BD or not BD?

But that should not be the question.  It is all to easy to hang the biodynamic tag on a producer or a bottle of wine, and get into discussions about whether adoption of biodynamic winemaking has lead to improvements, or whether biodynamic wines are better than non-biodynamic wines.  It is one of those subjects that has recently hit the consciousness of wine drinkers, and looks like it is here to stay for a while, fuelled it seems by a steady stream of producers converting to biodynamics, and journalists keen to report on the success stories.  There are of course also dissenting voices, often with mumblings of mumbo-jumbo.  And a common standpoint for wine drinkers is that many biodynamic wines are very good, and if biodynamics makes good wine they are all for it.

But no one really seems to be too concerned about exactly what that biodynamic tag means.  Neither is it always clear what criteria they are using for deciding which they prefer.

I hope it is obvious that there is a huge spectrum of non-biodynamic viticultural practice, ranging from the environmental destruction advocated by agrochemical companies in the 1960s, to organic farming.  Less clear maybe is that there is also considerable variation in biodynamic practice.  I have myself heard producers say they are biodynamic, but don’t take any notice of the “astrological nonsense”, or that they do not bother with all the biodynamic preparations. And pretty much all of them seem to take the view that if a procedure urgently needs performing they are not going to hang around for the next leaf day or whatever.  Even Demeter certified producers have a lot of discretion. For example, the Demeter Farm Standard does not require tasks to be performed according to a lunar calendar, and allows mechanical stirring of biodynamic preparations.  On the other hand I have also noticed that some biodynamic winemakers are happy to add to the cannon of biodynamic thought by taking existing theory and extending it to new areas, deciding for example that wine must be matured in wood because a vital energy cannot penetrate steel or concrete.  Another example of a recently invented idea is that the position of the moon affects how wines tastes.

How do you judge the quality of the production method anyway?  Do we need a panel of judges who taste the wines blind and allocate points out of a hundred?  While there are procedural objections you could raise to that approach, I think it is a lot better than having a recently proselytised producer enthusiastically pushing a glass into the hands of a journalist. And what do we compare the wine to?  To other wines of about the same price?  To wines from the same producer and age, but of earlier vintages?  That is always tricky due to vintage variation, and at what age do we make the comparison. Or perhaps it is not the wine that is important.  There is also the quality of the vineyard, and the environment in general.  That is probably even harder to judge, at least if you are comparing with a regime that does not involve chucking chemicals about willy-nilly.  In the biodynamic field trials I can find results for, the criterion for success is a large yield of vegetables – hardly confidence inspiring from a wine point of view!

In truth there are a myriad of different decisions and interventions that are taken in the production of wine, starting with the selection of vineyard, and ending in the release of bottles to the market.  It is those interventions, in conjunction with the weather that nature throws at it, that determines the quality of the wine – not a broad-brush philosophy. My approach would be to judge the interventions one at a time, or in small groups.  We can then design an experiment and start getting somewhere.  An easy one might be to have someone stir one batch of biodynamic preparation in the Steiner-approved manner and another batch that is for example “shaken not stirred”, and to then judge the results by an agreed criterion.

Unfortunately, it is at this point that my incredulity kicks in and I have to ask myself why even bother with the experiment.  Is there any realistic chance of there being a difference between shaking and stirring?  And the same applies to any number of other possible biodynamical interventions you could imagine.  Equally unfortunately, I think I can also hear the voice of biodynamical theorists saying that I have missed the whole point: that biodynamics is about a holistic approach that cannot be judged by science.  Not what most would call conventional science at least.  Steiner based his ideas on Goethean science that emphasises the importance of human consciousness interacting with the world.  So conventional science, by stressing the importance of blind and double-blind trials, seems to run into direct conflict with Goethean science at a very fundamental level.

More on biodynamics later as I find it a fascinating subject.  But for now, I would urge you not to pay too much attention to whether your wine has a biodynamic label, literal or otherwise.  If you really care, you need to be asking questions about the method of production in a lot more detail.

When wine tastes best

For me the answer is… root days!

And isn’t that what you might expect if you subscribe to a rather literal interpretation of the importance of terroir? Or could it just be that the whole idea is a load of bollocks? I am of course talking about the biodynamic theory that lunar cycles affect the taste of wine, fruit days being the most auspicious.

Here’s what I did to test the hypothesis. I analysed all 568 of my tasting note scores from last year. The scores range from 1 to 6, corresponding to the number of stars in my rating system. At the time of tasting I was unaware of the type of day. I used this 2009 biodynamic calendar for the analysis. I presume it is reasonably accurate. I did check a few days against another calendar, and they were in agreement. I have no idea at what time the type of day changes on any particular date, but as I could not find this information and very few people seem to care, I decided to ignore the issue. Most  wines would have been tasted at some time in the evening. If you want to reanalyse my raw data feel free. In the meantime, here is my summary of scores awarded on each type of day .

Mean Std Dev Number tasted
Fruit 3.02 1.209 94
Leaf 3.28 1.057 102
Root 3.30 1.020 184
Flower 3.09 1.125 188

So, if anything, I think wines taste best on root days, and worst on fruit days. But actually there are barely any significant differences at all. A one-way ANOVA test gives a p-value of 0.091 level. Or to put it another way, one would expect to get such a large spread in the means about one time in ten purely from random variation.

As far as I am concerned I got pretty much the results I expected, and I don’t feel any need to research this issue further.  To be frank I think I have already given this nonsense a lot more time than it deserves. However, if you have any more evidence to bring to light I’d be interested in seeing it.  But please – no more anecdotes about tasting wines when you were aware what sort of day it was.  And no half-baked argument along the lines of “if Tesco believe in it, there must be something in it”.  Hard data only.

Or perhaps you could explain from a theoretical point of view why this agricultural calendar has any relevance at all for wine tasting.  Why should fruit days be any better than, say, Fridays – which is when I think wine tastes best.