The Malfeasance of Terroir and Biodynamics
Updated: Jun 26, 2021
The quest for balance is the guiding principle for fine wine as it is for life. Yet balance when achieved, is temporary, a funambulism associated with a circus act more than business practice. Two popular concepts of the wine world, terroir and biodynamics, have made their way onto our plate for balance, but I'm hard pressed to find their mise en place.
Terroir is an enchanting concept. It offers a holistic view of the natural environment, where "sense of place" is granted mythical proportions. Each vineyard has a unique terroir which is reflected in its wines to some degree regardless of viticulture and winemaking. Old world vineyard classifications are based on the concept while new world producers are deemed to be learning.
Fred Swan has an intriguing take on terroir, where wine is a photograph, capturing a vineyard at a moment in time from a specific perspective. He accords human factors a prism on terroir, a way to experience a variety of expressions from different people over multiple vintages. I agree that humans are fundamental to the concept of terroir as we are a part of nature and intentional winemaking is not a natural phenomenon.
Yet I wonder if terroir isn't more akin to the classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire. Modern science considers these as solid, liquid, gas, and plasma states of matter rather than as fundamental elements but lends credence to the view that soil/topography, hydrology, climate, and sunlight play a vital role in viniculture. If water and mineral supply to the vine and fruit and leaf exposure to sunlight can be guided by man as well as by nature then isn't terroir just another way of saying elements of the physical world interact with each other? Of course, a few producers in some special places do indeed create wine with near magical qualities consistently and terroir is a concise way to give credit where it's due. Yes, understanding how physical things interact with each other improves our ability to appreciate our world but this is not unique to wine. If we want to consider the concept of terroir as more than a way to market wine, we should be willing to apply it to any human endeavor.
Thinking of the concept of terroir more broadly however exposes its limitations. It doesn't help us do things better because it is not precise. When individual production areas are measured, mapped, and data analytics are applied to improve their productivity, precision viticulture may choose to use the term terroir. Terroir can bring the wonders of nature more clearly in focus but we can do the same by simply taking the time to observe nature and think clearly.
Biodynamics, a form of sustainable viticulture on a cosmic level developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, has had impressive results but little scientific basis. Demeter sets standards for biodynamic agriculture while Biodyvin sets standards for biodynamic wine. Katia Nussbaum has argued that we should frame it as a "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" world view. A growing number of winemakers have turned to biodynamic viticulture but perhaps painstaking care of their vineyards and low-intervention winemaking contribute more to their excellent wine than natural preparations and celestial harvest dates. Earth's moon's gravity and light certainly have a major effect on our planet, including its plants, but why do we think we understand its interactions with the vine well enough to influence our pruning and harvest decisions?
Let me be clear that I am a fan of the "natural" wine movement if not of all wines purportedly made that way. The closer we come to producing fine wine from grapes with nothing added or removed, the more I would be pleased. I agree that living soils, an emphasis on prevention rather than treatment, polyculture and animal husbandry are vital to growing great grapes sustainably. I agree that living wine fermented using indigenous yeasts and meticulous low-intervention techniques can result in unique fine wines. However, given that many large wine producers target bulk wine consumers, a balance between commercial winemaking and natural winemaking seems prudent. Both can be sustainable.
Terroir and biodynamics are useful concepts that have played an important role in winemaking. More importantly these concepts have led to valuable research that informs us that neither are deserving unchallenged veneration. The malfeasance of terroir and biodynamics is of proponents giving more credence to their concepts than they deserve.