Biodynamic wine: never mind the hype this is as good as it gets

Biodynamic viticulture is based on the simple premise that you can't just keep taking from the earth if you want it to keep on giving. You have to put something back.

" We do things at a human level" says Olivier

Olivier Bellet is a third generation winemaker. Some of the vines on his small estate, deep in the rugged foothills of the spectacular Cevennes mountains in France's Languedoc region, are three times as old as he is. Others were planted by his father the year Olivier was born - 1983.

Monsieur and Madame Bellet potter around happily keeping an eye on things including their rare breed of English hens, ancient olive trees and a garden bursting with colour while Olivier shows me round. 

When, as it were, he was handed the keys to the business by his father Olivier decided to break with tradition in two ways. " We used to grow grapes and sell them to the local cooperative to make wine. I thought what's the point. I've always wanted to make my own wine. So we - the family - decided to keep our grapes and do just that"

The next big decision they took was to forego conventional wine-making. " We took the decision, as a family, to go biodynamic". They bought the equipment slowly over a few years. No loans - in keeping with a deeply-held belief that life needs to be sustainable. 

I spent a morning with Olivier, 35, at his estate, more of a smallholding really, learning first-hand what this mysterious skill, biodynamics, which is taking the wine world by storm, from New Zealand to Oregon, involves. Even some of the great French estates like Romanèe Conti in Burgundy now make biodynamic wines.

As he shows me around his various allotments Olivier stops occasionally and scuffs the soil with his boot. " You see, bits of the terroir have died. Soil is a living thing. You can't expect it to keep giving, generation after generation, without putting something back". That in a nutshell is biodynamic agriculture. 

 Land, vine, man are seen as a single entity, part of a universal whole that includes the seasons, the planets, the universe, everything. 

The principles of biodynamic viticulture are not new. They  go back thousands of years to a time when there were no fertilisers or pesticides. But it was given a new lease of life by the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in a series of ground-breaking lectures in the early 1920s. 

Steiner argued, perfectly rationally, that everything in the universe is interconnected. This interconnectivity includes celestial bodies such as the sun and moon that in turn influence the seasons and if man wishes the world to survive he must find a way of balancing these forces. 

Steiner isn't everyone's cup of tea but his influence over a range of disciplines from education through community as an organising principle and biodynamic agriculture is unquestionable. 

Proponents of biodynamic winemaking say that it permits the only true expression of what the French call 'terroir' - the environmental mixture that imbues a wine with its essential character and quality. 

Terroir is something that Olivier takes very seriously. In his tasting room lined with magnificent casks hand-made from holm oak, he picks up a russet-grey rock from his land and says" This is what I'm trying to reproduce.What's in this rock" 

Biodynamic is organic plus. It uses natural ingredients grown without artificial additives but it also puts something back into the land which conventional agriculture degrades. Everything is produced on the spot. Compost is natural. Other additives include special preparations of mineral and herbs.