Vineyard Voodoo

By Joanne Gibson

“Haven’t you experienced the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, or walked into a room and immediately felt that something isn’t right?” asks Johnathan Grieve, proprietor of AVONDALE in Paarl. Of course I have. I’ve often experienced déjà vu and I can’t count how often I’ve thought of an estranged friend, only for him or her to phone or email me shortly afterwards. So I’m not freaked out when he and Wolfgang von Loepper, MD of WEDDERWILL ESTATE near Somerset West, say: “There’s a world of energy and information out there that we can’t see.” 

But I also understand why many people dismiss biodynamic farming outright when they hear it was conceived by an Austrian occultist who supposedly consulted spirits to come up with his eight lectures on agriculture in 1925. Sure, the very same Rudolf Steiner also developed the Waldorf education system and Weleda health products. But throw in his belief in cosmic and lunar influences, and it’s hard to imagine why there would be one or two

modern winemakers following his teachings, let alone almost 500 producers proudly certified as biodynamic. And countless others who practice it without advertising the fact—including many of the world’s best. (For the names of famous overseas estates producing biodynamically, go to
Award-winning REYNEKE WINES may be South Africa’s only certified producer so far, but other winemakers incorporating biodynamic practices include Swartland superstars EBEN SADIE, ADI BADENHORST and CHRIS & ANDREA MULLINEUX. SPIER in Stellenbosch seems to be going from strength to strength since farming some vineyard blocks biodynamically. As does WATERKLOOF, the Schapenberg property owned by UK fine wine merchant Paul Boutinot who once swore he’d never label his wines as biodynamic (“We don’t want nutters buying our wines; people should buy them because they’re good”) but is now seeking certification. And then there’s Avondale, combining biodynamics with 21st century science in its BioLOGIC approach, while WEDDERWILL even claims to take Steiner’s approach “a step further” (go to for more). 
“Going biodynamic is an interesting journey,” says Waterkloof winemaker Werner Engelbrecht who farmed conventionally until just a few years ago. “There’s a lot to learn so you have to take it slow.”

Some Basics

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Biodynamics can simply be defined as a more holistic form of organic agriculture, with farmers striving to turn their properties into closed, self-nourishing systems. Instead of buying in organic fertilisers or pelleted manure, for example, they keep their own animals and have impressive recycling and composting programmes in place. 
So at Wedderwill, for example, you’ll meet cows named Daisy, Mathilda, Fleckie, Bubbles, Hurricane, Rainbow, Sunshine and Cloud 9. At Waterkloof the team includes Percheron horses Lady G, Dawn, Sampson and Louis. “It’s not just because it’s a photo opportunity,” laughs Werner. “Since farming all 55 hectares biodynamically, we were using our tractor more and more, and we’d rather return to an older way of wine production.”
Not only do tractors burn fuel; they also compact the soil on which they drive—and soil health is key. “Just put your hand in the soil, just smell the soil, and you can immediately tell whether a vineyard is being farmed biodynamically,” says Clive Torr of TOPAZ WINES, who also has two biodynamic vineyards in Burgundy. 
Where chemically farmed land is almost cement-like, biodynamic vineyards are typified by loose clods interspersed with fine roots and earthworms. And these red wrigglers aren’t the smallest life form commanding respect: even weeds are valued—for what they reveal about soil deficiencies—as are the fungi and bacteria that break down plant and animal material. These turn soil into the nutrient-rich humus essential for optimal plant growth. 

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Now it starts getting interesting...To boost this “living soil”, biodynamic farmers use nine homeopathic preparations, of which Prep 500 is the best known (cow manure buried in a cow horn over winter) while the others include ingredients like silica, yarrow, camomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian and equisetum. These are mixed with water in a vigorous or “vortex-like” way known as dynamisation. Johan Reyneke has spoken to microbiologists and sangomas alike to find out how they work:  “You can view the preps in a modern, scientific way—the specific healing properties of the plants, the fact that composting is an aerobic process so cow horns work better than plastic or glass which just make the manure rot—or you can tackle it all from a more spiritual, pre-scientific viewpoint.”

Steiner certainly used ancient European folklore to develop his system, and Johan says he has found fascinating parallels with the old wives’ tales or boererate of Africa: “For example, the old European way we stir or dynamise our preps is based on how water flows in nature—a river meanders, water spirals down a plughole. Likewise, sangomas only collect water for their muti from the bends and eddies in a river. Never from a tap.”
Whether the preps can be explained scientifically or not, they do seem to have an effect: “If we make two identical composts side by side, the one incorporating biodynamic elements is always more full of life,” says Wedderwill’s Wolfgang, a business economics graduate who insists he embraces modern farming technology. “But never forget ancient wisdom,” he adds.

Likewise, Avondale’s Johnathan is a firm believer in modern science insofar as it has a positive influence on a living system. “My take is if Rudolf Steiner were here today, he would be making use of some of the technology available.”

Not easy to explain scientifically is “technology” like Avondale’s Field Broadcaster—essentially a white plastic pipe erected at the convergence of ley lines running through the farm. A “power spot” dowsed by Johnathan himself. Where biodynamic preps are traditionally added to compost heaps or sprayed in the vineyards (in admittedly miniscule amounts), the device invented by American-born biodynamic guru Hugh Lovel apparently “transmits” them consistently and across a larger area. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it works. And absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is energy out there.” 

Cosmic and Lunar Influences

Talk about cow horns and cosmic energy is what makes most scientifically minded people’s eyes glaze over. But given that a key tenet of biodynamics is interconnectedness, right down to the relationship of weeds with pests, it’s hardly surprising practitioners take the earth’s place in the universe into account.
In particular, they believe the gravitational forces exerted by the moon and the sun and the rotation of the earth don’t only affect the ocean. “We have spring tides when the moon is full and exerting its strongest pull on the water in the sea,” says Johnathan. “Likewise the full moon also pulls on the sap in leaves and roots, so this is when vines have their biggest uptake of nutrients.”

Similarly, Johan never racks the sediment off the bottom of his wine barrels at full moon: “There are definitely more particles in suspension then, so the wine has to be filtered, stripping it of some flavour.”

It’s hard to argue with winemakers speaking from hands-on experience, but what to make of those who plant, prune, harvest, rack, bottle and even taste wines according to Maria Thun’s lunar-astronomical calendar. This calendar divides the month into “fruit”, “flower”, “leaf” or “root” days. It seems esoteric in the extreme, but even UK supermarkets Tesco and Marks & Spencer now hold their trade tastings on fruit or flower days rather than leaf and root days.

“We definitely believe in it,” says Wolfgang, while Johan claims following the calendar seems to give his wines a better technical analysis. In fact for biodynamics as a whole, he says: “The theory is infinitely complex but the results are measurable.”

In fact the results are splendid, winning 5-star ratings on home soil to 90-plus points in the US. “Our wines have character and luminescence, and a soul true to [where they grew] that cannot be found anywhere else,” believes Johnathan. “When soil comes alive again, it becomes very expressive in the wine,” agrees Johan.

Burgundian vignerons—of whom an estimated 60 per cent practise biodynamics—would describe this expression of place as terroir and attribute it to their almost zero-intervention approach. Which makes me wonder whether the real magic of Steiner’s preps and elaborate rituals is that they do nothing at all—other than help farmers to be perfectly in tune with their land.

As Johan concludes: “Biodynamic farmers should never have a holier-than-thou attitude or get caught up in all the hoo-ha. You can use all the preps and your vineyards will still be dead if you don’t get the farming basics right.”

Famous French producers using biodynamics include

Chapoutier and Beaucastel in the Rhone, Huet and La Coulée de Serrant in the Loire, and Leflaive, Leroy and Romanée Conti in Burgundy. Top New World practitioners include Beringer and Bonnie Doon in California, Cullen and Henschke in Australia, Seresin and Felton Road in New Zealand, Emiliana and Casa Lapostolle in Chile.

From European Preparations to African Solutions

“For me, biodynamics is not a hard-and-fast approach,” says Wedderwill MD Wolfgang von Loepper. He points out that the biodynamic calendar only came about 30 years after Rudolf Steiner’s death. For this reason, his “preps” include a combination of ocean water, unpasteurised cow’s milk, zeolite (dolomitic rock dust) and fermented plant extracts made from beefwood, seaweed and even vine shoots rich in resveratrol. “This is the compound doctors refer to when they say drinking red wine is good for the heart,” he explains. “It has anti-fungal properties and has proved so successful that a team from Stellenbosch University is running scientific tests on the project.” 

At Waterkloof, meanwhile, they use suurvygie, the indigenous sour fig succulent, for disease control. “We always claim South Africa has the biggest diversity in terms of plants, so instead of using those northern hemisphere plants in our preps, I believe we should find indigenous plants with equivalent attributes,” says Werner Engelbrecht.

Johan Reyneke reveals that biodynamic practitioners in Australia and New Zealand are already propagating native plants from seed to use in their preps. “Make no mistake, we’re also looking into it. And what about using kudu horns instead of cow horns, with all those spirals?” he laughs. “But it’s worth bearing in mind that the vines themselves are not indigenous. So do you use products that are suitable for the country or products that are suitable for the plants?”

Avondale’s Johnathan Grieve agrees: “If you feel very strongly opposed to using alien plants, then maybe you shouldn’t be growing grapes!”