There’s nothing quite as odd as other people’s beliefs – our own aways being eminently defensible, usually with a treasured store of good stories. A lack of scientific respectability (and even guffaws of scientific contempt) seems no barrier to conviction – in fact, for some people anti-science seems to imply a laudable degree of “spirituality” in itself. So astrology and homeopathy thrive; nearly half the adults in the world’s most technologically triumphant country believe that we humans were suddenly and divinely created within the last ten millennia. There are more etceteras than it’s bearable to think of.
It would be surprising if the world of wine were immune to mumbo-jumbo – particularly amongst ambitious vine-growers horrified by the damage done to the earth by chemical-based agriculture and monocultures. The proper response is, of course, to move as far towards organic production as possible, and more grape-farmers here and internationally are doing just that.
For those feeling some New Age urging to go “beyond” organic agriculture there is biodynamics, an agglomeration of such things as dynamised homeopathic preparations, a lunar calendar, and burying a manure-filled cow’s horn on the autumnal equinox. The horn, says Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian occult philosopher whose 1924 lectures inaugurated the whole nonsensical business, ‘will ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life”.
Many practioners of biodynamics are a trifle embarrassed by some of the most ludicrous ideas, or are at least willing to laugh a little – and I can instance the clever, thoughtful man who owns Reyneke, as yet the only South African wine farm to be fully accredited as biodynamic (accreditation is shockingly expensive – regulating spirituality does not diminish the regulator’s lust for profit).
Johan Reyneke’s passion is for his land, not for theories. He showed me a framed quotation from the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold suggesting that conservation can only thrive when “Abrahamic” concepts of overlordship are jettisoned. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a commodity to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” says Leopold. There is also, by the way, every sign that Reyneke treats his workers with some decency and respect too – part of an unusual interpretation of a holistic approach that’s to be welcomed.
The pic above: Cows, vines and view at Reyneke farm
More and more South African winegrowers are starting to tinker with aspects of biodynamic farming. Some do more than tinker. The large Waterkloof estate has embraced it entirely and should soon be fully accredited; Avondale takes it very seriously, and a few other too.
An interesting experiment has been inaugurated at Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch. The single small vineyard which provides the grapes for their much-lauded The Pillars shiraz has been divided. One half will be farmed according to organic practices, the other with the addition of biodynamic preparations – careful monitoring will determine whether any benefits result. There has not been nearly enough of this sort of comparison internationally, and if the experiment is rigorously controlled and scrupulously fair, the results could indeed prove interesting – for devotees and sceptics alike.
Even if you deplore and regret the quasi-mystic nonsense involved in biodynamics, the good part is that it is a sign (along with organic production) that Cape viticulture is being taken increasingly seriously as the only basis on which the wine industry can really take forward the revolution developing since 1994.
Reyneke wines, incidentally, are all very good: balanced, fresh and fine. The reds included, but I particularly like the whites – the lightly oaked Sauvignon Blanc is amongst the best examples of that variety treated seriously, the Reserve White is suble and lovely, and the unshowy Chenin Blanc is a triumphant alternative to the over-ripe, over-oaked and sweetish blockbusters that are a little too common these days.
There’s also a pair of less-expensive wines in the Organic range – a white and a shiraz-based red – that are made from bought-in grapes, so they are not biodynamic.
Despite my doubts, if I were transformed into a vine, I’d be delighted to live out my vegetable existence on Reyneke farm – the views of the Stellenbosch mountains are wonderful, and no care could be more tender than Johan’s. But, while happy, I suspect I might be a trifle bemused.
First published in the Mail & Guardian, 19-25 October, 2012