Some of the country’s wine growers realized 40 years ago that farming methods needed to change. We talk to three forward-thinking producers who are always looking for new solutions.
The future of agriculture must change. As the planet groans, more and more people are becoming aware of it. But some of the approaches we now accept as possible solutions were once considered unorthodox, particularly the idea of biodynamic agriculture.
This method was developed in the early 20th century by the controversial philosopher Rudolf Steiner and today has as many supporters as critics. Not only are synthetic inputs rejected, but a closed-loop, holistic agriculture is supported in which each plot is treated as its own cosmos. It is the mystical elements of biodynamics, based on lunar and star cycles, that make some people nervous.
Yet there have long been pioneers of biodynamics in Austria. They have paved the way and today produce wines of amazing beauty and depth.
Photo courtesy of Nikolaihof Vineyards
Christine Saahs, Nicolaihof, Wachau
Saas and her husband, Nikolai, were so far ahead of their time that they had to endure scorn and contempt. In 1971 they set up a biodynamic house in an almost isolated location. The impetus for further action came from a general practitioner who had adopted another of Steiner’s philosophies, anthroposophy. He argued that humans have the capacity to access the spiritual world through their cognition.
“I had no idea who Rudolf Steiner was or what anthroposophy was, but my husband and I were convinced that the future of agriculture had to be different,” Saas says. “Healthy soil with healthy plants.
Today she smiles at that uncertain beginning, but she also remembers a more experienced farmer who later told her it was important to “take a step in the right direction.”
“Whether what we did is perfect or not, I think the will you put into your work for the future and for the good is equally important,” she says.
It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes they were afraid of losing their lives.
“Journalists came to explain to my husband what modern winemaking should look like,” she says, “but we didn’t mind. We were doing the best we could. Because we were so determined, people believed us. Thank God we both grew up with a free spirit.
“You have to weave your own thoughts through everything you hear, see and experience and then you can make a decision for yourself. Then when you realize it wasn’t the best solution, you can change”.
Saas says the brand exported a lot of wine in the 1980s, so she knew it would be easier to gain international recognition. In 2005, her children took over and the property became stronger than ever.
After nearly 50 years of biodynamic farming, Saah says he has been “incredibly fortunate” to come across this philosophy.
“It helped me to understand the meaning of life and to pass it on to my children,” she says, “it was a blessing.
Photo courtesy of Umatum
Josef Umathum, Umathum Winery, Burgenland.
“It’s very important to have an outside view,” says Umatum, who grew up in a family of winemakers. As a young man, he wanted to leave everything behind and studied geography for another career.
“Ragging in your own juice is not good,” he says.
It was in college in the early 1980s that he discovered alternative agriculture. After spending time in Germany, Burgundy, Provence and Bordeaux, he changed his mind. Umatum returned to the family estate and introduced biodynamics.
In 1985, shortly after a devastating scandal, it was discovered that the toxic substance diethylene glycol was being added to Austrian wines to make them more appealing for taste. The national and international market for the country’s wine collapsed.
“There was an idea that it could be done differently,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about biodynamics. ”
So he went to conferences and started reading about it. At first it all seemed “mystical,” he says.
“But above all, you learn to observe,” he says. “It’s crucial. You see nature with different eyes. The first few years were difficult. The vines had to adapt. It takes time for the inner forces of the plants to take effect.”
It took him a long time to convince his winemakers and convert them to this form of agriculture. Today, after 35 years of alternative farming, he says that biodynamics is “more than wine production, more than farming. There is a depth to it. Participation, observation, understanding the connections. It’s important. It’s a source of power and beauty.
“For me, it’s a real asset. You can ask if the wines are better. But actually the question is whether you taste the wines differently now. The most important thing is to change as a human being, to change your perspective on nature. It’s about being human as a whole, not just about being a farmer”.
Photo courtesy of Loimer.
Fred Leumer, Leumer Winery, Kamptal…
Loymer hated the mineral fertilizers and pesticides his parents used on their farm. In the late 1980s, he put an end to that. His path to biodynamics, however, was slow. Initially, it was not environmental concerns that drove the change, but his conviction that so many wines from his region, Camptal, were beginning to awaken in the same way.
“We refined our must and used cultured yeast,” he says. “It was a pretty technical vinification process, and the wines were so similar. ”
When he tried it out with a friend in 2005, they asked him, “Now what? The friend suggested the idea of biodynamics.
“All I knew about biodynamics then was something vague about moon phases and cow horns,” says Loimer.
He asked for advice, rejected those who were “amateurish or dogmatic” and met with other Austrian winemakers. Thus was born the association of Respect biodynamic wineries in Austria, Germany, Italy and Hungary.
“We studied biodynamics from the ground up,” he says. “The first thing that changed were feelings. I was excited and I took that enthusiasm to the vineyard. We made nettle tea and drank it before spraying it on the vineyard. Imagine spraying something you can drink. It was an empowering feeling. The vineyards showed their true form: some bloomed, others suffered.
“We realized how important it is to have the right vines in the right place, right down to the herbs and grasses in the vineyard. The basic principle of biodynamics is to work with the resources of your farm….Every farm is a living organism, and it is a fascinating thing that is constantly evolving. It’s great to taste and feel today that this individuality is also in the wines.”
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