Biodynamics takes root in Britain

Sedlescombe First ReleaseAs Britain’s first biodynamic wine hit the shelves, so Laverstoke Park, owned by former racing driver Jody Scheckter, played host to the first meeting of UK organic and biodynamic wine producers back in December.

While 2500 acres of Laverstoke Park are certified biodynamic and its glasshouses are in the final stages of conversion, it was long time organic pioneer Roy Cook who was the first to release a biodynamic wine from his East Sussex-based winery, Sedlescombe.

The appropriately named First Release is a blend of Bacchus, Rivaner and Solaris from the 2010 harvest, and will be followed by further biodynamic wines: a medium white and a rosé in the spring, a red in the summer, and a sparkling wine in 2012.

A holistic approach

Biodynamics uses the teachings of German philosopher Rudolph Steiner – best known for the creative schooling system of the same name – to develop a holistic method of farming, where key processes like planting and harvesting are timed according to the lunar calendar, and great attention is placed on soil fertility.

Paul Dolan at Dark Horse RanchTo quote Paul Dolan, formerly head honcho at Fetzer and Bonterra and now with his own Mendocino Wine Company and groundbreaking Dark Horse Ranch, “The biodynamic farmer’s goal is the creation of a self-contained, life-sustaining eco-system.” To achieve this, farms need to be organic before they can begin the biodynamic conversion process, a procedure which includes special “preparations” being made and applied at specific times, in a manner similar to that practised in homeopathy, plus harvesting and planting at the “right” times. Many of the wine world’s greatest names from around the globe have embraced this system, the most famous among them being Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti, but also including Seresin in New Zealand, Colomé in Argentina, Cullen in Western Australia, and most recently, Spain’s ultra-premium Pingus.

Lunar rhythms are said to affect how wine tastes as well, with many major companies – supermarkets and generic bodies included – timing their tastings on so-called "fruit days" rather than flower, leaf and root, although this is a topic still much under discussion – see Guardian columnist Fiona Beckett's useful post on her new blog Wine Naturally

In tune with the 21st century

Roy Cook at SedlescombeWhile acknowledging that some people dismiss biodynamic practices as “being slightly loony” Roy Cook says he “sees the emphasis on soil health and fertility through the use of natural organic composts as well as tuning in to lunar rhythms is what makes these surprisingly successful methods so mysterious, exciting and 21st-century friendly.”

Leading biodynamics writer Monty Waldin says he is “thrilled” with the initiative. His recent Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011 takes a global perspective, and Monty – star of Channel 4’s Chateau Monty – also produces his own biodynamic wine, Tuscan Red (available from Adnams). 

“More English and Welsh vineyards are taking the organic and biodynamic route,” he says, citing Davenport (East Sussex), Quoins (Wiltshire), Pebblebed (Devon) and Laverstoke Park Farm (Hampshire) as examples of already organic vineyards in the process of converting.

“What is so interesting is that Britain's organic and biodynamic winemakers are working successfully both with traditional French grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are said to be tricky to grow without using chemicals, as well as with varieties like Solaris and Bacchus,” says Monty. “These are well-adapted to organic and biodynamic methods because they are especially resistant to mildew and other grape moulds.”

Monty Waldin“Global warming is supposed to make the UK a paradise for wine-growing, he continues. “But in fact warmer temperatures may actually make things tougher as far as mildew and berry rots are concerned. This is why disease-resistant varieties like Solaris and Bacchus which feature in First Release, make such sense. Biodynamic growers are said to have their heads in the clouds by critics who accuse them of being romantics and dreamers. Roy Cook and his team at Sedlescombe prove decisively that the opposite is the case. Biodynamic methods make sense environmentally but also produce potentially better quality grapes. We should all drink to that."

Biodynamic preparation at Dark Horse RanchBiodynamics incorporates a very naturalistic farming regime, eschewing weedkillers and fungicides for small applications of special preparations. This poses one of the vine grower’s major challenges. “In  the vineyard the most difficult thing was probably having to spray small quantities over a large area using existing spraying equipment designed to spray large volumes,” says Roy, who set up Sedlescombe in the late 1970s with his wife, Irma. “We resorted to buying two knapsack sprayers which meant having to walk up and down every alleyway in all our 7.5ha of vineyards with a weighty knapsack sprayer on the back! At least we got to see every single vine up close as we walked by!”

Chaptalisation rules – the EC-wide system governing the amount of sugar that can be added to the fermenting juice to counterbalance the rigours of more northerly climates – are far stricter too.

Despite the challenges posed by this labour-intensive farming system, interest continues to grow. Monty will be speaking to the next meeting of the UK organic and biodynamic wine producers in mid-May. I suspect this is just the beginning…

  • Sedlescombe First Release, £12.95, available from winerySedlescombe First Release label
  • To find out more about biodynamic wine, head to London’s leading “natural” wine bar, Artisan & Vine, for one of its entertainingly informative tastings. There’s a biodynamic tasting this Wednesday with more planned throughout the year.
  • If you’d like to know when wine will taste best, German biodynamic doyenne Maria Thun has brought out a wine lover’s version of her famous biodynamic calendar, When Wine Tastes Best, Amazon
  • For a full round-up of biodynamic wine producers, see Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011, www.lulu.com