Bio what?

Monty Waldin's thirst for good wines leads him to visit a biodynamic farm. More than just a load of bull, he finds, making rich, complex wines requires quality cow manure

‘What you are about to learn over these next several days, some of you may find a little bit weird, odd, or even gory, but you’ll find it well within your capabilities. If you do it right what you’ll create will be a powerful force for good on your farms, on your crops, and in your food.’

So said Hugh Courtney last October as he welcomed a 30-strong group of trainees – myself included – keen to learn more about what it takes to be ‘biodynamic’. This and next month, I’ll share some of what I learned.

Each spring and autumn, Courtney and his staff at the Josephine Porter Institute for Biodynamics in Woolwine, Virginia, USA, host seminars on how to make the nine ‘biodynamic preparations’ that must be used for a farm to be considered biodynamic. Courtney is JPI’s Executive Director.

These nine biodynamic ‘preps’ first came about in 1924, when a group of European farmers noticed their soils, crops and livestock were showing major signs of fatigue from over intensive farming. They asked Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner for advice.

Steiner believed that the farms and farmers too needed to be revitalised. The industrial revolution and so called ‘progress’ had led farmers into a mind-set of thinking more about material things than of the soul or spiritual side of farming. Seeing a farm as a means of producing tonnes of crops at one end, having added tonnes of fertiliser to the soil at the other, was not sustainable.

Steiner’s painstaking methods for producing the nine biodynamic preparations for healthy soil are still followed today. They are made using cow manure, horn silica and herbs – yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettles, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian and horsetail – used in homeopathic doses, for a range of beneficial effects. The idea is to create a ‘farm individuality’, a concept that was of keen interest to someone like myself with a wine background. Why?

Much of the wine we drink today tastes as if it could come from anywhere. What the French called ‘terroir’ – to us, individuality – has to a large extent been lost. The modernisation of vine growing and winemaking mean the actual range of wine flavours is tiny: you can find bottles of Chardonnay made in Hungary, Argentina, Mediterranean France and California that, when you open them, have absolutely identical flavour profiles: soft, tropical, neutral.

Bringing vineyard soils back to life is a key way to achieve more complex tasting wines – and the most useful biodynamic tool is called horn manure or ‘500’. This is made simply by stuffing fresh cow manure into a cow horn and burying it for six months from autumn until the following spring, Courtney explained.

Naturally, and in keeping with the self-sufficient nature of the biodynamic ideal, JPI has its own herd of cows. We were given buckets and trowels and told to collect as many fresh cowpats as we could find.

‘When you scrape the pats off the pasture floor, scrape up as little grass and turf as possible,’ warned Hugh, ‘or else the manure doesn’t transform as well when it’s in the horn. What we want at the end of the six months underground is manure that has lost its manure smell and soft texture, and been transformed into something dark, almost crumbly but not at all dry, and smelling earthy, like the forest floor. If there’s too much grass in the manure as it goes into the horn, air pockets are created, and the manure will turn green, liquidy and will smell of ammonia. It will be unusable.’

We got up from our chairs thinking we’d got the horn manure thing sussed, when one final warning came our way. ‘Oh – make sure you only take manure from female cows, not from the bull.’ This instruction was met by a few blank looks – until Joey Brinkley, one of the JPI staffers, explained.

Brinkley had just completed a work experience in California’s famed Napa Valley, at the biodynamic Grgich Hills winery, which has recently installed the biggest set of solar panels in the California wine industry. ‘When cows produce their manure pats,’ said Joey, ‘they tend to pee at the same time, and as both manure
and pee exit from the same place, the cowpat often has a hollow, wet centre. With a bull, the pee and the manure come out of different holes and in different directions, so bull cow pats are often drier and flatter.’

Someone cracked the inevitable ‘Hey, Joey, no bullshit, huh?’ joke, and we were on our way to the cow pasture, buckets in hand.
Over the weekend, we collectively found enough manure to stuff nearly 1,000 cow horns. The horn manure would then be sold on to farmers, winegrowers or homesteaders for their back gardens across north America.

For further information read Biodynamic Farming II

Biodynamic agriculture

Is the oldest consciously organic approach to farming, based on a holistic and spiritual idea of nature. Every biodynamic farm aims to become self-sufficient in compost, manures and animal feeds. An astronomical calendar is used to choose when to plant, cultivate and harvest.

Tasting notes

2004 Les Demoiselles de Falfas, Côtes de Bourg Bordeaux is the perfect red wine to drink with food. It is crisp tasting, and refreshingly not overloaded with alcohol like those heavy Australian and Chilean reds that are so popular. Château Falfas is one of France’s best biodynamic wineries. This wine is made from the youngest vines in its vineyard: mainly Merlot for leafy red fruit tastes, a bit of Cabernet Franc for tastes of violets, and a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon for blackcurrant tastes. It is ready to drink, but can easily be aged several years.

2004 Domaine de Beaujeu, Vin de Pays du Bouche du Rhôone red Merlot Domaine de Beaujeu is run by Pierre Cartier, whose brothers run Mas de Gourgonnier. This wine comes from a Camargue vineyard that also grows cereal crops and has livestock, and leaves large swathes of land as wild ‘habitat breaks’ for beneficial insects. This merlot is smooth-tasting, soft and approachable, with redcurrant and plum flavours. Drink within 12 months.

2003 Mas de Gourgonnier, Les Baux de Provence Mas de Gorgonnier is one of Provence’s oldest certified organic vineyards. Its red wines are concentrated and sturdy, with wild herb, almost meaty flavours. This one is made mainly from Grenache Noir, which gives soft, black fruit flavours, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives crisper black fruit flavours. Small additions of Syrah, Cinsault, MourveÌeÌdre, and Carignan grapes add an appealing peppery aftertaste.

More info

• Biodynamic Agricultural Association (BDAA) The Painswick Inn Project, Gloucester Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 1QG, England.
Email office@ uk, www.

• Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics Inc, PO Box 133, Woolwine, VA24185-0133, USA
Email info@ jpibiodynamics. org,

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

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