Pouillé sur Cher (Touraine, Loire)
Biodynamic farming is a growing phenomenon among the organic farmers and growers, we begin ourselves non-farmers to hear about 501 and 500 which we vaguely know are sprayings made on the vineyard at special times along the year, but we don't have often the opportunity to really see how it's done and have a direct experience of these practices. In France a few years back nobody knew who Rudolf steiner was (except in Alsace), and as a firm believer in my youth I had to explain his visionary to friends who were unsettled if not suspicious by his approach to human history and his cosmogony. Today, thanks to Steiner's small agricultural part in his teaching, thanks to a few daring French growers he has become very well respected in this country if not yet mainstream.
Biodynamics is more than just organic farming, it's a holistic approach on the soil, the plant life and it connects to the whole universe. Rudolf Steiner's work, and not only the one related to agriculture, is precisely on this level, tapping into forces unknown to the modern man but that encompass the energy of the cosmos.
With biodynamie you do things that don't seem to make sense in the square Cartesian thinking and reasoning we've been brought up with. And the odd thing is that many growers who once decided to try biodynamics say they didn't really believe it themselves either at the beginning, but they saw obvious results not only in the plant life but also in the wine, and they invested themselves more deeply into it, even though they still could have trouble to grasp the cosmology and spirituality of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner's understanding of the world is of the level of inspiration, like what Goethe did in his Theory of Colours, both visionaries possibly decried in their time by official science but plebiscited by reality.
I had the chance to witness the making of a 501 preparation and its subsequent spraying on the parcels, as such a preparation must be spread over the foliage and the vineyard in the following hours. This all took place in Pouillé-sur-Cher, the vineyards being the ones formerly owned by Clos Roche Blanche and now farmed by both Julien Pineau and Laurent Saillard
In order to touch the universe of Rudolf Steiner's understanding of how the soil is different from the way we usually see it, read these few lines, a transcript from a lecture he gave in Koberwitz, on june 10 1924 (this was in the vicinity of Breslau, Prussia, now the Polish town of Wrocław).
Taking our start from a study of the earthly soil, we must indeed observe that the surface of the Earth is a kind of organ in that organism which reveals itself throughout the growth of Nature. The Earth's surface is a real organ, which — if you will — you may compare to the human diaphragm. (Though it is not quite exact, it will suffice us for purposes of illustration). We gain a right idea of these facts if we say to ourselves: Above the human diaphragm there are certain organs — notably the head and the processes of breathing and circulation which work up into the head. Beneath it there are other organs. If from this point of view we now compare the Earth's surface with the human diaphragm, then we must say: In the individuality with which we are here concerned, the head is beneath the surface of the Earth, while we, with all the animals, are living in the creature's belly! Whatever is above the Earth, belongs in truth to the intestines of the “agricultural individuality,” if we may coin the phrase. We, in our farm, are going about in the belly of the farm, and the plants themselves grow upward in the belly of the farm. Indeed, we have to do with an individuality standing on its head. We only regard it rightly if we imagine it, compared to man, as standing on its head.
For the preparation 501 you need water and silica, the latter being crushed powered quartz that has been stuffed into a horn, the horn being then put to rest deep into the ground from spring to autumn, when it'll be dug up and the silica retrieved for a 501. If you just discover biodynamics while reading this you may already quit, but for reasons that are beyond our Cartesian modern minds this works beautifully on the living.
For this first experience Laurent and Julien used horn silica or quartz (we call that silice in French) provided by Biodynamie Services, a company that provides biodynamics essentials. Their next step will be to learn prepare this white powder themselves.
Next we drove to the neighboring wine farm of Les Maisons Brulées, now owned by Paul Gillet and his wife. Paul Gillet who comes from Alsace took over from Michel Augé who was the refrence in biodynamics along the Cher river. Michel Augé was not only practicing biodynamics on the vineyards of the domaine, he was also kind of a magnet for the vignerons of the region who wanted to deepen their practical experience into the different preparation modes and sprayings of this type of farming. Now and then growers would gather at his place and learn as well as exchange their own experience. This emulation cycle is still going on now that Paul Glllet has taken over the domaine, and that's why the preparation of the 501 took place here, even if he was away that day.
What you see on the picture above is a couple of tanks specially designed gor biodynamic preparations. Only one of them will be used that day because a single tank (they'd put 250 liter in it) was enough volume for the planned spraying on the 12 hectares of Laurent's and Julien's surface.
The dynamization tank has been switched on, the water has begun to swirl and Julien drops the mysterious horn silica in the tank. The dynamization process will last one hour, the water being alternatively turned in one direction, then to the other.
You can do the 501 several times a year but it's less common to do it in autumn, Julien says that it some sort if Thanksgiving to the vines after this beautiful vintage, and to sort of help the sap go down to the roots with the sugar, which will consitute crucial reserves there for the following year. Laurent says you just must avoid spraying a 501 when it's dry because it tends to dry further the foliage.
A little bit of water was spared so that a few liters of 501 could be prepared by hand, as there is no problem to dynamize the water with horn silica using a stick or your hand, as long as you keep the alternating swirls, turning to the right then suddenly swithching to the left. This dynamization by hand also had to last one hour, so the growers or their partners took their turn when they were tired.
Juliette (in black, with a bun, here behind Julien) is Julien's girlfriend, they both worked a few years in Provence with Jean-Christophe Comor and then moved here in Touraine. She is right now enlisted in an agriculture school in Segré (north of Angers) where she studies biodynamics and organic management for farms and cattle, so she was the one who knew a bit about the issue, even though she said her training at the school was not directly dealing with vineyards. her school time will last 2 years with an alternation of schooling for 4 months with 7-month training in a farm and so on. For her first training session she just spent 5 months in the Allier département (near Auvergne) in a cattle farm with goats, sheep and cows. She'll finish this first trainig session at an organic farm near here in Monthou-sur-Bièvre where they also make real cheese, the Ferme de la Guilbardière [many people would pay to work there as a training I think].
Listen in this other video Juliette explaining a few details about the dynamization.
The start of the 501 : While Julien switches the tank on upstairs, Emily and Maïlys begin to swirl the water with a stick, then later by hand and they were succeedded by Emily's friend Benjamin and Juliette. Emily (on this video she is the one on the left stirring the water with a bambooo stick) is the American expat from California who runs the blog Paris Paysanne, she lived 10 years in Paris, she is currently resettling in the Loire with her boyfriend Benjamin (the guy with the hat and the beautiful tatoos), and she's releasing these days a book on her Paris cooking tips and food experiences (pictured on right) : My Paris Market Cookbook, in which you'll find recipes made with products picked on the street markets and food stores. With this new turn she's beginning in the Loire she'll certainly add a new chapter in her French experience. On the whole, it seems that many young people with projects come for a new life in this region, good for its future...
Benjamin and Emily with the help of Juliette are trying their hand at wine making, they picked a good volume of leftover gamay grapes a week or two after the harvest, these grapes had then riped correctly and they'd have been lost if they hadn't picked them and this was a great opportunity to try make some wine. They crushed/pressed them the old way with the feet, with the initial idea of Ben to make a clear-red Pet-Nat but the juice/wine took more color than planned, so he'll make part of the batch a still red. The wine hadn't turnd vinegar so far so they're happy.
Ben did the harvest at Noella Morantin for 4 years, so he begins to be familiar with natural winemaking. This year as they were busy settling here in Pouillé for their new life they missed Noella's harvest but found time to pick for Julien and Laurent. I'm confident we have another nascing wine farm in the making here...
An important thing in the dynamization of the water is shaping the vortex, and doing that by hand makes you touch the reality of this energy somehow : you whirl the water in one direction for a minute or two, then suddenly change direction and whirl to the other side, which brings a few seconds of chaos and oxygen in the preparation, and you keep alternating directions like that for one hour without stopping, that's why each one would take his/her turn... Anyone can test a 501 for his/her vegetable garden by doing such a small-batch dynamization in a bucket, no need of tech tools for that, just a bit of elbow grease and resoluteness.
More on the vortex (which Steiner called a crater) and stirring on this page. You'll learn why doing this by hand may be enlightening too :
“Anyone who has done a serious amount of hand stirring will have noticed a point in the stirring process where there is a transformation in the liquid. The stirring gets easier and there is a noticeble difference in the ease with which the vortex forms and there is something in the stirred liquid that changes that I cannot put my finger on.”
After the one-hour-long dynamization was completed, the 300-liter 501 preparation was put into a plastic tank for the transportation to the parcels a couple kilometers away (Here Maïlys helping filling the tank by gravity). The water retained a milky veil like if the horn silica didn't entirely melt into the water. Laurent then drove his tractor with the tank in the back while the rest of the company follows in a couple of cars, two guys helping to stabilize the tank during the short trip. There was a time window of several hours during which the preparation was deemed "active", so that there was no time to waste and we all headed to the parcels for the planned spraying. The dynamized water is said to have a "memory" of three hours, after which it would loose in effectiveness.
While Maïlys savors leftover grapes found on the vines (october is the best time to eat grapes in the parcels, if marauding birds haven't got everything), Laurent fills all the back sprayers. This will be a coordinated spraying, Laurent and Julien getting helped by friends so that the whole surface can be sprayed in time and by hand.
I must admit that I indulged in a few leftover clusters, I didn't have to do the spraying (just avoid to have sticky fingers because of the camera gear though) and got the luxury to eat Clos-Roche-Blanche grapes (they were technically still CRB's) that had now a perfect ripeness. They were certainly left on the side during the harvest because they were'nt ripe yet. There were just a few clusters here and there but if you kept picking them that was a large treat of Pineau d'Aunis, Côt and Gamay...
This was a very nice day, this could have been rainy as well, they'd have do their job just the same but with more suffering and probably less interesting pictures... With all the sprayers evenly filled and the nozzles finetuned so that the spraying width and length would be correct, the group was stretched in line so that they could do a good chunk of a parcel in one go. Raking the parcel with several rows between them they would balance the spraying stick from left to right so that each of them would cover about 3 rows. The whole thing lasted may be 3 hours or more and they have to do some refills of the sprayers. When it was over the light was already getting dimmer.
The first parcel to be sprayed that day was a pineau d'Aunis and then it was the turn of Sauvignon, then the Côt.
We walked by a couple of parcels which were in the process of being uprooted. Laurent says he's uprooting some Sauvignon on his surface here in order to replant Menu Pineau and Pineau d'Aunis and thus add more diversity in his varietals. He didn't have Menu Pineau, most of the white being Sauvignon plus a bit of Chardonnay, so he is excited about the prospect.
I went to the cellar to taste a couple of juices turning into wines with Julien and Juliette; Julien still vinifies in the underground facility of Clos-Roche-Blanche until he finds another wine farm to relocate to.
The first wine to be bottled will be a Sauvignon, the one which we can say is the equivalent of Sauvignon NO 2 for those familiar with CRB wines, but before this one there'll be a primeur red, the Gibolin. Look at the color of the fermenting sauvignon, that's beautiful. The wine was not wine yet when I tasted it, and not anymore the sweet bernache.
Julien named his early cuvée (let's call it a primeur) Gibolin in reference to a famous sketch by the Deschiens, a vitriolic group of French comedians/humorists In this sketch a trio of working-class country guys compare two wines, one that has been corrected with Gibolin and another free of it, their comments are fuzzy, plus they mix up the bottles and don't remember which is which but end up saying the wine with the Gibolin is better... This early-release red is a blend of Sauvignon, Pineau d'Aunis and Côt, its color is very exciting.
Julien will first present this wine on november 19 (Beaujolais Nouveau day) at Les Boissons Rouges, a wine bar in Segré near Angers [I understand now why Juliette enrolled this agriculture school...], actually Benjamin who is also a musician goes there for a concert and Julien comes with him and brings this wine. He has made 1000 bottles of it in all. When I tasted the wine it was weeks ago, the wine still had residual sugar and was still fermenting but it hinted at something interesting for the coming weeks.
The same evening, Laurent and Julien invited Catherine and Didier to celebrate the transition of the vineyards from Clos-Roche-Blanche, I was lucky to be invited too, this was as you can guess a great culinary experience. Catherine brought a large fish coming from one of her ponds and Laurent cooked it perfectly. Catherine brought her mushrooms picked in the woods and Didier sat at the electronic piano surprising everyone before we discovered it had a multi-sample rendering feature and you almost could sit there and play for the first time of your life without anyone noticing...
We had a few nice wines including a manum of Autrelment et Encore by Jean-Christophe Comor, a red with a very exciting nose, deep with reduction, a lactic side in the mouth which was unusual but very lovely, it's 100 % Cinsault with a part made on carbonic maceration.
Later we had fun on the unsuspecting dog (Panache) who was kind enough not to blame us for that, Benjamin or Emily I don't remember, realized that the casquette suited him so well, and he didn't even try to get rid of it.
That evening I had to devise an intricate itinerary to ride my motorbike back to my Loire hideout on the other side of Saint-Aignan, this was saturday evening and I was at high risk of falling upon a police/gendarmerie road block (a pretty common occurrence in the French countryside on weekends' evenings) where I was likely to test positive for a breath check. Among other places, the strategic position where the Gendarmerie filters the traffic in the area is very often the immediate proximity of the bridge on the Cher on Saint-Aignan side, and even if I didn't want to cross the bridge they'd pull me over like everyone and do the breath check, so the alternative solution apart from sleeping at la Tesnière was to take un chemin à 4 grammes [a 4-gramm __meaning alcohol content in blood__ route] like they say in the region (seems in Brittany they call it Route à 3 grammes instead). Taking such a chemin à 4 grammes means a much longer detour, using side roads (sometimes partly dirt road) and zigzaging your way in order to reach your destination without driving through a village or a crossroad of strategic importance. It's pretty easy for locals who know since their childhood all the dirt roads and narrow, little-used paved roads but I had to plan my route carefully on the map for that, and at night it's tricky to find the right bifurcations. It took much longer than the straight way of course but I eventually came home safe that night...
For the lectures on the Agriculture Course by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, go to this page, you'll have the links to the different lectures and debates. All these exchanges and lectures were noted by attendees shorthand and that's why it's very precise and at the same time vivid and alive, it's like if you were there in person.
For the other lectures by Rudolf Steiner, go to this archive page.