Why Want to Do away with Biodynamics?

by Jacky Rigaux

I have known Jacky Rigaux for close to twenty years and have done nothing but learn from the man during this time. His knowledge of Burgundy’s wine history and of its climats is non-pareil, for example. At TasteSpirit, we have been collaborating with Jacky for a very long time, and today we formally begin his participation in the life and activities of the TerroirSense Wine Review. His first contribution to the magazine is this brilliant and highly erudite piece on biodynamics: you may not agree with everything that is enunciated within it, but you will greatly enjoy reading what he has to say and you will learn while doing so. And that is precisely one of the cultural missions of the TerroirSense Wine Review, a wine and food magazine similar to many others and yet so very different, as this brilliant piece will confirm. Cheers!

Ian D’Agata

Editor-in-Chief, TerroirSense Wine Review

Reflections born of reading Frédéric Mugnier’s text: « Pour en finir avec la biodynamie »

by Jacky Rigaux

Biodynamic practices, which came to the fore in the 1980s, have largely helped to reactivate life in the soil, which Claude Bourguignon warned a group of young winegrowers in 1989 had disappeared with the widespread use of herbicides, pesticides, acaricides and other fungicides… These practices have played a large part in what we have called, in retrospect, an “awakening of the terroirs”, hence the awakening of wines that are once again capable of delivering an original tactile, gustatory and olfactory message. Which is the message of, for example, Burgundy’s great “climat” wines, classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015. Just about everywhere in the world, wherever terroir-based viticulture is possible, Burgundy’s ‘climats’ are inspiring a strong return to wines of place, wines of winegrowing meccas. To produce such wines, practices that respect the natural balance of the soil are required. Biodynamic practices may not be the only way to promote ‘clean’ viticulture that respects biodiversity, but they have made a comeback and continue to do so, attracting more and more winegrowers keen to perpetuate terroir-based viticulture, a viticulture that produces wines that deliver an original message of place.

Biodynamics, a return to practices that respect nature and origin

So why WANT to do away with biodynamics? Why not, quite simply, open up other avenues, without discrediting biodynamics as a mere esoteric practice, an obscurantist practice from another age? Biodynamics has made a major contribution to ushering in a new age in agriculture, one in which agrology is challenging the dominant form of agronomy, which is totally subservient to an agri-food industry that supplies synthetic chemicals and increasingly views the soil as a mere support for plants.

Initiated in the nineteenth century, industrialization affected agriculture and viticulture alike, leading to the widespread production of wines that were increasingly the product of taste, and less and less natural. Saved by great scientists such as André Julien, Jules Lavalle, Antoine Lavoisier, Simon Morelot and Jules Guyot, it was thought that the original fine wines of Burgundy, born in the wine-growing heartlands, would be guaranteed forever with the introduction of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) law in 1935. But the second half of the twentieth century, won over by the logic of productivism, combined with that of the production-consumption society, forgot the philosophy of terroir, and turned wine into a product that had to comply with the laws of the market. The transformation in 2009 of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), a body that guarantees not the quality of a product but its origin, into the Institut National des Origines et de la Qualité, is a step in this direction, abandoning the founding principles of winegrowing based exclusively on origin.

The introduction of biodynamic practices in viticulture is part of a resistance to a viticulture that has embraced the logic of productivism, resulting in wines that are increasingly shaped by oenological techniques and products, imposing typicality instead of originality. Rudolph Steiner was one of the first intellectuals to warn of the dangers of an agriculture resolutely focused on chemical practices capable of eradicating plants, insects, rodents, fungi, etc., deemed harmful and disruptive to rational modern farming practices. He was undoubtedly the first to consider that agriculture should be based exclusively on practices that respect life processes and vital forces. Every living thing has its place in an ecosystem that respects biodiversity. There are no “weeds”, for example.

In the 1990s, Pierre Morey, one of the pioneers of biodynamic viticulture in Burgundy, strongly emphasized that biodynamic viticulture has made a major contribution to the return to practices that respect the life of the soil. “The Rencontres Henri Jayer were a landmark event. Firstly, it was Jayer himself who initiated the debate on biodynamic viticulture. When it was first introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, biodynamic farming was laughed at. It was seen as witchcraft. It was noticeable that the winegrowers present at the Rencontres who didn’t work with organic or biodynamic methods seemed rather embarrassed when they talked about the problems of professional conscience in our profession. This reminds us that we need committed winegrowers, like Henri Jayer of his generation, who never succumbed to the siren calls of production viticulture“. Today, in all the great vineyards of France and elsewhere, winegrowers committed to biodynamic viticulture are the guarantors of a form of viticulture that respects biodiversity and is as close as possible to the natural balance of the great wine-growing areas.

With biodynamics, a plea for life
For winegrowers committed to biodynamic viticulture, the question of life in the soil is crucial, so threatened was it with extinction by the chemical practices introduced after the last world war. Alongside French pioneers François Bouchet and Pierre Masson, these winegrowers have called on soil microbiology specialists such as Claude Bourguignon and Dominique Massenot, and bio-geologists such as Yves Hérody. These consultants are real scientists, often with PhDs in Natural Sciences. And it is indeed the question of the origin of life that is being asked again, when life is threatened by the excesses of chemical industries and agriculture.

Biology versus chemistry? Things are more complex. We have to start again from what Claude Bernard said: living things only exist through exchanges with the environment. However, it was Louis Pasteur’s very Cartesian biochemical vision that prevailed in an increasingly technological world, seeking out and listing the constituent elements of living organisms, including those deemed harmful or dangerous that should be eradicated. In contrast, Claude Bernard argued that the environment is much more important than the elements that make it up, and that everything is a question of balance. And these days, we have to admit that we know little more than 20% of these elements! There are even bacteria that we are still unable to characterize today. Where does life come from? This is still an open question. Current research into the pre-biotic springs of Yellowstone, in particular, is fascinating and opens up the question of the relationship between minerals and biology.

At a time in history when ecological awareness has become widespread, isn’t it time to return to the teachings of Claude Bernard, and remember that Rudolph Steiner, like Claude Bernard, was largely inspired by Goethe, who describes in the Metamorphosis of Plants how the seed awakens to life, driven by a vital force, in a movement of diversification and differentiation (epigenesis)? Terrestrial life is linked to planetary life. Life cannot be reduced to physical-chemical laws.
Rudolph Steiner’s vision of life as matter animated by a vital force is reflected in biodynamic practices. Everything is interconnected: plants live only through their interactions with the cosmos and the earth. The biodynamic winegrower’s job is to activate and energize these interactions. Biodynamic viticulture can thus be seen as a gateway to a viticulture that reminds us, loud and clear, that to lay claim to a terroir, there must be life in the soil. Without this preserved and revitalized life, which is being perverted by the synthetic nutritional supplements produced by modern technology, the soil becomes a mere support for the plant, a potential harbinger of out-of-soil viticulture just about everywhere on the planet, and why not in the deserts! By destroying flora and fauna deemed harmful in viticulture and agriculture, we disturb the natural balance of earth, air, water and fire. Biodynamics activates the multiplicity of elements and forces that contribute to the proper functioning of life on earth. In this way, wine-growing “hot spots” can once again function naturally.

Steiner, a reader of Kant
It was Immanuel Kant, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, who set out to show that alongside what he called the “determining judgement”, there exists another intellectual activity which he called the “reflecting judgement”. It was he who first drew our attention to the fact that, while decisive judgement underpins the development of our representations of nature, it is reflective judgement that is at work in our experience of art and, more generally, of life.

The movement to instrumentalize the world, which began in the seventeenth century with the arrival of mathematical physics at the forefront of the intellectual stage, took hold in the nineteenth century. A way of thinking that favoured the ‘quantification’ of things, and its procession of elements to be identified and understood, took hold. This led to the development of an agronomy that was increasingly chemical, and less and less biological, capable of eradicating all harmful species, even if it meant overlooking the ecological disasters that could ensue, as we can see today. Edgar Morin has shown that knowledge has been organized around the principle of simplification, which prescribes reducing the complex to the simple and/or reducing an essentially multidimensional reality to one of its dimensions deemed fundamental. There is an incoercible tendency here to mutilate life. The operability of rationality, in each of the fields it has been able to isolate, is indisputable, but with too little concern for the collateral damage that its implementation can cause to other dimensions of reality.

Alongside this vast intellectual movement of decisive judgement, which generated considerable development in physics and mathematics, then chemistry, and the technologies that flowed from them, Kant highlighted the fact that we also have the faculty to make reflective judgements. Through them we distinguish what is beautiful, even though we are unable to define beauty conceptually. Through them we recognize what is alive, without being able to say conceptually what life is. So we have to admit that there is a mental faculty with the sense and function of discerning the organizing processes in action, without knowing exactly where they come from or where they end up.

Steiner, like Goethe, read Kant, with the result that he became convinced that nascent biology was undoubtedly closer to art than to physics-mathematics or chemistry! In the tension between Louis Pasteur, the biochemist, and Claude Bernard, the biologist, he leaned towards the latter. The biodynamic movement he initiated should therefore be understood as an affirmation of the multi-dimensionality of reality, a respect for the plurality of  ‘natures’ with which we have to come to terms. To excel, once you understand that there are ‘natures’, is to strive to display ‘virtuosity’ around them, above and beyond any claim to technical mastery.

The forces at work in nature
The legitimate ambition of biodynamic winegrowers and farmers is to mobilize, in an open and controlled way, for the benefit of Nature, forces that we do not create, but which we recognize are at work there. The reorganizing impact of ‘preparations’, herbal teas and composts on the natural functioning of plants is clear and visible. Anne-Claude Leflaive and Pierre Morey conducted a comparison of the three viticulture methods – conventional-chemical, organic and biodynamic – on the same plot of land, the Clavoillon climate, in Puligny-Montrachet. It showed that biological activity was by far the highest in biodynamic viticulture, that the roots went the deepest, and that the various natural fauna (epigeous and endogenous) were the most numerous and balanced. What’s more, the wines produced using biodynamic methods were purer, more mineral, salivary, sapid, etc., and had a higher energy level when tasted. After ten years of biodynamic viticulture, Bruno Clavelier, a winegrower in Vosne-Romanée, has noticed a homogenization of his soils, with a lumpy quality that favours the aeration needed for healthy vines.

Even if it escapes overly Cartesian minds, by activating the telluric forces of verticality with preparation 500 and the cosmic forces of verticality with preparation 501, we are restoring the verticality of the vine, the original liana, which has been forced into horizontality by pruning. Be that as it may, as Olivier Humbrecht, agricultural engineer, oenologist, Master of Wine and biodynamic winemaker puts it so well: “Insofar as no one can explain what created life on earth without using religion, I think that biodynamic viticulture has the right to exist simply on the basis of the results obtained“. The aforementioned Bruno Clavelier, who is a biodynamic winegrower with a degree in oenology and viticulture, is clear about his choice: “It’s like a musical instrument that’s better tuned to play the score. It sounds truer, more precise, with a less dull, more lively, sharper vibration… The minerality of the wine is transcended. It has a mineral solidity comparable to an axis, which gives the wine its personality and temperament!”.

Ted Lemon, a pragmatic leader of biodynamic agriculture in California, reminds us that “…Biodynamic methods go hand in hand with good physical farming practices. Many biodynamic practitioners lose sight of this essential aspect of biodynamics and fall into a vague reverie that is just as fruitless as industrial methods. Industrial agriculture, for its part, despite its repeated attempts, has never been able to counter the importance of these traditional measures. On the contrary, the constant degradation of the landscape and farmland bears witness to the spectacular failure of industrial farming methods”. Alain Mouex (Château Mazeyres, Pomerol) points out that “… Biodynamic viticulture is the use of experimental tools that allow us to follow natural phenomena in order to extract the most convincing results in terms of disease resistance, support for growth processes and quality“.

Biodynamics and epistemology
Biodynamic practices stem from a fertile heuristic, initiated at the dawn of the 19th century by Kant (1724-1804) with his recognition of reflective judgement. Thus, with the dialectic of organ and function, thanks to his discovery of the glycogenic function of the liver, Claude Bernard (1813-1878) initiated biology. His Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865) was not, however, epistemologically sound, because he wanted to establish biology as firmly as physics and chemistry in the concert of sciences of the time. Goethe, not having had the same concern for scientific recognition, remained closer to poetry. As for Steiner, in a context where esotericism was flourishing, he inscribed biodynamics in a discourse that was disturbing in its time as it is today. With an epistemological approach initiated by Poincaré, who reminded us that what counts in science is that the models are convenient, it is probable that biodynamics will find its place more easily in the contemporary scientific community.

Indeed, it is increasingly accepted today that the bodies that chemists manipulate can play tricks on them. They are ‘pure’ only in terms of operations that are, on the whole, rather crude in terms of reality, however refined they may be in terms of what we knew how to do in the past. The physicist, for his part, as he refines his approach, discovers that his field is disrupted by more and more parasites, more and more subtle, from which he cannot claim to be radically protected. Not to mention the very approximate nature of the models used by neurologists, who are the first to be aware of the immense margins of uncertainty! So it’s always a question of regulating the handling of reality, not of strict, adequate knowledge.


Jacky Rigaux

World-renowned wine writer, French wine critic, researcher of Université de Bourgogne, Jacky Rigaux is one of the most active advocate of the importance of terroir in winemaking. He is also a psychologist and approaches wine as an expression of a historical and cultural context. To underline the importance of the relation between wine and culture, he organizes many summits in France between winemakers and experts: the most important is the annual “Les Rencontres Henri Jayer – Vignerons, Gourmets et Terroirs du Monde”, gathering about 30 vignerons devotee to the philosophy of terroir. He is author of many publications, including “Le Terroir et le Vigneron, Terre en Vues”, “Grands cru de Bourgogne”, “Le réveil des terroirs – Défense et illustration des ‘climats’ de Bourgogne”, “La dégustation géo-sensorielle”.

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Jacky Rigaux