Biodynamics: fact or fiction?

Firstly, an apology to anyone who has clicked on this hoping to find the definitive answer to this question.  I really have no idea.  While my inner hippy desperately wants to believe, some of it sounds so bizarre that I’m not sure whether I can.  What this post does contain is my thoughts on two books that I have recently read on the subject of biodynamic wine.

The first book is “What is biodynamic wine?” by Nicolas Joly, translated from French by Matthew Barton.  I found this heavy going, but ultimately rewarding.  When reading a translated book, you can’t be sure on whom to “blame” heaviness of language: the author or the translator?  My own lack of scientific knowledge is probably also largely to blame here.

Joly is clearly an expert on biodynamics, and more than anything, his passion for and belief in the practice illuminates every page.   I was intrigued as he linked biodynamics to all manner of other concepts, for example:

  • The division of plants into two categories: Apollonian, which grow towards the sky, and Dionysian (including grapevines), which are drawn towards the earth.  As I was reading this book at the same time as researching my wine writing challenge entry “In praise of Bacchus” (Bacchus is the Greek name for the god the Romans called Dionysis), the coincidence was most timely.
  • The shape of wine barrels: although I struggled with the mathematical explanation for this, apparently barrels get longer the further south (in the northern hemisphere) you go.  This is due to the sun’s effects at different locations.  I would love it if someone with a better understanding of maths than me could read this and explain it in words of one syllable!
  • The principles of the “four humours” expounded by Hippocrates.  While working in human resources, I attended training on this theory in order to better understand group dynamics in the workplace.   While I’m normally very cynical about this kind of thing, I identified wholeheartedly with having a melancholic personality (and then got very depressed about it).
  • Before reading the book, I didn’t know that conventional farming practice recommends removing cows’ horns, but in a biodynamic herd, they must be left intact.  This is because the horns are considered to reflect energy (generated in large quantities by the bovine digestion system) back into the cow.  This can be linked to the religion of the ancient Egyptians, as the goddess Hathor (credited with bringing the heavenly gift of wine to the earth) is depicted with the head of a cow and a solar disc between her horns. 

I’m sorry if that link is a little vague; that’s how Joly writes, his enthusiasm regularly taking him on leaps from one topic to a related one, eg jumping from an explanation of the significance of cow horns to having a rant about the mad cow disease (BSE) epidemic.  While I fully understand the importance of this (no cow from a biodynamic herd has ever been infected with BSE), I found that these digressions made a work that was already tricky to follow even more difficult to focus on.

The second book is “Chateau Monty” by Monty Waldin.  This is the autobiographical account of British wine writer Monty Waldin’s midlife crisis-inspired project to move to Roussillon and make biodynamic wine. It is written in a completely different style from the first book.  Waldin tells his story with plenty of self-deprecating humour, introducing us to a supporting cast including:

  • Harry (his ever-faithful Jack Russell)
  • Silvana (his sensible Italian accountant girlfriend, who keeps him in check)
  • geese Petronella and Marmaduke (Silvana wouldn’t let him have cows, despite their valuable output)
  • some (unnamed) chickens
  • a horse called Cajolle who ploughed the vineyard
  • marauding wild boar who threaten the grapes (apparently they are attracted to organic vineyards , as there are more worms to eat, but are repelled by human hair and urine – who knew?)
  • eccentric French locals bemused by the concept of biodynamics; and
  • equally eccentric and bemused British ex-pats.

Waldin’s accounts of his encounters with these characters, all of whom seem delighted to help him, are entertaining, but also serve a useful narrative purpose.  The people Monty befriends share the same viewpoint as the reader, interested in this idea of farming as naturally as possible, but befuddled by what the moon has to do with it and why burying a horn filled with cow dung should make the wine taste better.  These encounters also provide Monty with the opportunity to explain the basics of biodynamics.  His explanations, while by necessity less detailed than Joly’s, are given in extremely plain and easy to follow language.

While Joly’s book has the weight of authority and provides more detail, if you are looking for an enjoyable and easy to follow introduction to biodynamic winemaking, I would wholeheartedly recommend “Chateau Monty”.

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4 thoughts on “Biodynamics: fact or fiction?

  1. Definitely sounds like some interesting reading. I will definitely try to remember, for instance, that wild boar are repelled by human hair. You never know when that could come in handy. As far as blame for heavy text in a translated book …. For good or bad, I actually end up reading a number of translated tomes for work yearly. So I think I understand what you mean. Although I’m not an expert, I’m of the opinion that the use of idiomatic expressions is telling. If they are used well, then the translator is probably on his or her game and providing an accurate account of the author’s intent. If not, I’d blame the translator for a ponderous read.

  2. Biodynamics is a tough subject. Basically, I am 100% for sustainable agriculture and anything that promotes a healthy planet and improves quality. I could just do without all the mysticism. It also does not help that Rudolf Steiner was certifiably crazy.

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