This is the first of a series of articles that will investigate the scientific basis of biodynamic viticulture and show the harmful effects of the use of agrochemicals in the vineyard, as demonstrated by an extensive bibliography of studies and research that we will mention as references.
Great wines have always had a close relationship with the concept of terroir; their connection with a specific place and its unique and particular characteristics. In each terroir a unique balance contributes to the identity of a quality wine. At the macro level ‘terroir’ is the relationship between nature, climate, soil and human activity. At the micro level it is formed by the interaction between bacteria, fungi, nematodes, plants and animals – a balance which is always evolving and which has developed over millennia.
The purpose of natural and biodynamic viticulture must be to observe and express this multiform complexity in contrast to industrial wine production which aims to simplify the processes, anticipate the results and standardize everything that would otherwise be complex and unique.
Making grapes and wine using natural methods does not mean going back to the past. As Brian Arthur explained in his book, The nature of technology: what it is and how it evolves (2009):
To have no technology is to be not-human; technology is a very large part of what makes us human (…). But our unconscious makes a distinction between technology as enslaving our nature versus technology as extending our nature. This is the correct distinction. We would not accept technology that deadens us; nor we should always equate what is possible with what is desirable.
At Chakana, we accept this challenge and work in a natural but technologically sophisticated way with the conviction that only through the acceptance of how nature works one can make great wines of ‘terroir’.
From the green revolution, (which Jonathan Nossiter calls “black revolution” because of its effects on the environment), and in the last fifty years, we have witnessed a tremendous boost in the efficiency and standardization of world agricultural production, dominated by the use of agrochemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. In the world of wine this new attitude led to the varietal revolution; a movement which began in the USA, in particular in California, in the Seventies. The simplification and commoditization of the wine trade was promoted, establishing the idea that the grape variety is more important than the place of origin of a wine and thus favoring the big industrial brands. But the varietal paradigm hides another deeper truth: a wine produced with industrial methods and chemical viticulture is a practice that is antithetical to the concept of ‘terroir’.
A multitude of scientific studies analyzed over several years the harmful effects of industrial viticulture. For example, it has been demonstrated that glyphosate – the most widely used systemic herbicide – besides being absorbed by the roots of the vine and ending up in the wine we drink, also eliminates micro-organisms beneficial to the vineyard and causes nutritional deficiencies and greater exposure to infection and diseases.
It has also has been proven that the massive use of chemical fertilizers (soluble nitrogen) has a dangerous effect on plants, destroying the natural balance which is so important for plant health and increasing their vulnerability to disease and pests. So, to fight these harmful effects, industrial viticulture is forced to use chemical pesticides that kill dangerous bugs together all those bacteria, fungi, nematodes that live in the soil and create a living and complex ecosystem.
The biodynamic challenge is to recover that subtle balance. The idea is to rebuild the system of natural elements necessary to obtain high quality grapes and wines and which guarantees biodiversity and conservation of the natural landscape.
According to an important study, 95% to 99% of the nitrogen that is in the soil and that is important to grape nutrition is found in the organic components that a complex network of micro-organisms process – that is if we do not kill them with chemical products. They then transform it into a soluble matter that can be absorbed by the roots. Soil is a self-maintaining ecosystem. The role of biodynamic viticulture, with its preparations, the planting of cover crops and the focus on increasing biodiversity in the vineyard, is to build the best possible habitat for the entire population of micro-organisms that live there in order to let them prosper for the benefit of the final product.
The black revolution of industrial agriculture led to abundant and standardized production, but, as Brian Arthur wrote
We are human beings and we need more than economic comfort. We need challenge, we need meaning, we need purpose, and we need alignment with nature. Where technology separates us from these, it brings a type of death. But where it enhances these, it affirms life. It affirms our humanness.
This is what biodynamic farming does.