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Biodynamic Report August 2013

Somewhere, right now, there is a marketing guru desperately trying to find a way to get a patent on the term, biodynamic. He wouldn’t be the first, either. It’s a catchphrase to die for- evocative, powerful, and dripping with insinuation. If it didn’t exist it would have to be invented, and re-invented ad infinitum to sell everything from washing powder to Viagra.

But unfortunately for copy writers the world over, the name was coined back in the 1920’s by an eccentric Austrian named Rudolph Steiner, who used it to describe a wholistic form of farming that observed, amongst other things, phases of the moon and their relevance to the scheduling of farm activity. Steiner remains a controversial figure to this day, described by one opponent of his work as a “combination if you will, of an LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum.”

Look deeper into bio-dynamics, past the connotations of the term and into the nuts and bolts of the practice and you’ll find some deeply suspicious mumbo-jumbo that wouldn’t be out of place in a script for a Harry Potter movie. For instance, did you know that in order to treat weeds in your vineyard, you need to use the urine of a sterile cow that has been exposed to the full moon? Or that to keep pests and rodents out of your vineyard you need to kill the offenders, burn them, and scatter their ashes around the site?

That’s just a start. But there is little doubt that biodynamics is gaining greater support throughout modern agriculture and viticulture, and that with regard to the latter there are some impressive wines being made from vineyards managed under biodynamic principles.

That is basically why we decided to find out for ourselves if there is a difference. Will burying cow’s horns full of compost in our vineyards make a difference to their vitality? Will adding valerian, chamomile, and nettle to our composts ( thus making it biodynamic) make them perform better than the purely organic compost that we’ve been adding back to the soil for the past five years? Of course, there is only one way to find out.

Nine months ago we began an experiment with our Pillars Vineyard, a stand-alone, single vineyard Shiraz plot of 0.85 hectares. It has no borders with any other vineyards on the estate, and is generally regarded, both by us and the larger wine industry, as a vineyard of note. In its short history the vineyard has produced two 5 Star wines in the John Platter Guide, and a wine ( Pillars 2007) that was the first South African wine to win the Tri Nations Wine Trophy against Australia and New Zealand.

We have essentially separated the vineyard into two equal parts, and are treating the eastern half organically, and the western half biodynamically. We are recording any observable differences in performance, and in soil health as the trial moves forward. The two halves will be picked and vinified separately, and any differences in ripening schedules or fruit quality examined, and recorded.

From that, we’ll draw our own conclusions as to the veracity or otherwise, of biodynamics. In the short term, we’ll be publishing at regular intervals a summary of our progress.

Report 1- Feb 2013

The growing season was a good one in general, and low disease pressure meant that minimal spraying (only organic certified products) was executed.  Both sides of the trial ( western and eastern halves) were treated the same.

Strong winds in October 2012 were problematic for the Helderberg but due to the protected location of Pillars Vineyard, no damage was caused to the canopy or fruit set. There are no observable differences in vine performance at this stage.

A significant difference was noticed in the effectiveness of the cover crop that was introduced.  The organic side was planted with clover, producing a dense “carpet” that was very successful at keeping out weeds.

The Biodynamic half was planted with Lupine. Although nitrogen is transferred into the soil, the effectiveness of this type of cover in keeping weeds at bay wasn’t particularly successful. The cover was subsequently worked into the soil in this section. Next season both halves will be planted with clover.

Vineyard is nearly at 100% veraison.  Fruit will be dropped according to vine strength and the same procedure will be applied in both organic and biodynamic halves

Next step in the vineyard management side will the introduction of our first Biodynamic compost to the western half of Pillars Vineyard after harvest.

Report 2- June 2013

Pillars Vineyard was subject to low disease pressure during growing season, with organic crop sprays proving highly effective.

Visually, both sides of the vineyard showed healthy canopies. Little to no visible difference in growth or vine health at this point.

The eastern (organic) half was picked two weeks earlier, but this had more to do with seeking a different flavor spectrum from lower sugar fruit.

The biodynamic half was picked later, and kept its flavor and acid very well even with the prolonged hang time.

Soil health similar at present, but visual signs of increased organic activity can be found  in areas where compost was applied.

The first Biodynamic compost will be applied to the BD half of Pillars vineyard this month. The organic side will be composted in two months time.