Biodynamics in Alsace
Alsace proves fertile ground for biodynamics, both environmentally and philosophically
I was chatting with winemaker André Ostertag next to his vegetable garden in his vineyard in Epfig in Alsace in north-eastern France. It was mid-May, everything was green, the vines were in flower and a cool northerly breeze refreshed us after a week of 35˚ C heat. We were discussing how his vision of biodynamics had evolved since we had last seen each other three years ago.
He suddenly stopped talking and, with a note of frustration in his voice, said, "You know, when I go to Japan and I explain what I am doing, they get it immediately. Most North Americans just think we are crazy."
I must admit that, even though I'm very sympathetic to it, biodynamics can give the left side of the brain a bit of a workout. The biodynamic approach to grape growing, which takes organics and adds to it principles as diverse as permaculture, astrology and homeopathy, has become one of the more controversial issues within the wine industry. Skeptics see it as an incredible waste of time and money. Others view it as pure quackery, an affront to science and modern thinking.
But what began in the early 1990s has developed into a movement whose practitioners include some of the world's best winemakers, producing some of the world's most unique wines. Many are their respective region's best producers, and the list of those wineries that are either biodynamic or in the process of converting is impressive: Pingus and Clos Martinet in Spain, Clos Jordanne in Niagara, Joseph Phelps and Opus One in California, Castagna in Australia and Oregon's Beaux Frères.
French adherents include the Rhône's Chapoutier, Burgundy's Domaine Leroy, Comte Armand and Leflaive. In the Loire, there is Muscadet's l'Ecu, Nicolas Joly and Domaine Huet. Other high-end producers, such as Drouhin and Romanée-Conti, have parts of their vineyards farmed biodynamically.
But there is one region that surpasses all others in terms of sheer number of biodynamic wineries, and it is considered by many the spiritual home of the movement: Alsace. The list is a who's who of the region's best: Domaine Marcel Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Weinbach, René Muré, Kraydenweiss, Bott-Geyl, Pierre Frick, Josmeyer, Rolly Gassmann and Ostertag, to name but a few. In all, more than 30 different French wineries are biodynamic.
So why is Alsace such fertile ground for biodynamics? The reasons are rooted in the region's cultural and political history, and how these influences manifest themselves today are as complicated as biodynamics itself. But first, what exactly is biodynamic agriculture?
Biodynamics is often lumped together with organic farming, but there are some important differences. While both rely on organic materials for enriching the soil and neither uses synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides, biodynamics embraces a much more holistic perspective. Unlike both chemical and organic agriculture, biodynamics is concerned with more than just what nutrients a plant needs to grow.
Those who practice biodynamics view the health of the vine and the ultimate quality of the resulting wine as dependent upon the health of a number of life forces - the soil, the vine, the people who work in the vineyard and all the other plants and animals that are a part of the ecosystem. Biodynamics is concerned with the subtle manipulation of these life forces, or energies, and aims to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
On a practical level, biodynamic farmers use homeopathic doses when treating their plants and the soil. Some of the oft-lampooned "interventions" are compost energizers made from plants fermented in animal bladders and bones, or spraying ground-up quartz on the vine to increase the luminosity of the sun. Leaf sprays, used for treating and reinforcing the vines, are made from the juice of ground-up flowers, dried plants and other natural sources.
Biodynamics also has its astrological influences. Many biodynamic winemakers will add compost, spray their plants, work and weed the soil, and ultimately pick their grapes and bottle their wine following a calendar loosely based on the position of the moon, the stars and the constellations. As British wine writer and scientist Jamie Goode puts it, "biodynamics sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms."
The spiritual father of the biodynamic movement was early 20th-century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. While he knew little about wine, his musings gave birth to anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy or spiritual science that attempts to bridge the gap between science, art and religion. It espouses a principle of "human respect" for the community at large and the belief that every individual has a unique destiny. Aside from biodynamics, the Waldorf School network, which includes close to 2,500 schools worldwide, uses a holistic approach to teaching that is based on these principles.
So what this has to do with wine, and why Alsace? Looking east from the vineyards in Alsace, you see the Black Forest and the border with Germany. Due to this proximity, throughout its history Alsace has bounced back and forth between French and German control, leaving it with distinct ties to both. Many still speak the regional dialect, which sounds German but is loaded with French vocabulary.
When I asked Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss about what made Alsatians so open to biodynamics, he cited the marriage of these two cultural influences, but what each brought was not what I had expected. There is a tendency to look upon the French as the romantics, with the German influence bringing a more dogmatic, logical way of looking at the world. But it is, in fact, the opposite.
"The German spirit," he said, "is all about a unity. It's a romantic sensibility and its mythology is tied directly to religion and nature. The French spirit," he continued, "is much more rational; it is a spirit of logic."
The reality of these influences can be seen throughout the social and political sphere today. The most telling example is that it was in Germany, and not in France, where the Green Party gained significant political power. "Look at German politics; it is full of religion," said Diess.
While consumer demand for organic produce is growing across Europe, it was in Germany, and not in France, where this demand started. Back in 2000, according to The Journal of Agrobiotechnology, "Germany was the leading country in terms of organic production and consumption, with 28 percent of the EU market."
But it was in France, not in Germany, where biodynamic wine production took hold. A reason for this might lie with the French fascination with the concept of terroir. The majority of the winemakers I talked with believe that it's through biodynamic agriculture that the subtle expressions of soil and climate can be best transferred to their grapes.
As he reached down to pick up a handful of earth, Jean-Christophe Bott, from Bott-Geyl, said, "if you want to get down to the primary, most elemental part of terroir, you can't use chemicals. You have to work with nature, and not against it if you want to express it fully." René Muré went even further. "You can't make truly great wine without biodynamics," he said.
Depending on which Alsatian winemaker you talk with, you see a blend of these seemingly contradictory influences of French rationalism and Germanic mysticism. My first question to each of the winemakers was: "What attracted you to biodynamics?"
The responses were varied, but clearly reflect this cultural duality. "I am a student of Pascale and Descartes," said Muré. "For me, biodynamics is logical," was Josmeyer's Christophe Ehrhart's response. However, get Deiss or Ostertag talking about the subject and the reasons are much more a desire to be in a sort of communion with the earth and their vines. Deiss sees logic as a roadblock: "Sometimes I don't know why I do certain things, I just feel the urge to go out and till a certain field, because I have to." Olivier Humbrecht of Zind-Humbrecht, who seems to walk the line in between the two camps, was more direct. "Organics just didn't go far enough," he said.
I asked Humbrecht to give me an example of what is so logical about some of his biodynamic treatments and he had no shortage of examples. "Take stinging nettle for example," he said, pointing to a tea-like liquid that was sitting in a plastic container in the corner of his equipment room. "We spray it on the vines because nettle, no matter what the weather conditions, will always produce the same amount of flowers. We are teaching the vine how to deal with vigour."
So plants can learn from other plants. A number of winemakers reiterated this same principle, though Ostertag tied this belief in with one of the larger principles of Anthroposophy. Biodynamics is not only concerned with the health of the plant, but the health of the individuals who work with these plants. "In the modern industrial system, the place of each individual is written down. Man becomes machine. Biodynamics allows people to exist as human beings," he said. I asked him how this approach makes for better grapes. "Plants are receptive, and not just to what you feed them. The whole concept of the ‘green thumb' is based on being receptive to what a plant needs, and when they need it."
Muré and Ehrhart believe that biodynamics will show experimentally that it works. Deiss and Ostertag see this type of approach as unnecessary, that the proof is in what you see in your own vineyard. In fact, each winemaker I talked with has his or her own vision of what biodynamics is. "Biodynamics is about evolution and personal reflection," said Maurice Barthelme of Domaine Albert Mann. "It is about adapting and preparing the plant." Humbtrecht added: "There is a danger to being too dogmatic, like the person who refuses a transfusion out of principle."
But the real lesson here is that we still have much to learn about the subtle interactions in the natural world. Alsatians might be so concerned about their land because of the relative density of their population. "Maybe that has forced us to be more attentive to our environment," said Deiss. But whether their approach was more scientific or more romantic, each of the winemakers talked about making not only wine, but nature, even better.
They all spoke in one way or another about what I believe is the real importance of biodynamics. It lies in a crucial paradigm shift, from humans behaving as masters of the natural world to that of participants.
Biodynamic agriculture is about healing and protecting the life forces that sustain the earth, rather than simply consuming its resources. In light of much of the evidence pointing the finger at humans as being the culprits behind climate change, dead or sick water systems and putrid air, maybe this shift is essential if we are to confront these problems.
Albert Einstein once said, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion ... It should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity between the two." When Ostertag told me the Japanese understand the essence of biodynamics, but us North Americans seem so resistant, I wondered why we are so hesitant to embrace a different reality and so attached to proof and logic. For us, there is a lesson to be learned, and we can learn it from what is happening in Alsace.