Biodynamics -Twelve Apostles spread the word

“Sowing another future” Sven Leiner
“A sustainable and holistic approach for plants, our souls and for the family.” Johannes Zillinger

When Christophe Hoch converted to biodynamics did he consider this to be evolution or  revolution? In a candid response he feels his neighbours saw revolution, while for the Hoch family  it was simply an evolution in their 400 year vinous history. 

Evolution through co-operation was the overarching sentiment expressed in a recent tasting organised by two biodynamic organisations Demeter Austria and respekt-BIODYN. This tasting brought together twelve biodynamic producers and discussion centred on the themes of ‘the farm organism’ (self- sufficiency to you and me), building strength in the vineyard (improving your vineyard’s resistance to pests, disease, climate change et al); creating soil fertility naturally in the field (cover crops and composting) and what this can do for a healthier future in general, not only for our wines.

Demeter, which is an international association, dates back to 1928 and was founded to provide guidelines for biodynamic farming based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. It was adapted for wine production in the 1990s and has today there are approximately seventy biodynamic wine estates in Austria cultivating 800 hectares. 

Respekt is much newer and smaller ‘community’ set up in Austria as an alternative to Demeter in 2007. It has 25 converts across Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy who jointly cultivate 850 hectares. It is also based on Steiner principals, methods and preparations, but biodynamics is viewed as a means to an end – to achieve the highest possible quality.  

Initially it seems Demeter wasn’t entirely happy with sharing the biodynamic space, but with their differences sorted, the two organisations are now dedicated to sharing experiences and knowledge to further the understanding and efficacy of biodynamic viticulture and to spread the gospel. As Nikolaus Moser remarks, “Already 3% of the the world’s viticulture is organic and the biodynamic family within this is growing.”  

For those considering a biodynamic conversion, both organisations run seminars which are open to non-members. Nikolaus Moser considers it’s easier these days to take the plunge into biodynamics as many producers are willing to share information. He moved directly from conventional viticulture into biodynamics in the late 1990s without dallying in organic farming first and he recalls learning as he went along. “At the beginning of the 2000s organic viticulture didn’t have a good reputation and biodynamics was seem as hocus locus… now we can still be laughed at, but there is more understanding.” He describes a bitter wind of skepticism in the early days, “while now there is so much shared knowledge and lots of people prepared to help.”

And a quick head ups here – if you are tempted to convert to biodynamics, don’t expect a rapid response from your vineyards.  On average you’re looking at 6 or 7 years.

But it’s clear from listening to the twelve producers that biodynamics reaches beyond cultivating a vineyard and making wine, rather it’s an approach to life or even a philosophy for living.

Clemens Busch spoke of preserving the history and culture of wine. Fifty year ago, on the Mosel’s steep slopes and terraces, every family had a few vines, grew their own food and kept some livestock. Viticulture became more professional from the 1970s and this way of life has all but  disappeared, but he feels the biodynamic approach can help keep the traditional spirit alive. 

Sven Leiner from the Pfalz is particularly eloquent. He describes the biodynamic approach as “creating a new relationship with our cultural space.” He didn’t intentionally set out to convert to biodynamics, but found things evolved step bu step; starting with the soil and then the cover crops, which brought composing within the vineyard. He remarks “you can only make good wine with healthy vines.”

The concept of the farm organism was discussed. Everyone seems to grow cover crops in the vineyards which can be ploughed back as natural homegrown fertiliser. Moreover they cultivate the  plants ‘herbs’ to use for the various biodynamic teas which are sprayed on the vineyards according to biodynamic practices in order to boost the plant’s natural resistance to pests and diseases.

There was much talk of expanding the boundaries of the vineyard. Many, if not all of the twelve producers, manage their land around the vineyards to support the biodynamic ethos. This includes planting trees, keeping chickens, sewing wildflower meadows, setting up insect houses, keeping bees and maybe some cows to use the mature for composing.

Moreover Sven Leiner remarks “It doesn’t end with your property line.” There is impetus to spread the word and convert their neighbours and rationalises that when one’s neighbours become aware of the benefits, for example that wildlife which has not been seen for years begins to return, it will encourage the whole region to become involved. His vision is grand and admirable. “We are sewing another future,” he says.

Herbert Zillinger does not mince his words about conventional agriculture. “Sick exploitation…not good for the soil, the environment or our health. When you change to biodynamics, working with respect of nature, all problems resolve themselves.” 

While some made a starting leap to biodynamics, others took a gentler approach, among them  Johannes Zillinger, by evolving the organic approach of their parents into biodynamics and together with this, the idea the farm organism. And as they look forward to their children’s future, they are upshift again to truly holistic approach. 

“Biodynamics is about allowing the vineyard, the vine and nature to express itself. It is sustainable and holistic – for our plants, our souls and and the family,” remarks Johannes Zilliinger.

Brigit Braunstein talks about an holistic way of winemaking which places every being, animal and plant and the centre of her work. 

While Judith Beck, a pioneer of biodynamics, remarks, “I never expected how life changing this would be. It changed my views on food.. and raising children. It has an influence on all parts of our life. She goes back to the point that Clemens Busch made. Her grandparents had a small holding with animals and she laments how easily this was lost in just one generation. She can’t replace the cows, but sources manure for compost from a neighbouring cattle farmer. While not exactly self sufficient, this does tap into the local community. 

She made an interesting point about cover crops. She had been ‘taught’ that the sunny and dry area of Gols, East of Neusiedlersee, where she has her vineyard, would not support cover crops ,a they would be too competitive. On the contrary.

Others confirmed that a biodynamics approach can be helpful in a drier areas. Herbert Zillinger and his wife Carmen who have a 16 hectare estate in Weinviertel (very dry and warm place) found the biodynamic prep 500 helped increase humus and the water retaining capacity of the soil. “It livens up dry soils,” and adds, “with good work on the soil, we don’t need to be afraid of climate change.” 

It’s widely acknowledged that keeping the soil ‘alive’ and healthy, supports healthier vines and better balanced fruit. Herbert Zillinger has noticed the improvement brought about through biodynamics. The juice has lower pHs (3.2-3.3), higher and riper acidity, more dry extract and lower sugar. And he feels there is more vibrancy in the final wine.

Clemens Busch, who is a member of respekt-BIODYN (quality is the ultimate goal) comments, “People tell me the wine has more structure and depth; more tension and minerality.” 

But what about the economics? I would have thought that yields would be smaller, affecting the bottom line. However not everyone has found this so. Georg Schmelzer saw his production  become more stable after the first 3-5 years. 

Schmlezer is also in the dry Neusiedlesee area. Georg confesses their vineyard is very untidy as they let the cover crops grow untrimmed – sometimes they grow as tall as the vines, but he finds the vines are stronger and healthier and the yield more reliable. There is no copper of sulphur used. 

His neighbours may laugh at this vineyards, but he responds that consumers are attracted by the idea of ‘natural wine,’ and of course he is right. Natural has become a buzz word among consumers, many of whom will be unaware of exactly what it entails, but like the thought of something closer to nature – or something made more naturally – and will purchase based on their ideals. 

Seems to me that biodynamics has a winning combination – an holistic, sustainable approach which can make sense economically and is in step with a wide global environmental sentiment. 

So, by sowing a new future, have these these biodynamic winemakers got it all sewn up?

Ultimately it has to come down to the wine and how it tastes. A biodynamic approach has to produce a good wine. I should ‘fess up that I make some of my wine in Burgundy using grapes grown by one of the finest biodynamic domaines. I am fully convinced by the potential for this approach to encourage the very best from a vineyard.

However, I am not yet convinced that eschewing all sulphur in the making and bottling of white wine produces the best results. I found some wines slightly oxidised and quite cider-like. For me, these natural wines are just a step too far.

*-***denotes the wines I particularly liked. 

**Weingut Clemens Busch, Marienburg Fahrlay GG VDP GROSSE LAGE 2017

Mosel, Germany. Member of respekt-BIODYN. Fahrlay. is a 1.6 hectare cru section within the 18 hectare Marienburg vineyard. It is midway on the Mosel river and has diverse soil types, but this cru is particular for its blue slate. South facing on a small terrace.

Straight, fine and cleanly edged. This has a high and pure line. Just a delicate richness wrapped around the middle palate, but this is essentially a swift, trebble-pure wine. Hits a high and sustained note – the finish is persistent and ringing.  

*-**Weingut Sepp Moser, Riesling Ried Gebling 1ÖTW 2019

Kremstal, Austria Member of Demeter. C16th generation Nikolaus Moser is Lenz Moser’s grandson (Lenz Moser of prolific wine proportions). Nikolaus’s  father Sepp Moser made the first significant change, separating and  focusing on the best 30 hectares of vineyard, but he wasn’t interested in organic viticulture. Niki Moser took up the reins in the late 90s and he went directly to biodynamic. “It was a gut decision to convert to biodynamic faming without knowing much about it.”  Demeter certified since 2009. His vineyards are in Kremstal. He makes the point that the vines in Gebling vineyard were first mentioned in 1284.

Salted caramel with a hint of mint, cinnamon and camomile on the nose. Very intriguing aroma. The palate is smooth and rich and rounded for Riesling with hints of caramelised orange zest. It’s almost exotically floral. It’s supple and silky – smoothly creamy for Riesling. By the second day after opening it, there were ripe apricot and almonds notes on the palate. It is quite spicy on finish, which is dry, rich and savoury. Seductive indeed.

***Weingut Hirsch, Ried Zöbinger Gaisberg 1ÖTW Kamptal Riesling 2017. 

Kamtal , Austria Member of respekt-BIODYN. When the red wine became popular in the late 1990s, Johannes Hirsch pulled out his red wine and planted Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, bucking the trend. Moreover he put the entire range under screw cap. In addition to bio-dynamic practices, Hirsch utilises soft pruning, a method he learned in Alto Adige to minimise the amount of cuts and thus lessening the amount of tissue exposed to disease and old wood near the pruned area. In the vineyards, manure from celebrated cheese maker Robert Paget’s water buffalo and goats, grazing in the pastures in front of the vineyards, is used.

This is powerful, vigorous wine with a keen, straight and slicing palate. Richly punchy, but crystalline with clean cut edges. It finishes on a fine saline finish. Too early to drink this wine really. It should develop over the next 15 to 20 years – so to 2040. Tip top.  Score 17

Weingut Christophe Hoch, Hollenburger Riesling NV

Kremstal Austria Member of Demeter. Christophe’s family can trace their winemaking back to 1640. The bedrock of Hollenburger is limestone. He felt the vintage was in front (dominated) the wine, hence he decided to make the unusual choice of blending vintages.

Cidery aroma. Light, lean and straight palate with a sour-apple note and a saline finish.  

*Wiengut Sven Leiner, Kapelle Weissburgunder 2019

Pfalz, Germany Member of respekt-BIODYN Pfalz had the highest number of biodynamic producers in Germany – somewhere between 15 and 20. Kapelle is Sven’s best site. Note the ladybird on the label.

Fresh, lemony aroma. The palate is lightly rounded, broad and actually quite gusty. Definitely plenty of energy with an earthy intensity with a lively quality. Firm savoury sapidity on the finish; I like the tactile note at the end. It’s tangy. It does needs some time or decanting. When I first opened, it was battened down and took a couple of days to start opening up.  From 2023-28

Weingut Schmelzer, Weissburgunder 2018

Neusiedlersee, Austria Member of Demeter. No sulphur or copper, only home made teas and biodynamic preps. Natural wine.

This has a light apple and yeasty aroma which continues onto the palate with caramelised apple notes, which become lightly orangey. The acidity is quite tart. There are hints of lime on nose and palate. It’s 13 % but feels light light and breezy and it finishes on a nutty and salty note.   

*Weingut Herbert & Carmen Zillinger, Gruner Veltiner Kalkvogel 2019

Weinviertel, Austria Member of respekt-BIODYN Biodynamics can result in thicker skins requiring longer pressing. Not a problem for the Zillingers, who have the time and patience. This wine comes from a barren limestone soil. Herbert feels this is his best Gruner Veltliner. He and Carmen make several. Pressed and put straight into large old barrels. No debourbage and then on year on lees. Low sulphur levels of 30-40pp.

Candied citrus richness on nose and palate. Creamy texture. Lush lemon curd in the middle palate with a lovely balance of freshness. Sherbet-like energy. I really like this natural wine which is uber fresh, unlike some whites in this flight. Such an attractive wine –  vibrant, rich and pure. It is not super complex, but it is certainly yummy. 

Weingut Johannes Zillinger Parcellaire blanc 1# 2019

Weinviertel, Austria Member of Demeter. A blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay from the coldest North and North/East facing slopes. If I understood correctly the Welschriesling, as whole bunches, is fermented in amphora and  the Chardonnay is kept under flor.

A really rather creamy wine with attractive viscosity. Just nicely rounded with a pretty white peach character; so peaches and cream cut through with quite tart acidity. There is a light fragrance that floats over fruit.  

Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg, Cara 2018

Styrian Volcanoland, Austria Member of Demeter. Maria, Alfred and son Manuel Ploder are pioneers in their region of extinct volcanos. Vineyards on the volcano’s slopes. He uses PIWI varieties – crossings which are fungus resistant – including 30% Souvignier Gris and  40% Bonner. The former has good natural acidity which is important here as the gravelly soils result in high pHs – 3.3-3.5. 

This is a very light, delicate wine with a hint of apple and some salinity. 

Weingut Judith Beck, Chardonnay Bambule 2018

Gols/Neusiedlersee, Austria. Member of Respekt -BIODYN. Gravel soil near the lake. This is fermented for 12-14 days on skins. No sulphur. Judith calls it zero intervention. Chardonnay was the first varied on which she used this approach back in 2011. She presses before the ferment has finished to protect it from oxygen. Aged in amphora for a year.  

This is this the most interesting of the wines with no sulphur. It is quite funky. Full, quite rounded and rich, but with bright acidity. It a bit quirky and finishes attractively saline.

*-**Weingut Birgit Braunstein, Blaufrankisch Thenau 2013

Neusiedlersee-Hugelland, Austria Member of Demeter

An invitingly farmy aroma, showing its more evolved character, mingles with red fruit and I do like the rich and fresh earthiness.  The palate has marked energy. Loads of black fruit with cherry and charcoal notes. It’s snappy in both energy and texture and there’s a real twang on the finish. I expect wine produced using biodynamic approach to exhibit lively energy and this does.   

***Weingut Feiler-Artinger, Blaufrankisch Leithaberg DAC Ried Oberer Wald 2018

Member of Respekt-BIODYN. The texture, which starts smooth and evolves a crisp crunch, is instantly arresting and so is the energy. This is both vibrant and has a vibration. The quivering energy carries to a well sustained finish. I like the ripe, juicy richness of blueberry fruit and the  contrasting lively freshness. Its 14 % but carries it with ease. What a lovely wine. I like it lightly chilled. Now and until 2028.