What is Biodynamic Wine, by Nicolas Joly, reviewed by Monty Waldin for World of Fine Wine (published 3 March 2014)

SubjectWhat is Biodynamic Wine, by Nicolas Joly (translated from French by Matthew Barton), 2007 (Clerview).

Reviewer – Monty Waldin (1,000 words)

At the beginning of this book Nicolas Joly describes himself as a passionate defender of the French concept of appellation d’origine contrôlée(AOC). He contends (p20) that ‘only an agriculture that takes full account of the laws of nature and its underlying forces…can help generate the authentic diversity of expression implicit in each AOC.’

To Joly, vines are Dionysian plants, that is to say plants whose deep root systems show them to have a ‘powerful prediliction for earthly forces of gravity’ (p16). However modern winegrowing has negated these ‘underlying forces’ because weedkillers and fertilizers have damaged soils and perverted the way vine roots can feed from the soil.

No one can fault Joly’s passion, but the way he vilifies the agro-chemical industry and blames it rather than wine producers for abandoning the weed plough in favour of weedkiller is both grating, inaccurate and prone to a double-standard. Joly says agrochemical companies have ‘acutely orchestrated’ (p23) their market and ‘trapped’ wine producers despite wine producers having had a free market choice between plough and weedkillers. Yet Joly then lauds the free-market concept when it means wine drinkers are increasingly using their purchasing power to buy biodynamically rather than synthetically grown wines.

His assertion that the first weedkiller salesmen (in the 1950s) hid from winegrowers the effect their products would have on the mychorrizal fungi which allow vine (and other plant) roots to express the AOC or terroirconcept is simply untrue. In the 1950s when the first weedkillers appeared soil biology was little understood.

This tendency to let emotion cloud the facts is a constant theme as Joly deals only in absolutes: teachers in agricultural schools and state vetinaries are variously described as ‘intellectually arid’, ‘torturers’, and as ‘kow-towing’ (p84) to agri-business. Joly cites not a single piece of scientific research to back up his arguments either for biodynamics or against agro-chemicals. We hear only of ‘certain scientists’ (p82), ‘a big international funding programme’ (p83), ‘a promising project’ (p84) but not which ones. His descriptions of important biodynamic concepts such as the four states of matter and lunar cycles are clumsy and better described by in English by authors such as Andrew Lorand, Alan York, or Hugh Courtenay or in French by François Bouchet.

The implication is that because Joly really understands biodynamics his wine (the Savennières AOC Clos de la Coulée de Serrant) must necessarily gain. He forgets that plenty of winegrowers get much better results from biodynamics than he does while admitting to not understanding all its intricacies. The fact that it takes Joly until halfway through the book to deal with the nuts and bolts of biodynamics is surprising (p59), and his pompousness (‘I trust that it is becoming clear that it is not enough just to practise a biodynamic method in order to obtain a good wine but we also need to try to fully understand how it works’) ill-advised.

The book is actively and inexcusably negligent (for a book with such a title) with regard to how biodynamic works in a wine context.

One of the nine so-called ‘preparations’ biodynamic growers must use in order to be considered biodynamic, the fresh tea or fermented liquid manure made from the common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) herb is completely ignored. Biodynamicists says this preparation pushes fungal diseases off vines back to the soil level where they belong. 

To rail against the ‘commercially wily’ chemical industry and ‘powerful’ but of course never once named ‘lobby groups’ for producing systemic or sap-penetrating anti-fungal sprays which Joly says denature vines (‘poisoned sap’, p27) and thus the concept of AOC but without at least mentioning this biodynamic alternative (p87) is crass.

On several occasions Joly says he has ‘no time’ to go into details, which is fine in a time-limited public lecture but not for a book of this type.

He could quite simply have dealt with the question posed by his book’s title – ‘What is biodynamic wine’ – by answering ‘a wine made from grapes farmed using the nine biodynamic preparations.’

Joly deals with ‘The Cellar’ (Chapter Three) before he deals with the vineyard (Chapter Four, ‘Biodynamics in Viticulture’) which aptly illustrates this book’s over-riding confusion. Space for a one-page reference table of the nine biodynamic preparations – and their variants – for easy reference should have been found. Joly’s description (p72) of one such variant, an all-in-one spray containing six (or seven – we don’t know) of the remaining eight biodynamic preparations is utterly confusing because the difference between what he calls ‘dung’ and what he calls ‘manure’ is unclear. We don’t know if the spray is Alex Podolinsky’s prepared horn manure (made from biodynamic horn manure or horn dung as Joly insists on calling it and the six biodynamic compost preparations) or Maria Thun’s barrel compost spray (made from fresh manure and the six biodynamic compost preparations) instead.

Because Joly’s writing style is opaque it blurs our understanding of just why these ‘forces’ that biodynamicists recognise are so important (p87) for our crops, thus our food and thus for our spirits.

Saying ‘biodynamics responds at the energy level to an alarming [ie man-made] imbalance’ is the kind of gobbledygook that rightly gives biodynamics the reputation for ‘sorcery’ that Joly is so lamentably trying to correct.

Rudolf Steiner (founder of biodynamics) said what Joly is trying to say much better in his Agriculture Course: Nutrition as it is to-day does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life.

Sadly Joly – with the single exception of a piece of poetry by Goethe (p89) is unwilling to provide the kind of useful direct quotes that might have enlightened our understanding of what he is trying to say.

The final irony is that the ‘Charter of Quality’ (appendix 2, p109) which Joly devised and which he says permit[s] an appellation to express itself fully’ is a ‘system of evaluation…[which] does not speak of ‘biodynamic’ or ‘non-biodynamic’. 

This runs counter to the apparent thrust of the book that the appellation concept works better when biodynamic methods are used. Joly claims all the members his ‘Return to Terroir’ Association (appendix one, p107) are third-party certified organic or biodynamic.

From personal experience I know of that winegrowers involved in this group who have no certification (organic or biodynamic), who do not use the biodynamic preparations, and who are content to use the kind of products – weedkillers and winery additives – that Joly says run counter to the appellation concept.

These producers appear to use the ‘Return to Terroir’ association as a means of jumping on the biodynamic bandwagon. It is quite reasonable to believe Joly’s book is doing the same.