Weersing: I thought biodynamics was witchcraft

The owner of a winery that is now at the forefront of New Zealand’s growing biodynamic movement admits she thought the practice was “witchcraft” when she and her husband began applying its methods to their Pyramid Valley vineyard in North Canterbury.

Claudia Weersing at Pyramid Valley Wines in Waikari in North Canterbury

Claudia Weersing and her husband Mike bought a farm in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000, establishing a 2.2 hectare biodynamic vineyard planted with four separate blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the aim of replicating the Burgundian model.

“Mike really wanted to take the old world and bring it into the new world,” explained Claudia, speaking at the Pinot Noir NZ conference in Wellington last month. “It’s not Burgundy that we should be talking about, but that is what we are trying to do. We were trying to take an old world model and bring that to the new world to see if we could find a new voice and direction in a place that was so beautiful and show people that we can achieve this with hard work and biodynamics. What is that? I was a sceptic. I didn’t believe in it and I thought it was crazy.”

Pyramid Valley Wines produces four wines; Earth Smoke Pinot Noir, Angel Flower Pinot Noir, Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay and Field of Fire Chardonnay. Its vineyards have been managed biodynamically from the outset, a form of agriculture that is similar to organic farming, but which includes concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Calling for the application of natural preparations to treat the soil, its practices also take cues from the lunar and astral calendar, and Weersing admits that its practices took some getting used to in the beginning.

Biodynamic preparations

“I thought it was witchcraft”, she said of the experience, “but it became very real. It was an effort but I’m so glad we moved in this direction. But then I quickly learned we didn’t have an option. Pyramid Valley, even though our names are on the paper, it’s not our place.

“We are the caretakers and the guardians of the land. There was no way I was going to come here and put poison on anything that didn’t belong to me. With biodynamics it was crazy to think about cow horns, manure and astral things. How do we connect with all of these things.

“It was something I had never been exposed to. I thought I was going to go out there and prove that it doesn’t work. I was in denial. I didn’t want to do it because I was afraid of hard work. The hard work wasn’t the biodynamics. It was the hand weeding. Pulling weeds out of the ground vine by vine, 12,000 vines. But we still continue to do this 18 years on and it has gotten so much easier.”

‘Younger people are far more educated about wine and are less interested by old world producers’

While an increasing number of producers are taking up biodynamic practices in New Zealand, there is a stronger movement toward organic production, which nonetheless accounts for just 7% of the country’s vineyards now certified organic, but is growing.

“For many years there was only five organic producers in the country,” said Lars Jensen, owner of Richmond Plains in Nelson – the first certified organic producer of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. “Now there are 50, over the space of 10 years.

“I think people are just realising that if you can make good wines that are for you then why not. Increasingly people are beginning to want food and wine that’s not only made well but that doesn’t harm the environment while doing it. Here in NZ it’s an issue with waste and water soluble nitrogen, which we don’t use, so you are protecting the environment. It just makes sense.”

Marlborough Natural Winegrowers (MaNa), along with Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ), are two of the biggest member-led organisations working to promote organic and biodynamic winemaking methods.

“In the early days it was never about trying to sell our wines but to get a message out about natural wine production, and share information,” said Michelle Connor, general manager of Seresin, which is certified organic and biodynamic, and is a member of Ma Na. “It has evolved a little bit more into trying to get natural winemakers recognition in the domestic market.”

“Demand for natural wines is definitely growing . We had the first Biodynamic conference in New Zealand two years ago and will have the second this year. It’s a proportion of the market that has a higher trajectory than others. People are looking for natural solutions. The next generation of consumers are much more conscious of this and I think that’s what’s driving that kind of growth.

“A lot of these younger people are far more educated about wine at an early age and they are less interested by old world producers. They want stuff that’s not mainstream and want authentic products. There’s definitely a big movement and it’s on the up globally. Conventional growers are getting in on it too. We really support that. For us, we are not political, but we believe this is the right way to do things.”

Cowshit not bullshit: Anna Flowerday, winemaker at Te Whare Ra, with her husband Jason and team

‘Cow shit not bullshit’

Anna and Jason Flowerday manage their 11 hectare vineyard in the sub region of Renwick in Marlborough. The vineyard was first established in 1979 with the Flowerdays taking it on in 2003, managing it organically and producing wines under their personal motto: “cowshit not bullshit”.

Speaking at the Pinot Noir NZ conference on their personal experience of organic production Flowerday said they had to be patient, but had noticed a “significant difference” from 2011 onwards.

“The vines are healthier, the leaves are tougher and the skins are tougher,” she said. “The fruit is more balanced and the ferments more consistent. This we believe is the pathway to more expressive Pinot. We made a lot of mistakes. We focused on winemaker intervention. The wines we were initially producing were too ripe with too much oak. We thought that that made them impressive. “Show pony Pinots”. That showed nothing about Marlborough as a place.

“Pinot for us has taught us to be patient and humble. As the vines have aged and found a place we have seen a lot of complexity in the fruit. We have embraced that purity of our site. Pinot has allowed us to let go of our egos. The greatest difference we can make is how we farm the grapes and in the detail in the vineyard. The most common thing around Pinot is expression. We are not trying to make a great copy of Burgundy, but a great Marlborough Pinot.”

4 Responses to “Weersing: I thought biodynamics was witchcraft”

  1. Being a steward of the land is not magic. Following the precepts of Steiner is completely a emotional based decision, not at all rooted in evidence. Yes, their vineyards are doing well, such is the advantage to paying attention. No, it was not because of burying horns or following a calendar based on superstition. Imagine how much more they could have gotten done if they hadn’t wasted time on foolish things. I have had great wines, and awful wines from biodynamic vineyards, just like from all vineyards. Sustainability and good practices do not need magic, they need hard work, which is what they did, and what paid off.

  2. Matthew Vosti says:

    90% of biodynamic farming is just honest-to-goodness organic farming. Its too bad the last 10% is no more than leprechaun fairytales and unicorn dreams. No one with any scientific sense would support it….EXCEPT when your selling the word biodynamic on the bottle at a premium price. Pure capitalism…nothing more…nothing less.

  3. Ewout Van-Manen says:

    The proof is in the pudding. The flavours of biodynamic wines are outstanding. And you feel fine the morning after.
    Science changes and corrects itself every few years. Science does not yet explain everything but maybe it will one day.
    My personal scientific approach is first of all to use my own senses to test if something works. Biodynamics certainly works when it comes to flavour. The fact that I can’t understand how it works or that others don’t makes no difference. I don’t totally understand genetics, dna etc and yet I function and I know I am real. Consciousness isn’t fully understood and yet I am conscious.
    Taste a biodynamic carrot or tomato and then taste one grown by recognised scientific methods. Your sense of taste will make it clear to you which one has more flavour.

  4. rebecca says:

    We have been biodynamic farmed since 2006 and were not at that time believers in it. For those who don’t think there is any scientific basis has not done much reading of Maria Thun 30 years of experiments on biodynamic. If you have tasted good wines from biodynamic and bad wines — that is more about the wine maker and not the farming. Not different then good wiines and bad wines from conventional farming.

    One thing i know is the vines are healthier. Example in 2008 we had the worst frost in 35 years. Vineyards around us on the same slopes and frost protection lost 40% of their grapes we lost nothing. I don’t believe it is because of “luck”.

    Please research the studies done in France in regards to the effect of chemicals being used on the vineyards that get into the wines. The most important point is biodynamics is good on the environment and conventional farming is killing the earth.

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