biodynamic preparations, I’d been filling cow horns with cow manure the horn manure or ‘500’ preparation. This earth remedy, used to stimulate the life of the soil and the crops grown in it, is one of nine processes laid out by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner, which I described last month.
The fourth and final day, a sun-filled Sunday, I and a group of participants were to dig up horns containing the horn silica or ‘501’ preparation. This preparation’s role is to stimulate the cosmic. By that I mean the essential relationship between the plant and the sun and other bodies in the cosmos.
The analogy I use when trying to explain the difference between horn manure and horn silica – use of which on crops is non-negotiable if you want to be considered biodynamic – is that horn manure helps to build the foundations (the roots), while horn silica takes care of the walls and roof (the trunk, shoots and leaves, depending on what kind of crop you’re growing).
Hugh Courtney, our host and the founder-director of the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics (JPI), led the way to where the horn silica horns had been buried, in marked pits, then explained in more detail what we were going to do. ‘When you are digging in, we don’t want the blade of your spades damaging the horns, otherwise we won’t be able to reuse them next year; so go carefully, working from the edge of the pit inwards’ he told us.
I’d always fancied myself as an archeologist, so this was my chance to excavate biodynamic treasure. Except these horns had been buried a matter of months, not millennia.
Hugh explained that the horn silica ‘501’ prep is made by grinding quartz rocks into a fine powder, usually over the winter, when the farm is relatively quiet. Milky-coloured quartz rocks are fine, crystal-clear ones even better. Quartz, or silica (silicon dioxide), is the main constituent of the earth’s crust, so it’s not too hard to find. In spring, you wet the powder with water, preferably rainwater, to a toothpaste or dough-like consistency and fill the horns, leaving no air pockets.
Standing the pointy end of the horns overnight in a sand box allows any excess water to rise to the wider, open end of the horn, ready to be tipped out next day as you are burying them.
The horns are buried in a sunny place in spring and left until autumn; the idea is that during this time, the silica undergoes a transformation to become especially rich in light-giving qualities. It is then dug up, stirred for one hour in water, and sprayed over crops early in the morning as the sun is rising. This helps the ripening and flavour of the crop, and maintains both the health and fertility of plants.
I asked Hugh if there was a risk that using horn silica in sunny regions – like those used for my specialty winegrowing – may be too much of a good thing, causing sunburn. I’d heard quite a few wine growers, especially in really hot regions like Argentina, say that their climates were already too rich in the so-called ‘light-giving qualities’, meaning that it made sense to use mainly the horn manure ‘500’, to bring a more ‘earthly’ influence into their vineyards, cancelling out excess sun/heat.
Hugh took a deep breath, as if he had had to respond to this kind of scepticism a thousand times already, and explained in his patient way that ‘you have to use both horn preps – horn manure and horn silica – in conjunction with each other. They are interdependent.’ A kind of yin and yang, I suppose you could say.
Hugh went on to remind us that the Native Americans worshipped the earth (indicating strong earthly forces in North America), while eastern religions worshipped the spirits (indicating strong cosmic forces). Thus not using the cosmic-force-carrying horn silica in North America, and only using the earth-force-carrying horn manure, risked creating the kind of imbalances in plants that chemical agriculture had caused and which biodynamics is supposed to remedy.
We dug out dozens of horns, cleaning them as we did so, so that when the precious powdery-white material inside was tapped into clear glass jars, no mud would accidentally drop in.
Hugh said horn silica should always be stored in a sunny spot, so now I keep mine on an east-facing windowsill to catch the rising sun.
Hugh’s ideas on biodynamics, good farming, and thus good wine, seemed to be all about finding balance. His words certainly made sense to me as I grappled with a shovel, hunting for buried horns, and it sparked another fascinating debate among us as we enjoyed our last moments prep- making at JPI that autumn.
organic & biodynamic wines are. . .
• Intriguingly different and delicious
• Grown without chemicals, using traditional viticulture methods
• Fighting the commoditisation of wine by multinational wine labels
• Lovingly produced by small-scale, family-owned and run vineyards
• Creating rich and diverse habitats for creatures great and small
• Excellent value
2005 Nature, Côtes-du-Rhône, Domaines Perrin a smooth red made by the Perrin family, famed for one of the pricy Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines – the organic Château de Beaucastel. But they also wanted to make a more affordable red, so planted a small vineyard in the southern Rhône valley, mainly with Grenache, which gives soft, moreish wines, and a small amount of Syrah for focus. Heating the grapes prior to fermentation allows the wine to be bottled with low levels of sulphur dioxide preservative. Good food pairing includes stews, steaks and pizza.
2006 Navardia, Bodegas Bagordi, Rioja Bodegas Bagordi lies in the Basque part of Spain’s famed Rioja zone. Biodynamic practices are used, and the vines have been certified organic since 1998. This dry red wine is made mainly from Tempranillo, an early ripening grape giving supple raspberry-flavoured reds, with a dash of Merlot and Grenache Noir.
2005 Rioja, Semi Crianza, Usoa de Bagordi Partial ageing in oak barrels gives this soft red a sheen of vanilla - the kind of flavour Riojas are famous for. It also makes it slightly firmer than the unoaked wine featured left, and means it will age for a couple of extra years in bottle too. A good wine for early autumn and Christmas.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007
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