Moonbeams and cow horns: Science looks at Biodynamics

by Tom Fiorina on April 4, 2015

Biodynamic researcher Georg Meissner speaking at the Journée Biodynamie conference.

Biodynamic researcher Georg Meissner speaking at the Journée Biodynamie Viticulture conference.

Many enologists, scientists who study the chemistry and biology of wine, look at biodynamic agriculture the same way a hydrologic engineer might view a dowser looking for water with a forked stick; with part amusement, part derision.

In my two years of French oenology studies (this is the British spelling and, since it’s closer to the French name for a wine scientist, an œnologue, I prefer that extra vowel in the beginning of the word), I only heard biodynamics mentioned once or twice, and never in an admirable way. We spent hours measuring pH and titratable acidity to determine wine acidity. We analyzed enzymatic levels with a spectrophotometer, and there were weeks spent in the microbiology lab culturing yeast and bacteria. But there were no courses about planetary and lunar cycles, and no one ever had us stir a silica-infused concentration for 24 hours in a certain way.

I think that our teachers would have preferred placing leeches on their foreheads to cure a headache than burying cow-turd-laden horns in a vineyard to harness cosmic energy.

Which is why I was so amazed when the school in Toulouce where I had studied oenology announced a Journée Biodynamie Viticulture earlier this year. Many of my teachers were there, gritting their teeth somewhat, but listening to the most analytical lectures on biodynamics that I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard several, including one by the grand guru of French biodynamics, the Loire Valley winemaker Nicolas Joly).

The main speaker at this conference was Georg Meissner, a German researcher in the Department of Viticulture at the Geisenheim Institute in Rheingau, Germany. Meissner earned his degree in oenology in Montpellier, France. His interest in organic and biodynamic grape growing has taken him around the world from South Africa to California, and from New Zealand to Italy where he was hired recently at the prestigious Alois Lageder Estate in the Southern Tyrol region of Alto Adige, close to the Austrian border in the northeast of Italy.

Meissner began his presentation with a detailed discussion about Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, social reformer, architect and esotericist who combined science and spirituality in a variety of fields, including the forerunner of organic agriculture, biodynamics. Steiner viewed a biodynamic farms as an organism, a self-sustaining system that produces its own manure and animal feed. The timing of agricultural activities, such as sowing, weeding, and harvesting, must, he thought, be coordinated with the moon and planets, and that natural materials, prepared in specific ways, should be applied to the soil, compost and crops. Despite being a rigorous, analytical scientist, Steiner never verified his biodynamic agricultural philosophy through empirical studies.

Meissner, through tests that he’s been conducting since 2006 on three parcels of Riesling vines at the Geisenheim Institute, has been evaluating the difference between conventional, organic and biodynamic viticulture. The main takeaway from this study, he told us, is that biodynamic vines are less vigorous, their foliage is better distributed on the vines, and the grape yield is lower.

One of the wines tasted at the conference: a Syrah-Mouvèdre red, Les Chemins, from the Château  Baronne in the Corbières.

One of the wines tasted at the conference: a Syrah-Mouvèdre red, Les Chemins, from the Château La Baronne in the Corbières.

And, to reassure the scientists in the audience, he explained that this isn’t just about moonbeams and cow horns. Meissner has verified his results, measuring parameters such as soil life (microbial activity, enzymes, nutrients, etc.), ripening and phenolic development of the grapes (differences in sugar, acid and pH), and even the quality of the wines. Tastings by expert wine tasters show obvious differences between conventional, organic and biodynamic cultivation, with wine from the latter having more flavor and better concentration.

Whether this is from the lower (more concentrated) yields from biodynamically cultivated vines, or there is something more mystical happening is debatable. The fact that highly-trained scientists are opening their analytical minds to the possibility that biodynamic agriculture may improve wine quality by better managing biochemical and microbiological factors in the soil is a revelation in itself.

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Leon Stolarski April 4, 2015 at 20:50

Careful Tom – There appears to be a suggestion that biodynamics isn’t necessarily just a crackpot philosophy. Indeed, these findings might come as a shock for the sceptics! 😉 Thanks for writing this excellent piece and keep up the good work.

Tom Fiorina April 5, 2015 at 13:01

Thanks, Leon, for your comment and for having shared this post on your Facebook page. As I mentioned there, this article is short on empirical data about this study on Riesling vines (which is available online if you search for “Georg Meissner”, “biodynamics”, and the “Geisenheim Institute”). My main motivation was to express my amazement about my Cartesian-thinking oenology profs helping to organize a Biodynamic agriculture conference.

craig April 6, 2015 at 12:56

Fascinating piece! If there really is a difference between conventional v organic v biodynamic winemaking there will need to be many more studies like this. For me its not about the cow-horn per se but organic and biodynamic production is probably a marker. A marker or signpost that the winemaker is passionate and fastidious and more likely to produce a “better” and more interesting product than an mass-produced industrial product where the soils and canopies are “controlled” with sprays and chemical products rather then nurtured and sustained. It may be hard to prove but it makes sense that there is likely to be a difference in the products produced by the various methods.

Tom Fiorina April 6, 2015 at 14:09

Thanks, Craig, for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly with you that the mystical part of biodynamic agriculture is difficult to define, but that the time spent by the winemaker in the vineyard is evident in the wine.

Michael Lintell April 9, 2015 at 17:04

Thanks for the work, Tom. As the growth in the number of estates practicing biodynamic agriculture increases, it is interesting to see that there is some science supporting the trends.

Tom Fiorina April 10, 2015 at 08:53

Thanks for your comment, Michael. Will your wine travels take you to southwestern France this spring?

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