Natural, orange, and amphora wines – busting the myths

I would have hoped by now all these issues concerning natural, orange and amphora wines were clear, but quite regularly I come across someone online who has failed to grasp the facts. Normally that person is someone who doesn’t like these wines – it is just that they are a bit hazy about what they don’t like, and why. Yesterday, Someone Who Should Know Better apparently conflated natural and orange wines in his disdain for stuff he didn’t like, and that provided the final push to me to try and put a few things straight.

Natural wines are often criticised for not being clearly defined. OK, In a way it is a fair criticism, but the broad concept of natural wine is generally understood regardless. Also, even if natural wines were defined and certified, as Demeter does for biodynamics wines for example, would that really mean much to consumers? How many know, even in outline, what Demeter’s rules are? I did read them several years ago, and for me there were quite a lot of surprises. Anyway, for the record, the broad concept for natural wine is: the viticulture is organic or biodynamic, though not necessary certified as such; fermentation takes place without inoculation of bought-in yeasts; minimal or no use of sulphur; minimal or no fining and filtration; no other additives. People argue about some of the details, but that is basically it.

Natural wines do not all taste weird or faulty. It is true that some might, and such wines may be controversial – depending on the extent of the weirdness, they may be regarded as more or less attractive by different people. But some natural wines taste completely clean, horses remaining unfrightened. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about specific wines, but why write off a whole category of wine just because someone has called them natural?

Amphora wines are simply made, partly or entirely, in an amphora. And that is that, apart from to mention that the term amphora is usually incorrectly used used to cover all types of clay jar (but that is pedantry, not myth-busting). So amphora wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are certainly not necessarily made in amphora. Neither is an amphora wine necessarily oxidised. Of course, like any other wine, it may be oxidised, but it is perfectly possible to seal the neck of an amphora to exclude oxygen, and the porosity of clay will not inevitably result in oxidation. Oh, and while on the subject, amphora wines are not necessarily orange either. The amphora is just the vessel, like a barrel or stainless steel tank, and wines of all colours can be made in any vessel.

Orange wines get their colour from the skin-maceration of white grapes, by which I mean those usually used for white wine – their colour will actually be green, golden or very slightly pink. Badly oxidised white wines are also orange, but orange wines as a category are not oxidised. In fact the tannins in orange wines tend to protect against oxidation, and consequently they often taste very fresh and vigorous. By now I hope it is hardly worth saying, but orange wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are not necessarily orange. That Someone Who Should Know Better – the one that prompted this post – was wrong.

How important is a rich soil ecology?

Intuitively for most people, a vineyard with grass and wild flowers between the vines is regarded as a Good Thing. It looks pretty, and is indicative of a healthy ecology that has not been destroyed by pesticides. A vineyard soil teeming with life can be an end in itself, and an important benefit of sustainable viticulture. But however good for the environment it may be, is a rich soil ecology critical for good wine?

By way of example, here are images of vineyards that have a lot in common, and yet are totally different. They are both on islands in Southern Europe, and both have volcanic soils. The first one is a vine on the island of Santorini, where the soil has been created by man tilling tuff (a rock of compacted volcanic ash) to a depth of half a metre or so. I only show a small area of the vineyard in the image, but it is typical of the island in that there is little or no vegetation, and the soil has very little organic matter. Lack of water, not over-use of pesticides, is the reason for this barren soil. The other image is from the Northern slopes of Mount Etna. Here there is more water, and nature has had more time to work after the most recent lava flow in the area. So there on Etna, the organic farming methods employed in the vineyard result in a much richer biodiversity – which would also be expected in most parts of Europe.

As for the wines from both these places, I think most people would agree that they are good if not excellent. I do not know where the grapes from that particular Santorini vine would finish up, but the soil is typical of the island and Santorini wine is generally of high quality, and the vineyard on the right is owned by Tenuta delle Terre Nere, one of the most highly regarded Etna producers.

So from these examples can we conclude that organic matter in vineyard soil is not necessarily so important? And that good wine can result from soils both rich and meagre? More contentiously, perhaps even soils poor from the over-use of pesticides can result in good wine? Or could, for example, Santorini wine be vastly improved by applying compost, most of the ingredients for which would need to be imported? These are not totally rhetorical questions – I would genuinely like to know, and I suspect the answers are not as clear-cut as some would have us believe.

Biodynamic Wine – book review

bd wine monty waldinjpgThis is a review of Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine, published by Infinite Ideas on 4th July this year, and with an RRP of £30.00 (not to be confused with another book by the same author that has a very similar title, Biodynamic Wines, published in 2004). I read a review copy. It is a paperback, 234 x 156mm, and has 222 pages. The paper is a little coarse and the photographs are black and white, but the design is smart with clear chapter and section headings, and it feels good to hold.

After the introduction and a short chapter on the origins of biodynamics, we go straight into what effectively defines biodynamic agricultural practice: the nine biodynamic “preparations”. In what is by far the longest chapter, the preparation are described in detail, including instructions on how and when to make them, and with references to the original sources for the snippets of advice. This is then followed by shorter chapters on other subjects at the core of biodynamic agricultural: how to make compost incorporating the preparations, and how to dynamise liquids. Then we move onto the more optional parts of biodynamics: shortcut methods of composting, plant teas, decoctions, liquid manures, and oils. Finally in the main biodynamic-practice part of the book, there is a discussion of how the moon, planets and stars determine the best time for performing specific tasks. Then there is a discussion of the various types of biodynamic regulations and organic certification schemes, and (in appendices) a bit about Maria Thun’s advice on when best to taste wine, and how to learn more about biodynamics.

Do note that there are no profiles of particular biodynamic producers and their wines. I did not particularly miss that aspect, but other readers might find it disappointing as typical specialist wine books do tend to include that sort of thing. Details of what some producers really believe about biodynamics, and their actual biodynamic practices, might have been good, but I can easily live without a superficial round-up of producers giving their marketing spin on the subject.

Cards on the table here, with no mincing about the bush – I think biodynamics is complete tosh, but I have discussed the topic several times on my blog now, and see no reason to go over old ground to explain why. It is however a subject that I still find fascinating, and one that I am keen to continue to learn about. With that in mind I found Biodynamic Wine to be a very well-structured and clear exposition of the subject, and would certainly recommend it at that level. What I already knew about biodynamics was confirmed, and I also learned a lot from the book. The vast majority of it is unscientific nonsense that I would not want to endorse, but is as far as I know the book contains an accurate description of what people believe. I got the impression that Monty Waldin does not set out to proselytise, but rather set out the stall of biodynamics and let the reader decide, which he did well. I suspect that sceptics will come away from the book feeling even more sceptical, while believers will be further enthused and enthralled.

I have very few criticisms of the book, and all of them are rather superficial. For example, there were one or two sentences that could have done with some editing, and some turns of phrase were rather odd and lead me to believe that the author was a lot more familiar with viticulture than winemaking. And the last time I checked, contrary to what Monty wrote, I was convinced I found that the EU definition of organic wine did in fact have slightly tighter restrictions on wine production than non-organic wine. (If anyone is really interested I can redo my analysis of the regulations, but otherwise, even I am not feeling sufficiently motivated to double-check that sort of geeky detail.)

In summary, if you want to learn about biodynamic wine I strongly recommend this book. It takes a lot of effort to go directly to Steiner’s lectures and the work of his immediate followers, and no amount of reading magazine articles on the subject can in my opinion give a good feel for the subject.

The early history of Biodynamics

I recently stumbled across this article: John Paull, Biodynamic agriculture: The journey from Koberwitz to the world, 1924-1938, Journal of Organic Systems, 6(1), 2011.  I cannot say how accurate it is, but it certainly seems to give a good overview of the early history of Biodynamics and I thought wine geeks might be interested.

Before reading the article, I did not realise how keen Steiner was to have his ideas tested experimentally.  I was aware there were early experiments that seemed to use crop size as the measure of success, but I wonder if those were the experiments encouraged by Steiner or if he didn’t rather have different ideas about what the outcomes should be.

Another thing I found interesting were the various early requests to restrict the spreading of the knowledge of Biodynamics.  It is something I have noticed even with modern practitioners – that the knowledge tends to be passed on from person to person rather than be published freely.  Books are of course now available, but there is surprisingly little freely available on the interweb.  I imagined that Biodynamics would be something that was openly shared evangelistically, but apparently not.  The culture is more of passing on hard-earned precious knowledge for monetary gain.  Maybe that is not such a bad thing, but I am not sure.  If you knew something so important, wouldn’t you want to let everyone know?

Afros in Vinho Verde

This visit was organised as part of the 2012 Port Explorer’s Tour I introduced in an earlier post.  If you are already wondering what Afros has to do with Port, congratulations for spotting that!  Really the only relationship is that Vinho Verde, the region of Quinto do Casal do Paço where Afros wine are produced, is geographically very close to Porto.  This was the “and now for something completely different” moment of the tour, and one I was looking forward to.

We started off by surveying Casal do Paço’s vineyards.  The weather was not great.  It was cold and we did a lot of shower-dodging, but the soft light, with occasional rainbow, was very photogenic.

Vasco Croft, the producer and our generous host, was obviously very proud of the biodynamic viticulture employed at Casal do Paço and we were shown the specially constructed wooden hut, away from power lines, where the biodynamics preps were made. Initially, all the preparations were made from scratch here and hand-stirred, but as the business grew they now need to buy in some raw materials and employ an electric mixer.

And just outside the hut was a fountain “designed by an English scientist”, which pre-dynamises the water used for the preps, by way of a series of vortices.  At this point I am tempted to launch into one of my anti-biodynamic rants.  I am not going to, but I will say that I don’t believe a word about anything that biodynamics layers on top of organic agriculture.

Anyway, enough of all this biodynamics.  We headed slowly back to the main building for a tasting and lunch. En route we passed the mobile bottling line that was in operation at the time, but saw nothing of the winemaking itself. Inside and warmed-up, we started with a standing-up tasting, and then sat down to lunch with the wines and opened a few more bottles. And what a fantastic, long and relaxed lunch it was. My description here does not do it justice, but the first course was based around some wonderfully meaty prawns, the mains was wild boar with a honey coating, which was followed by a chocolate and olive oil mousse-type dessert. It was certainly one of my favourite meals of the trip – but then I did have a lot of favourite meals!

Here is Vasco at the table while we were waiting for lunch to be served.

Finally, the wines. Some of these wine used the “Aphros” spelling on the label – this is used to avoid the hair-style connotations that “Afros” might have in the USA.  Note that all the wines were from the Lima sub-region of Vinho Verde, and Loureiro and Vinhão are the white and red grape varieties used for these wine.  Where available, I have given approximate UK retail prices.

Afros, Ten, Vinho Verde, Loureiro, Branco, 2011, 12%
Watery green. Intense, fresh, floral and lemon. Medium high acidity. Soft and creamy. Excellent length. Drink now ****

Afros, Daphne, Vinho Verde, Loureiro, Branco, 2011, 12%
This has some skin maceration. Watery green. Intense, fresh, floral and lemon. Medium high acidity. Reminded me a little of red lips sweets. Excellent length ****

Afros, Vinho Verde, Loureiro, Branco, 2009, 12%, £13.00  
Watery green. Intense.  Petrol, lemon, peach. Not overpowering.  Medium high acid. Soft on the palate. Excellent length ****

Afros, Espumante de Vinho Verde, Loureiro, Reserva, 2008, 12%
Pale green. Intense.  Fresh, yeasty.  Medium acidity.  Soft and light. Excellent length *****

Afros, Vinho Verde, Vinhão, Tinto, 2009, 12.5%, £13.00
Opaque purple. Intense sweet dark fruit. Medium high acid. Low tannin. Slightly frizzante?  Drink now ****

Afros, Silenus, Vinho Verde, Vinhão,  2009, 13.5%
Aged in barriques.  Opaque purple.  Crispy bacon. Medium high acid. Low tannin. Drink now ****

Afros, Espumante de Vinho Verde, Vinhão, Super Reserva, 12%
NV, but this was from 2005 and 2008. Intense purple ruby.  Intense funky dark fruit.  Medium acid. Dry. Drink now ***

I am afraid some of the details of the wines got a bit hazy towards the end, but I think I have them right.  We were also offered a fortified red at the end of the meal, but if I remember correctly this was not commercially available.

Overall, I was very impressed by these wines.  What I remember best after several weeks were the white wines.  These were not recognisable as the cheap and cheerful Vinho Verde that I remember from the UK.  But neither were they like the intense and searing Vihno Verde Alvarinho variants that I enjoyed a few times in Porto on this trip.  The memory that lingers is one of soft, subtle and nuanced wine – a bit like the image of the vineyards at the top of this post.

Natural Wines from Les Caves de Pyrène

Less than a week after wine lovers daarn saaf were enjoying RAW and The Natural Wine Fair, a few of us oop north were doing our bit to better understand what natural wines have to offer.  My methodology was to ask Les Caves de Pyrène to suggest a mixed case for a tasting, leaving them to define the term how they wanted and send me a representative sample.  These wines were not review samples, but paid for in the normal way – in this case, effectively by the local tasting group I belong to.  In addition to the wines tasted and described below, the Occhipinti 2011 Bianco and Rosso were also suggested and purchased.

We kicked off with five whites. The empties are shown above on our 100% herbicide-free lawn.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Imprompta, Mattia Barzaghi, 2010, 12.5%, £10.73
Pale straw. Intense, fresh, floral. Yoghurt. Medium high acid. Dry. Clean and refreshing. Excellent length. Drink now. Very pleasant. A solid ***

Val du Loire, Sauvignon, Hervé Villmade, 2011, 13.0%, £9.65
Pale gold. Intense.  Ashtray – in a positive way! Fresh. Hoppy aromatics. Medium acid. Dry. Gooseberry. Subtle. Excellent length. Incense-like woodiness. Drink now ****

Vin de Savoie, Les Alpes, Gringet, Dominique Belluard, 2010, 12.0%, £14.63
Medium pale gold. Intense and full. Apple. Banana. Medium acid. Dry. Excellent length. Caramel. Drink now ****

Montlouis sur Loire, Minéral+, Un Saumon dans la Loire, 2011, 13.0%, £13.67
Medium pale gold. Over-ripe apple – oxidised. Medium acid. Flat, and lacking fruit. Drink now **

Chablis, À Chablis, Le Vendangeur Masqué, 2010, 13.0%; £14.87
Medium pale gold. Vaguely citrus. Medium high acid. Dry. Apply too. Fresh and tingly. Drink now ***

Then we moved onto the reds. These were also double-decanted not long before the tasting to take the wine off all sediment I was expecting from these possibly unfined and unfiltered wines. It turned out there was very little sediment.

Beaujolais, Yvon Métras, 2010, 12.0%, £14.45
Medium pale ruby. Intense fresh red fruit. Juicy fruit. Pinot Noir nose.  Medium+ acid. Excellent length. Low tannin. Drink now ****

Saumur Champigny, Domaine des Roches Neuves, 2011, 13.0%, £11.03
Intense purple ruby. Intense fresh blackberry. Medium high acidity. Low tannin. Fresh and juicy. Excellent length. Drink now ***

Côtes du Rhône, Les Romanins, Domaine Ferme Saint-Martin, 2010, 13.5%, £9.41
Medium purple ruby. Baby nappies and cheese – again in a positive way! Some red fruit too. Medium high acid. Rather nice. Elegant. Subtle. Excellent length. Drink now ****

Coteaux de Langedoc, Montpeyroux, Domaine d’Aupilhac, 2009, 14.0%, £13.43
Intense purple. Intense dark fruit. Oak. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now. A rather conventional wine ***

Cannonau di Sardegne, Mamuthone, Guiseppe Sedilesu, 2009, 14.5%, £15.47
Intense purple ruby. Intense raisiny. Slightly oxidised.  Medium+ acid. Rather nice and elegant. Medium high tannin. Refreshing. Fantastic length. Good to drink now but will probably improve over the next years.  Maybe I was over generous, but as this wine made the biggest impression on me, it gets *****

Polishing off the remains the following evening confirmed to me that the Loire Sauvignon and the Vin de Savoie were my favourite whites.  And the fact that all the reds apart from the Côtes du Rhône disappeared on the night of the tasting shows which wines were the most popular amongst the whole group!

As far as I can make out, all of these wines were made from organic or biodynamic grapes, fermented by ambient yeasts, and with minimal sulphur additions. All labels bore the “contains sulphites” text, but that could required for the low levels of sulphur that result solely from the fermentation process.

I did not experience any of the natural wine horror stories occasionally mentioned by others – everything we tasted was recognisably wine, and definitely not slightly fizzy cloudy cider.  The only faulty bottle was the Mountlouis, and to be fair there were those at the table who enjoyed that too.  The Côtes du Rhône was a tad bretty, but for me it was at a level that added to rather than diminished the overall experience.  Oh, and there was one wine (can’t remember which one) that had obviously undergone some secondary fermentation in the bottle as it let off a fizz when I opened it, and was initially a bit spritzy, but by the time we got round to tasting it all signs of pettilance had gone.  Really, I don’t think the absence of faults was too surprising in that I suspect the winemaking was not that different from the vast majority of what I would consider to be good wines.

Generally speaking, the wines seemed to go down well at the tasting.  One comment I got was that the wines were “gentle” – no hard edges.  I certainly thought they were enjoyable, but I was not sure about the idea propounded by some that natural wines allow the terroir (or the grape variety, depending on who you speak to) to shine through.  I was getting a lot of flavours that I am feeling were probably due mainly to the natural fermenation.  If we had tasted blind, I would have struggled more than usual to identify varieties and regions.  That certainly has a positive side – if I had to trade typicity for interest, I would go for interest most of the time.  But even I sometimes like to know what to expect when I open a bottle.

The Riedel Biodynamic glass

I have been sent a prototype wine glass for the Riedel Biodynamic range to be launched later this year.  I can only presume that I was selected for this honour because I have blogged so much on biodynamic wine, but if they had actually read my posts they would have realised that I am not one exactly biodynamics’ biggest cheer-leader.

You might have imagined that Riedel would have aimed to produce different shaped glasses in their biodynamic range – fruit shaped for fruit days, root shaped for root days etc.  But no. Riedel are sticking to the tried-and-tested, and in fact used the classic Vinum Chianti shape for their prototype.  You might have noticed that Tesco no longer only hold press tastings on fruit days, this one for example was on July 5th 2011, a root day, and it is rumoured that they are already using these special biodynamic glasses, masquerading as Vinum Chiantis, to compensate.

Riedel Biodynamic (left) and Vinum Chianti (right)

The special thing about the new range is that Riedel are adding components of standard biodynamic preparations to the molten glass.  For the prototype they are eschewing the more exotic red deer bladder and cattle peritoneum, and limiting themselves to the ingredients of preparation 500: cow horn and cow manure.  But don’t let the manure put you off – they only use homeopathic concentrations, and the high temperature of the molten glass will sterilise the manure.  According to Riedel, the difficult bit was designing equipment that would stir the molten glass sufficiently fast to create a vortex.

If, as Riedel say, they use a 100g of cow horn and manure in every 10 tonnes of molten glass, it is easy to do a back-of-the-fag-packet calculation to show that there are only 1 or 2 cow molecules in each wine glass, and as likely as not they will finish up in the stem or foot of the glass rather than the bowl.  We cynics might take that as proof that they could not possibly have any effect, but apparently that is to miss the point.  Even if there are no cow molecules in any particular glass, the additions will continue to energise the whole batch of glass, and focus astral forces on the wine contained within it, which naturally improves the flavour.

Ever the scientist, I put the prototype glass to the test.  I poured the same wine into the Biodynamic Riedel and an ordinary Vinum Chianti, and had my wife hand the glasses to me without saying which was which.  Of course, the wine tasted identical in both glasses.  Quelle surprise!

But if you are a believer, and want a chance to win my prototype Riedel Biodynamic , add a comment to this post starting with “I would love to own a Riedel Biodynamic glass because…”   Only entries received before 12 noon today will be accepted.  Unfortunately, after my trial I don’t know which glass is which, so I would have to send out the Vinum Chianti as well.  Please return the non-biodynamic glass when you have figured out which one it is.

Links on biodynamics and wine-ratings

Just wanted to share a few links I came across recently on the UK Wine Forum.  They are not new articles, but I found them interesting.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will probably find them interesting too, as they cover topics I tend to bang on about, and they support my arguments and views.  But if you are not a regular reader, you could find them as irritating as my blog 🙂

Firstly there is a set of three articles about biodynamics, all of which take a pretty sceptical view.  The first is On Fertile Ground? Objections to Biodynamics, which is a 2006 article from The World of Fine Wine, written by  Jesús Barquín and Douglass Smith.  It is a well-argued and balanced piece, very much in the ponderous style of the magazine.  The second is by the same authors: Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle.  Here they take their gloves off, and get more stuck into a critique of Steiner’s ideas.  Neither does Voodoo on the Vine, by Joe Eskenazi, pull any punches.  These articles, particularly the last two, lay themselves open to the criticism that they are using ridicule as an argument.  But I do not think that is fair – the wacky ideas they mention are not at all taken out of context – dip anywhere into Steiner’s work and wackyness is pretty much all you will find.  I particularly liked the concluding paragraphs of Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle, in which the harm of biodymanics is discussed.  The authors write: Apart from being a waste of time money and effort,

The problem resides in the extension of disbelief in empirical technique, and in substituting for it beliefs in unscientific practices like astrology and homeopathy, as well as voodoo-style rituals and even “geo-acupuncture.”  We must confront this problem, not just as wine lovers and wine writers, but also as citizens who do not wish to live in, nor present to our children, a society in which pseudoscience and esoteric fantasies are considered reality.

The final article I’d like to draw your attention to is A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion, by Leonard Mlodinow.  The strong message I am getting here is not to take anyone’s opinions on a wine too seriously, however expert that person is supposed to be, and even if that person is oneself.  But that does not mean that having a views on a wine is a snobbish affectation, which is perhaps a conclusion many would draw.  Let’s just accept that people’s views on wine differ, and are subject to all sorts of influences.

Organic roots

This is intended as a short follow-up post to The roots of biodynamics, where I started off by saying that wine drinkers tend to think of biodynamic wine production as organic with bells and whistles.

That may be true, but it is very much putting the cart before the horse. Steiner’s lectures in 1924 pre-date the modern organic movement, which emerged in England in the 1940s. Thus, it seems to me that the more practical ideas of the organic movement became part of the cannon of biodynamic practitioners as a later addition, rather than organic farming being the solid foundation for the magic sprinkle of biodynamics.

I don’t really want to go too much into the history and philosophy of organic farming, other than to make the point that it stemmed from the study of traditional agriculture practice, and thus is very different to the spiritual theories of Steiner.  Sir Albert Howard, known as the father of organic farming, is illustrated above.  The organic movement certainly has a strong ideological aspect to it, but essentially it is the product of rational thought, and compared to biodynamics is much more amenable to scientific enquiry.

Just one final thought.  I have recently come across a number of sources that claim that the ideal of the farm as a self-sufficient organism is one of the ways in which biodynamics is superior to mere organic farming.  Don’t believe it!  How many wine producers have access to cattle and red deer on their own land, for the various biodynamic preparations?  Some vineyards do not even have cattle in the same region, as the landscape is more suited to sheep and goats.  Besides, the concept of the farm as a self-sufficient organism is very much owned by the organic movement – ever wondered why it is called organic?

The roots of biodynamics

Wine drinkers tend to think of biodynamic wine production as organic with bells and whistles: the bells of  biodynamic preparations, and the whistles of a lunar calendar.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by Demeter’s requirements for biodynamic certification, at least in the sense that they are simlar those for organic agriculture but more demanding.   But that is not enough for me. Who came up with all the ideas behind biodynamics?  I knew Rudolph Steiner and Maria Thun had a lot to do with it, but what were their respective roles, and who else was involved?  And when, why and how?

I was initially driven by the urge to examine the evidence that biodynamic agriculture works, especially in the context of wine.  But very quickly I realised that in order to establish how successful it was, I needed to understand what was being claimed on its behalf.  And I also wanted to know the extent to which the claims were based on theory, and how the theory was derived.  This was not an easy task, and even after as fair amount of work spread out over a few months I feel I still have much to learn, but these are my preliminary conclusions.  Feel free to put me right!

While Steiner did not himself use the term biodynamic, or biological dynamic agriculture, its roots are clearly tracable to a series of lectures he gave in Koberwitz in 1924.  These lectures, now known as The Agriculture Course, were given to a small group of people who had consulted Steiner for advice on how to tackle agricultural problems they perceived as becoming increasingly common.  The Agricultural Course is not easy going, and I do not pretend to have read it all myself, still less understood it.  But I do suggest you at least take a look at a few lectures to get a feel for the content.  Steiner’s advice did not come from his agricultural or viticultural expertise, because frankly he had none.  Rather it stemmed from Anthroposophy, his spritualistic philosophy.  The theoretical validity of his ideas stand or fall solely on this intellectual framework.  He introduced what were to become known as biodynamic preparations, and similar remedies for weed and pest control, which supposedly worked because they helped focus various mystical forces.   See Lecture 4 for example, where he discusses the preparations now known as 500 and 501.  Note however that he was not concerned about the chemical content of the preparations fulfilling nutritional deficits in the soil.  Neither was he concerned about the gravitational force exerted by the moon, which some modern day apologists for biodynamics seem to focus on.  No, the atrological calendar was important to Steiner because various heavenly bodies transmitted astral forces differently at various times.

Steiner died soon after The Agriculture Course, but his ideas were put into practice and tested by some of the attendees of his lectures, and by later followers  These tests were not what we would probably regard as scientific, but at least the people involved were real agriculturalists, and they were making empirical observations.  In fact one of the strengths of biodynamic practice is that it emphasises the need to get out into the fields, experiment, and observe.  A summary of some of this research is given here (click on Plant Rhythms on the left hand side).  You can see that this is where Maria Thun comes into the picture with the research on fruit, flower, leaf and root days that gave rise to her calendar  Again, I recommend that you poke about a bit, on the Maria Thun page for example, to get a feel for what these people were doing.

One thing I thought was worthy of note is that only plants grown from seed were used in this early research, and the criterion for success was the size of yield.  Surely these empirical results, even if they are otherwise trustworthy, could not possibly have anything to do with wine viticulture.   Vines are propagated through cuttings and high quality products are normally associated with low yields.  But Steiner probably would not have been concerned about this issue; his criteria for success were on a more spiritual plane than crop yields or a good glass of wine, and he doubtless saw no reason why his methods were not equally applicable to viticulture.  And here I think we have the first evidence emerging of diverging views of those in the biodynamics community.  Some regard themselves as Anthroposophists and fully buy in to Steiner’s ideas; others see themselves as less spiritual, and practise biodynamics primarily because they think it works.

But the practical group is obviously dependent on the spiritual theorising, and not just that of Steiner.  At some point, someone somewhere must have build on Steiner’s ideas to decide how best biodynamics should be applied to viticulture.  And then winegrowers with no real interest in Anthroposophy must have been convinced enough by the proposed new procedures to try them and evaluate the results.  One of the things I find most difficult to take seriously in biodynamics is the way new proclamations seem to be plucked out of mid-air, and stated as fact even if they are based on the flimsiest of evidence.  But it is definitely the case that the biodynamic cannon is being added to constantly, largely by word of mouth, from practitioner to practitioner and not least from consultant to practitioner.

So that is my attempt at a potted summary of the roots and theoretical basis of biodynamics.  Except that I have said very little about organic agriculture.  That illustrates one of the points that I hoped to bring out.  The origins of biodynamics are largely independent of those of organic farming, but the two are now so intertwined you cannot really be biodynamic without also being organic.