Monty Waldin on biodynamic wine
1st March, 2009
Unsustainable and bad for the environment, industrial viticulture leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Pesticide-free and weed-friendly, biodynamic wine holds the key to an organic revolution.
Whoever organized the launch of New Zealand’s first ‘carbonneutral’ winery a couple of years back can’t have had much fun.
New Zealand clocks up more air miles than any other wine exporter, dependent as it is on exports to the UK, where New Zealand has an impressive 10 per cent share of the UK’s lucrative more than £5 per bottle market.
As wine is now worth more than wool to the New Zealand economy, it would be a heavy blow if eco-conscious consumers in far-flung lands decided to boycott New Zealand plonk because of its heavy environmental footprint.
As a result, a carbon-neutral winery seemed to tick the right environmental boxes. That is until one of the launch guests asked, having correctly spotted that the vineyard next to the marquee appeared to have been sprayed with weedkiller, ‘You are organic as well, aren’t you?’
The winery had to admit its PR disaster before converting the vineyard in question to certified organic as soon as it could.
Because of New Zealand’s wet climate – think two tiny islands surrounded by a big ocean – weeds are a problem; not so much because they steal food and water from vines, but because they grow so high in spring. Tall weeds increase the risk of frost wiping out the buds that produce the grapes that generate the export dollars of arguably Planet Wine’s most profitable wine industry.
New Zealand has made a big deal out of its Sustainable Winegrowing initiative (SWNZ), which basically says it’s okay to spray weedkillers, but try not to spray too much, too often. Encouraging winegrowers to reduce weedkillers and other toxic vine sprays can be a useful first step towards abandoning them altogether. The carrot that ‘sustainable’ programmes such as these – called IPM (Integrated Pest Management) in Europe – dangle in front of conventional winegrowers is that using less weedkiller saves money, but I’m still not sure how sustainable this is, not just on an environmental level, but on an economic one too.
The economic argument has it that to be sustainable environmentally you must first be sustainable economically. In other words, abandoning weedkillers by going organic/biodynamic makes no sense if wine quality suffers or costs increase so much you go bankrupt. Weedkillers are a cheaper way of controlling weeds in New Zealand than the organic/biodynamic alternative of ploughing.
This is because usually only one pass with the tractor is needed each year when removing weeds chemically, with weedkillers, whereas it takes several passes to remove weeds physically by ploughing. And until now weedkillers have made sense because the cost of cleaning weedkiller pollution from groundwater has been borne by the public rather than by weedkilling vineyard owners.
This cost-benefit scenario may be changing, however, because one New Zealand vineyard has recently had to pay compensation to a local resident who suffered physical and psychological injury from weedkiller spray drift. I think this proves that so-called ‘sustainable’ programmes don’t go far enough, and suggests conventional agriculture is reactive rather than proactive.
Organic/biodynamic wine growers must adopt a prevention rather than cure approach in order to survive, not just in dealing with pests and diseases (there are no magic organic sprays capable of removing pests and diseases after they have taken hold), but environmentally too.
This is why organic/biodynamic growers are already reducing or eliminating ploughing of weeds altogether. Leaving grass and weeds in place may mean fewer grapes, but this is good for quality and saves tractor diesel.
Drought down under
New Zealand is not the only wine exporter tying itself in knots over sustainability, with some Australian wineries trying to develop a PR line in wetland preservation. These are often the same Australians who are Planet Wine’s most enthusiastic users of irrigation, which deprived the wetlands of their water in the first place.
Come on, you didn’t think all that cheap Chardonnay you’ve been guzzling for the past 15 years and invariably labelled ‘South-Eastern Australia’ came at no environmental cost, did you? The Murray and Darling rivers, which are crucial to Australian farming in general and winegrowing in particular, are running at their lowest levels in a century.
It’s easy for wineries to launch very public but territorially insignificant ‘let’s preserve our wetlands’ projects, while still irrigating the huge vineyards that supply the wines that drive their profits.
Or at least they did drive profits, until – surprise, surprise – the market was flooded (excuse the pun) with cheap, irrigated wines from the likes of Australia, Argentina, Chile, California and South Africa. Even if they become uneconomic to farm, as irrigation water dries up and the market collapses, ripping out vines won’t necessarily mean nature has earned a reprieve. The kind of drip-irrigated vineyards pioneered by Australia leave behind excessively saline soils that native plants can’t automatically recolonise once the wine bandwagon rolls out of town.
Viruses on the veld
South African vineyards are also trying to convince us they really do care about native habitats, habitats that provide arguably the most beautiful backdrop of any national vineyard worldwide.
Despite empowerment projects that aim to get more black employees into stakeholder positions, the South African wine industry is still hideously white – that’s why I have trouble accepting that white South Africans really do know what’s best for land they forcibly took from the locals and then farmed in an unsustainable way. If their winegrowing was so sustainable, why are they now so concerned about native habitats?
I’m not being cynical, just realistic. The predominant view in the South African wine industry is still that organics/biodynamics doesn’t work economically or environmentally. This is because, as in New Zealand, key industry positions tend to be held by those who trained at universities whose curricula encouraged the view that chemical agribusiness had all the answers. It’s no coincidence that South Africa leads the world in GM grapevine research, and it’s also no coincidence that South Africa still, despite recent replanting, has the most virus-affected vineyards in the world.
A virused vine poses no risk to human health but tends not to produce very drinkable wine because the virus makes the vines less good at converting the sun’s heat and light into ripe-tasting wine. Why are there so many virused vines? Because the natural predators of the virus-carrying insects got wiped out when their habitat was removed, and also by the insecticides recommended by the universities to control the virus vectors.
So yes, it makes sense for South Africans to want to preserve wild habitats, but as the wineries wanting to be called ‘sustainable’ must have a certain amount of ‘wild habitat’, it won’t be long before winegrowers needing to tick the right eligibility boxes will, absurdly, have to start planting ‘wild’ habitat.
You can understand why environmentally conscious producers get so irate at having been looked down on for so long as somehow backward, when to be organic/biodynamic you must be independently, third-party certified, whereas wineries that sign up to ‘sustainable’ wine schemes in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and California are not yet subject to independent audits and can still pretty much spray what they like, when they like.
People find some of the principles behind biodynamics absurd – pruning, ploughing, picking the vines and even bottling the wine by lunar cycles – but the bottom line is that biodynamics is the oldest organic agricultural movement in the world, and the only one specifically to make sustainability and self-sufficiency a benchmark principle. The fact that natural cycles are respected is one of the reasons no biodynamic cow has ever got mad cow disease. If you want to farm cows, the biodynamic theory goes, make sure they have enough of the right food: grass in the fields they are living on and absolutely not ground up bits of dead cows trucked in from miles away. This way you avoid air miles and, even more conveniently, any risk of BSE.
It’s the same for biodynamic vineyards.
Fertilisers produced at huge environmental cost by the petrochemical industry and then trucked in are seen to make vines grow so quickly they get diseases which then need treating with yet more petrochemicals.
The biodynamic approach tries to avoid this scenario by giving back to the land whatever is taken out. You compost all the stuff left over after winemaking – the grape stems, skins, pips and so on – and return it to the soil.
The advantage of compost over chemical fertilisers is that compost contains worms and other organisms that bring life, not just substance (food), to the soil. Biodynamic winegrowers are also statistically the most likely to bring livestock back into the vineyards: horses (instead of tractors) for ploughing, and cows for the manure that helps makes the best compost. A cow, let’s not forget, needs just two acres (one hectare) of land to live off, but her manure can fertilise another two on top of that (two hectares). There’s a reason they don’t kill cows in India.
If you have ever used your foot to lift the crust off a nearly fresh cow pat in a cow pasture you’ll usually see plenty of worms wriggling around underneath. That’s why biodynamic growers spray a specially prepared cow manure liquid called ‘horn manure’ on the soil – to attract worms and other soil organisms into the vineyard. These organisms help keep the soil alive and friable enough for vine roots to be able to dig deep into the subsoil where all the best vine food is found. Deep-rooting vines are not only inherently better able to cope with bad weather – heavy rain and drought – so the wines taste neither diluted nor baked in bad years, but also produce wines with the most terroir – driven flavours. It’s this kind of prevention-rather-than-cure philosophy that sets biodynamics apart.
Biodynamic vineyards are supposed to be self-sustaining organisms. Yes, you read that right. Organisms. Living, selfsustaining things. In contrast, modern agribusiness has turned vineyards into mere conduits, whereby a bunch of stuff arrives at the farm gate at the start of each year – fertilisers, weedkillers and systemic fungicides – and a bunch of stuff leaves at the end of the year in the form of wine. It’s no surprise that soils become depleted in vineyards such as this.
And it’s also no great surprise that wines made in this mechanistic way tend to taste the same wherever they are grown.
Grow your own everything
The biodynamic approach seems to me to tick all the boxes that the ‘sustainable’ vineyard schemes mentioned above are searching for.
You get scenic vineyards because biodynamic growers actively encourage native plants to thrive alongside the vines. These plants provide the habitat that gives the best insect-control, and native grasses are also best at preventing soil erosion.
Bringing livestock back on to vineyards is also a great draw for wine tourists. Children can watch horses ploughing while the parents are tasting the wines. When I had my vineyard in France ploughed by horse, a throng of locals gathered. ‘We haven’t seen a horse in this vineyard for 30 years,’ said one. On top of this, a horse clearly burns less tractor diesel than, er, a tractor.
Biodynamic growers are also statistically the most likely to collect rainwater for vineyard sprays, especially for biodynamic sprays based on cow manure (to encourage worms) and medicinal plants (stinging nettle, camomile, horsetail), which build vines’ selfdefence mechanisms.
It’s small acts like this that make sense. Yes, it’s great that wineries in California and Spain can’t put solar panels up fast enough on their roofs, but they only started doing this as a result of tax breaks and subsidies. Again, the dominant attitude is reactive rather than proactive. This is perhaps driven by our modern culture in general and by our farming culture in particular.
Solar panels seem great because they come at a fixed cost and are not perishable. Farm produce such as wine, on the other hand, has variable costs (the weather can destroy a year’s grapes in a morning) and is perishable – in other words, you don’t have an unlimited time to sell your wine before it goes off. You are at the mercy of the weather and the market: a double whammy.
That’s why it makes sense to generate as much stuff on the vineyard as you can: cows for compost for fertilisation; using local natural resources in the best way possible – collecting rainwater and recycling cleaning water used in the winery (it’s often claimed that it takes seven litres of water to make just one litre of wine) – and diversifying when times get tough.
It would have made much more environmental sense for our carbon-neutral New Zealand winery to have abandoned its idea of flying in a bunch of journalists all the way from Britain to its launch. It would have done better to use its money and energy creating a vineyard garden to attract beneficial insects to its vines and producing food for the winery restaurant.
This would have created local goodwill, made better wine and saved money – and the winery would have given itself more of a chance of selling its wine direct from the winery door, instead of on the other side of the world.
That’s the kind of wine business that really does start making carbon-neutral sense.
Monty Waldin is writer, wine critic and biodynamic winegrower.
Top 10 Bio Wineries
Third-party certified organic/biodynamic
■ Albet i Noya, Spain
Catalan winery that proved consumers would buy organic wine only if it tasted consistently ripe, clean and fruity, not purely because it was organic.
■ Bonterra, California
California’s first and arguably best organic/biodynamic wine in terms of consistency, quality, value for money and environmental leadership.
■ Burklin-Wolf, Germany
Germany’s biggest biodynamic vineyard. Winemaking leftovers are composted with manure from the estate’s animals, including the horses replacing tractors.
■ Champagne Fleury, France
Jean-Pierre Fleury has inspired a new generation to bring Champagne’s heavily sprayed soils back to life using biodynamic compost and winter covercrops (wheat, barley, flowering clovers) between vines.
■ Cullen, Western Australia
Top-quality family-run vineyard offsetting carbon emissions via tree-planting and moving towards polyculture by growing beans and tomatoes between vine rows.
■ Emiliana Orgánico, Chile
Chile’s biggest and best biodynamic wine project. Investment in compost, livestock and habitat for beneficial insects has paid off as wine quality improves every year.
■ Laverstoke Park Farm, England
Model biodynamic arable/livestock farm with sparkling wine vineyard described not disingenuously as the ‘biggest smallholding in the world’.
■ Millton, New Zealand
James Millton was derided for pioneering biodynamic wine in New Zealand but is now widely admired. Has cows ‘both for compost and company’.
■ Stellar Organics , South Africa
Groundbreaking winery whose owners have proved that growing organic grapes in South Africa wasn’t as hard as local wine industry bigwigs claimed.
■ Terra d’Arcoiris, Italy
Swiss-owned Chianti estate where vines grow in soil that is never ploughed. Result: erosion-free vineyards, no wasted tractor diesel, superbly concentrated wines.
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Food and Drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here
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