Biodynamics at Alois Lageder: voodoo or future?
Mention Rudolf Steiner’s name in a group of scientists and be prepared for a load of criticism. The Austrian born intellectual linked the spiritual world with science and was active in many fields, such as medicine, architecture, education and agriculture. His thoughts and ideas were quite provoking at the beginning of the 20th century, and even in today’s world they are viewed by some as absolute nonsense. For every research paper in favour of Steiner’s thinking, there are multiple scientific papers that prove the opposite. If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist?
Looking at his widespread applied theories today, you could say he was ahead of his time. His biodynamic approach to agriculture has been implemented all over the world, also in viticulture. Romanée-Conti, Nicolas Joly, LeRoy, Alvaro Palacios, Weinbach, Ostertag, Zind-Humbrecht, Pontet-Canet, Felton Road, Artadi, Grgich. All world renowned domaines that work biodynamically according to Steiner’s philosophy.
So, there must be something that works for them. But what? Together with a group of Dutch winetraders, I spent a day with Clemens Lageder at another iconic domaine that works biodynamically, Alois Lageder in Italy’s Alto Adige to find out more. (by the way, the accent is on the 2nd syllable: LaGEder)
Steiner favoured a holistic approach to agriculture, based upon one world in which everything is connected. Basically, the goal of farming is to work in close harmony with nature’s rhythms and cycles, taking planets in general and the moon in particular into account when it is time to sow or harvest. Mind you, this planet based working of the land is not new, but was already common practise in ancient Egypt.
If Steiner was the godfather of biodynamics, then surely Maria Thun from Germany could be considered godmother. She studied and experimented big time with the connection of cosmic forces and plant growth. Her biodynamic sowing and planting calendar is indispensable for anyone farming biodynamically.
All biodynamic farmers work organically, but besides the apparent but unmeasurable cosmic influence on plants and soil, what sets biodynamic farming apart from organic farming are the so-called preparations. This is the point when many listeners during a course or guided tasting usually disconnect, as it all becomes a bit too esoteric for them.
The idea is that plants, in this case vines, should be strong to be able to resist diseases instead of aiding them with chemicals. It’s like a child that gets antibiotics every so often when ill. It destroys more than just the bad bacteria and there is a risk that the child becomes immune to it.
To help vines get stronger, there are 9 preparations, mysteriously named 500-508. Apparently, the code names date back to World War II, when biodynamic farming was not allowed, but nobody really knows for sure. Preparations 502-508 are based on plant material: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettles, oak bark, dandelion, valerian and horsetail. However, the most important ones are 500 and 501. Preparation 500 is based on cow manure and 501 on quartz silica.
How do you make 500? Get hold of manure from organic cows, put it in cow horns and bury it in the ground for 6-9 months during winter. According to Steiner, the cow horns are important energy vessels and believe it or not, the dug up horns in spring magically smell of fresh soil instead of stinking manure. The all important compost or humus is created.
Next, throw the compost in a bucket of water (60 grammes should be enough for 1 hectare) and stir the water for an hour, first clockwise to create a vortex, then anti-clockwise to create chaos. This is called dynamising, and makes sure the water memorises the preparation substance and transfers this info to soil. This humus mix is then sprayed on the vineyard ground.
The same procedure for silica preparation 501, where only 2 grammes per hectare is enough and the humus is sprayed in the air when the vines have leaves, supposedly improving sunlight (and therefore) fotosynthesis through the silica particles.
Medicine for the soil and air
According to Steiner, due to monoculture farming and use of chemicals, soils lack minerals and nutrients, causing allergies and diseases. The biodynamic humus fixes this while creating resistance to fungus, better rootage and livelier soil which is easier to plough. Basically, the preparations are medicine to heal the air and soil in the microcosm of a vineyard.
Are you still with me? I know it is not easy-on-a-Sunday-morning-stuff. It certainly must be difficult for any winegrower that wants to convert from convential to biodynamical farming to convince his/her undoubtedly sceptical staff. This was the same at Alois Lageder. It took time for the message to sink in, but today fifth generation Alois and his son Clemens work biodynamically on all family-owned vineyards, 50 hectares in total.
However, the Lageders need more grapes than their own vineyards can produce, to make all their wines in sufficient quantities. They work with approximately 90 vintners, about half work organically, only a small group works biodynamically. But, when listening to Clemens while riding the Renon cable car from Bolzano to Soprabolzano at 1,200m, it’s probably only a matter of time before more of their contracted vintners around Bolzano will switch to biodynamics.
Bolzano is one of the hottest places in Italy. The valley is slowly getting too hot to cultivate land and farmers are looking uphill for new farming land, above 1,000m. Land around Bolzano, basically in all of Alto Adige (or Süd-Tirol in German) has long been farmed in a monoculture way, either apples or grapes. According to the Lageders, this way of farming is a dead-end. Biodiversity is needed and the best way to get there is through biodynamic agriculture.
They don’t force the other vintners to switch but instead through dialogue and education try to convince them that working organically or even biodynamically is the way forward. It certainly helps that Lageder’s wines are highly sought after worldwide. And the fact that 1 kilo of grapes can fetch up to euro 6-7! Those are champagne prices and galaxies away from the 10 cents per kilo in central parts of Spain. Now you know why Alto Adige wines are never cheap.
Food and wine galore
What strikes me most when meeting biodynamic vintners is how passionately they talk about their wine making experience and Clemens is no exception. The venue for the first encounter with Lageder’s wines was in Soprabolzano at hotel Holzner, next to the cable car station (https://www.parkhotel-holzner.com/?l=en). This is a lovely old school hotel, especially suited for families with children. The view over the Tyrolian mountains from the outside terrace was impressive, accompanied by a glass of crisp Pinot Bianco.
During dinner each wine was introduced by Clemens. The food was very tasty, but again it was obvious that wine and food pairing is not easy as some combinations were a bit of a mismatch. But all served wines were strikingly good. The Porer Pinot Grigio 2016, Cor Römigberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 and Krafuss Pinot Noir 2013 were personal highlights, although the latter was still too young.
The next day we met up with Clemens at their Vineria Paradeis in Magrè (Magreid). This is home to the famous Löwengang vineyard and is office, cellar, shop and organic restaurant all in one. The place simply breathes wine and is a definite go-to when in the area. Unfortunately, the rain just didn’t stop, making vineyard visits impossible.
It was certainly no punishment to stay at the Vineria. We started at the reception area for the harvested grapes, the highest point at the Vineria. Through gravity grapes fall down each step in the winemaking process until the lowest point in the cellar, 17 meters below the reception area. Working organically or biodynamically doesn’t necessarily mean it is done the sustainable way, but at Lageder sustainability and biodynamic winemaking go hand in hand. For example, the whole rooftop covering the reception area is packed with solar panels, creating energy for all cellar activities.
In the cellar, Clemens poured cask samples of several wines. At Lageder they love to experiment, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Not just for the fun of it, but to see if other winemaking techniques and grape varieties can lead to interesting new wines. For example, longer skin maceration, no stalk removal or planting Manzoni Bianco, Tannat and Assyrtiko as non-native grapes. They also grow the Bordeaux classics Carménère, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and some are 140-year old pre-phylloxera vines!
These experimental wines, 7 in total are labeled as Comet (Komet) with a code, eg. VIO-XIII which stands for Viognier 2013. Obviously, they are IGP as they don’t fall under any DOC rules.
Partnership is vital
Lageder produces approx. 1,200,000 bottles per year. The overwhelming majority of wine is fermented via sponteanous fermentation with indigenous yeasts from the vineyards. The remaining 20% ferments with the help of neutral, organic yeast, from grapes sourced at contracted vintners.
The valleys in Alto Adige are different in climate and geology. Through years of experience, the Lageders know which valley suits which grapes best. But, teaming up with local vintners is not just about getting the best grapes. The idea of partnership is that all should benefit. That’s why cows, sheep and donkeys graze the Lageder vineyards. Plenty of edible plants available, improvement of biodiversity and their organic meat, milk and cheese ends up in the restaurant at the Vineria.
Click here for a short Vimeo video on the impact of cows in Lageder’s vineyards.
Not for everyone
When you take from the land, you should give back to the land. And that’s not through chemicals and pesticides, but by keeping the soil alive, eg. through biodynamic preparations. However, one repeating argument against organic and biodynamic viticulture is that spraying with copper sulfate is still permitted as fungicide under organic/biodynamic standards (a maximum of 6 kg per hectare is allowed in the EU). Although copper is found naturally in most soils, it is a heavy metal and definitely not organic.
All biodynamic winegrowers I have met, do not use copper anymore, but rely on the strength of the plant and homemade organic sprays to fight diseases. There’s a risk of loosing part of the harvest, but that seems to be a risk they are all prepared to take.
Another argument is that constellation guidance and preparations do not improve wines, meaning one could make the same wine without all the voodoo, as one familiar winegrower calls biodynamic winegrowing. That’s a tough one. I find biodynamic wines livelier, more vibrant, juicier but I guess personal bias certainly plays a role when you know you’re tasting these wines. In fact, tasting Lageder’s Krafuss Pinot Noir 2013 and 2007 next to each other, the 2007 was outstanding and not made biodynamically.
I’d like to think that the utmost respect for nature and the unparalleled attention to detail in vineyard and cellar through biodynamics will ultimately improve the wines made. In my humble opinion, the goal of biodynamics is not to make better wines. The main goal is to be fully part of the natural cycle. Working the land with your head and your heart, striving for biodiversity through harmonic interaction between plants, animals and humans.
It might not be for everyone, and even though it might not necessarily make better wines when it comes to tasting, it certainly contributes to a healthier planet. And that’s a legacy they have mastered brilliantly at Lageder.
Below an overview of the wines tasted at guided tasting by Clemens Lageder at Vineria Paradeis.
The Lageder wines are classified into 3 lines: Classic, Compositions and Masterpieces. The Classic Line showes a good overview of all local grapes and their potential. Predominantly not biodynamic and meant to be drunk young. The Compositions line uses the same grape varieties as the Classic line but produces more complex and ageworthy wines. The Masterpieces line is only made from the best Lageder vineyards, monocépage and blends.
But first, we kicked off with the Cantina Riff Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 2016, a collaboration with several vintners in the Veneto area. Some are organic, some planning to convert in the years to come. Remember the 6-7 euro price per kilo in Alto Adige? This wine is clearly meant to be a cheaper, easy drinkable Pinot Grigio, 100% stainless steel. Not as bland as many Veneto Pinot Grigios, but nothing special either. I guess the price is the driver here.
Next were 2 wines from the Classic line, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Both not biodynamic because grapes from other vintners. Both partly malolactic fermented, 100% steel. Both meant to be drunk within 3 years, hence the screwcap. Good stuff.
The 2016 Pinot Bianco/Weissburgunder Haberle was the first one from the so-called Composition line. Made from approx. 85% biodynamically grown grapes from vineyards at 400-500m in 2 different valleys. The remainder is from old vineyard at 600m that is not yet biodynamically converted. Complex and impressive.
The next 2 lines were also from the Composition line, carrying a blue label. All Lageder wines with a blue label are biodynamically certified by Demeter, one of the leading organisations responsible for certifying biodynamic products.
The 2016 Gaun Chardonnay. Gaun is the name of the vineyard. Half stainless steel, half cask. Unfortunately, it was served way too cold. It started to open up a bit once in the glass for a while. This one was still too young and needed more time in bottle. Gastronomic gem.
The 2016 Porer Pinot Grigio is made the same like the Gaun. Really well made and one of my favourites. I was less impressed by the Vogelmaier Moscato Giallo 2016. The 2010 was also poured to show this variety can age as well, but the pleasant moscato aroma’s in the 2010 were mostly gone, it was more spicy, even a little bit ‘stinky’. Not convinced of Moscato’s aging capabilities if not vinified as sweet wine.
The Löwengang Chardonnay is perhaps the best known Lageder wine. The first vintage was in 1984, 2014 is sold on the market now. The older wines were aged for approx. 30% in new oak, today less than 10%. The acidity that counters the oak is thanks to afternoon breeze that enters the vineyard after 17h00. Part of the Masterpieces line and well made but oaked white wine has never been my cup of tea (and yes, I have tried many Burgundy classics).
Next up was Casòn Bianco 2015. A cask sample, and a blend of 80% Viognier and 20% Petit Manseng, just under 4g/l residual sugar. Lovely, aromatic and spicy glass. Another favourite.
One the highlights for me was the 2016 Schiava Römigberg. Schiava or Vernatsch (or, to make it even more confusing Trollinger in Germany) is one of the indigenous varieties in Alto Adige. Conventionally grown, it gives a rather high yield and most of it is exported to Switzerland. At Lageder, they do things differently with this grape. Their Schiava Römigberg vineyard lies next to the Lake Caldaro (Kalterer See). The yields are much lower and the pressed juice has 8 months skin contact in stainless steel. All done to try and get a more complex Schiava. Well, that paid off! This is great stuff. Labeled as IGP, because not Schiava typical according to DOC rules. Good thing they don’t particularly care about rules at Lageder.
Pinot Noir is another popular grape in Alto Adige. According to Clemens, the quality is often too ‘masculine’ and Lageder strives for a more elegant, feminine style which is fresh and fruity. We started with the classic line Pinot Nero 2015. Not much to write about. This one is more expensive than the Schiava, I know were I would put my money.
Next up was Krafuss Pinot Noir, like the Löwengang another wine from the Masterpieces line. Krafuss is the name of grandpa Lageder’s vineyard. At first, he didn’t see much in biodynamics, therefore this vineyard was not converted until 2013. Grandpa finally gave in. The 2103 hits the market now, it will take until the 2015 vintage before Krafuss will be biodynamically certified. The 2007 was raised in barriques, the 2013 in cask.
The Cabernet Riserva was from 2014, a difficult year in Alto Adige with low yields due to bad weather. Two years barriques, not biodynamic but very drinkable alternative to Bordeaux.
The final wine before lunch was the Löwengang Cabernet 2013. A field blend made from Carmenere, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines between 50-140 years old. To preserve the century old DNA, new vines have been planted since 2014 via sélection massale of these old vines. Definitely a wine to put away in the cellar for a while.