Here in the country's Casablanca region, a vineyard called Matetic is pushing new limits in the organic cultivation of wine grapes by experimenting with biodynamics – a movement that has gained momentum in wine-growing regions around the world, from the fields of France to Napa Valley.
And, more recently, in Chile.
Matetic is a relatively young vineyard, founded in 1999 by a Croatian family of the same name. Amidst the hilly terrain, Matetic maintains 168 hectares planted with varietals including Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – all certified organic. Several years ago, Matetic took its first steps toward biodynamic production.
"It’s an experiment for us," said Daniela Garay, explaining Matetic's approach to biodynamics during a tour of the vineyard and winery.
In 1924, Austro-Hungarian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner founded biodynamics, which is defined by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association as "an objective understanding of the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world" that "relates the ecology of the farm-organism to that of the entire cosmos."
As with organic farming, biodynamics precludes the use of pesticides, fertilizers or artificial chemicals of any kind but takes agriculture well beyond basic organics to include the study of and reliance on moon cycles, and the use of oval shapes to foster closed energy circles, elaborate compost preparations, among other efforts.
Alan York, a biodynamics expert based in Napa Valley and a consultant to Matetic, describes the four principals of biodynamics in a series of online videos. The first has to do with the creation of a closed system of nutrients, while the second principal refers to the fostering of biodiversity. The third principal guides the use of special "biodynamic preparations" to "support and maintain life forces," which include natural field sprays and compost preparations. Finally, the fourth principal has to do with holistically managing the environment to generate the maximum benefit for all living organisms, not just focusing on the success of a single crop.
Following the biodynamic principals, Matetic has, among other things, fertilized its biodynamic lands with a compost made from animal feces stuffed in bull horns and buried (on an autumn full moon) for one year, to be dug up the next and sprinkled around the roots of the plants. Another treatment involves using quartz to attract the sun’s rays to the plants. The lunar calendar plays a role in determining harvest dates, while the zodiac influences the timing of homeopathic pest control.
A limited edition of the first two biodynamic wines produced by Matetic – a Chardonnay and Syrah currently aging in special egg-shaped concrete vats, also in tune with biodynamic principals – should be available by the end of this year, Garay said.
It's esoteric and certainly unconventional. It’s also a trend and potential marketing tool. But does biodynamic farming produce better wine?
Food and Wine magazine writer Ray Isle had this to say in a recent article:
"The success of the practice is impossible to quantify: Scientific measurement of the spiritual is a contradiction in terms. The most effective argument for biodynamics is that wines produced employing it are more evocative of the place they're grown—and, consequently, better."
In Chile, the world's fifth-largest exporter of wines, the practice is still new. At least one other maker, Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic winery, also in the Casablanca region, is employing biodynamics – a drop in the barrel of a $1.4 billion wine industry.
But biodynamic wines produced elsewhere are achieving critical acclaim, including Jim Fetzer's 2001 Ceàgo Vinegarden Camp Masut Merlot and Nicolas Joly's 2003 Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, according to Food and Wine.
Experts speculate that biodynamic wines do well because a winemaker willing to follow such a meticulous method will by nature be more dedicated to the cultivation of the vineyard. Then again, maybe the outcome is just written in the stars.
Photos of Matetic Vineyards by Nacho Espejo