How'd you like a bit of stag’s bladder with that Bordeaux? No? Perhaps, then, a sprinkling of the ashes of plant lice over your sangiovese? Still no? Not even a spritz of horsehair tea in your tocai? Well, we don’t blame you. Oenology is intimidating enough as it is — but with more and more winemakers acting like witch doctors via the adoption of organic- and biodynamic-farming methods (some of which do indeed incorporate the aforementioned materials), it can begin to seem downright creepy.
Luckily, some local connoisseurs of eco-viticulture are happy to help demystify the subject for us lazy lushes — er, lay folk. Among them is Peter Nelson; as an instructor of Introductory Wine Tasting at the Boston Center for Adult Education (5 Comm Ave, Boston, 617.267.4430) as well as the wine director at Umbria (295 Franklin Street, Boston, 617.338.1000), he’s particularly articulate regarding the movement’s pros and cons. So articulate, in fact, that we decided to quote him at length (how we lazy lushes love eloquent interviewees).
What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic winemaking?
“Organic” means no chemicals of any kind are used. There’s no artificial or manmade input — no herbicides, no fertilizers. In this country, to be certified organic, you can’t use sulfur in the winery at any stage in the winemaking process [including during post-harvest production, when sulfites might function as a preservative rather than as an insecticide]. So you have wines made from organically grown grapes, and then you have organic wines, which are much more rare.
There are two things that separate biodynamic from organic viticulture. One is not so difficult for people to understand. It creates within a vineyard — which is essentially a monoculture — an ecosystem, so that the management of the vineyard happens in a natural way. In class I use the example of the rose bushes planted at the ends of rows of vines in Bordeaux. Sure, it looks nice, but the reason they’re there is that aphids prefer them, so theoretically they’ll leave the wines alone.
The wacky part of biodynamics has to do with the moon. We think of the moon as having a cycle that we can see on a daily basis, its phases and things like that, but what it’s passing through the constellations of the zodiac [which correspond to the four elements, which in turn are believed to correspond to plant parts]. Some days might be called fruit days; there are water days; there are earth days. On earth days you might apply compost. What may even be stranger are the various preparations that [biodynamic vintners] do, which are thought to bring elements of the earth into the vineyard. For instance, you take the horn off a cow, which has to have had at least one calf, and fill it with silica from a nearby outcropping, and you bury it for a year. [From the eventual product] you make a spray. You have to spin the water in a certain direction a certain number of times — that’s called dynamizing the water — and then you spray it on the crops. It’s very complex.