An edited version of this article was originally published in issue 20 of Root + Bone magazine.
I find the concept of biodynamics a bit weird. The belief that burying manure filled cow horns over the winter, digging it up in spring and then spraying it on the vines will somehow work with spiritual enlightenment to improve the performance of the vineyard sounds to me like some sort of voodoo shit.
But what do I know? Some of my favourite wines have been made following the biodynamic methods of an Austrian called Rudolph Steiner. In 1924, in his “Agriculture Course”, he suggested that farmers consider the cosmos before going about the business of tending the crops. So planting, pruning, harvesting and everything in between must be done at the right point of the lunar calendar. He also offered nine “preparations” including herbs, minerals, nettles and the aforementioned earth-aged cow poo that can be sprayed on the soil to feed the vines. Some of the world’s most sought-after wine is now made from grapes grown with the aid of cow poo, so there must be something in this biodynamics malarkey, right?
As with most beliefs, there are varying degrees to which one can practice. In biodynamic wine-making this is particularly relevant. The extent to which a winemaker can be fanatical about biodynamics generally comes down to the climactic and geological conditions surrounding the vineyard. Marina Marcarino of Punset, a biodynamic producer based in Neive, in the Barbaresco DOC of Piemonte, is a real believer in biodynamics but can only use it to the extent allowed by the particular conditions in her vineyard, “in Piemonte you can’t be 100% biodynamic because of the water.” The soil in Barabresco is very white and contains a lot of calcium from the fossils, making it very compact and therefore water doesn’t drain, making heavy rain a problem.
Marina normally uses preparation 500 (this is the cow poo in the cow horn one) and 501 (this is powdered quartz, again buried in a cow horn), but this drainage issue means that Marina has to adjust the biodynamic preparations depending on the weather from vintage to vintage. In 2018 there was heavy rainfall in the spring so she elected not to use preparation 500 at all.
One of the biodynamic areas that Marina focuses on is the grass in the vineyard. In pure biodynamics, you can cut the grass (some might call it weeds) by hand, but you cannot chop it using a machine as “it turns the grass, creating negative energy in the soil”. She lets the grass grow as high as the vines, using it as a protective barrier against the wind. She undertook research with Turin University using drones to assess the impact of the wind on vines, with and without long grass. Not only does it protect her vines from the wind, but it allows the vineyard to cope with hot vintages. “Because of all the grass, you can maintain the humidity, because the grass is the same height as the grapes.”
Above; the grass grow freely amongst the Punset vines near Nieve
When Marina started out in 1982 it took a few years for her to really understand her vineyard, and so it was in 1990 that her biodynamic practices began in earnest, “working organically, I noticed things changing with the moon and the time of the year. It happens in everyday life but we just don’t notice”. As with any belief, there are there are those who believe and those who don’t. Those who do can come in for some slack, particularly when they are breaking the mould of traditionally held beliefs. As news spread around other winemakers in Barbaresco of her biodynamic methods, she came in for a bit of attention. Locals referred to her as “the crazy lady” and some even inquired as to her financial health, “why don’t you cut the grass, do you not have any money?”
So does cow poo and long grass make the wine taste any better?
Well unfortunately I can’t help you there. Biodynamics is not like adding salt to a meal; it’s an ethos, a way of life. Biodynamic winemakers don’t make wine with and without biodynamics. So just as you’re never going to find out if going to church every week gets you a ticket through the pearly gates, you’re never going to know if the cow poo makes for a better glass of wine.
However, Marina does make very good wine in that weedy, cow poo powered vineyard of hers. If you want to find out what biodynamics can do, here are my two favourites from her current range to try;
Punset, Barbera d’Alba 2016
Thick dark purple in colour. Dark, spiced, plumminess and real energy on the tongue. Feels talcum powder soft and finishes really fresh. You need this in your glass next time you eat pasta.
£13.60, Latimer Vintners.
Punset, Barbaresco Riserva, Basarin 2012
Soy sauciness on the nose and then juicy cherries, spice and dried flowers swirl around the palate before a wall of powdery tannins finishes things off. This is tasting brilliant already, but has the legs to last many a year. Proper wine this.
£47.50, Handford Wines.