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GLASS ACT: Using moon and minerals, biodynamic wine finds balance

Coming to understand the interconnectedness of all elements of the farm, the cows, the vines, the microscopic life in the soil, minerals and the moon, is the most interesting part of biodynamic farming.
Lightfoot & Wolfville has ambitious plans for a tasting room, retail store and event space on its estate vineyard. (MOIRA PETERS)

If you go to work at a winery this time of year, you could be pruning grapevines in a frozen vineyard, or blending and tasting wines in the cellar, or prepping wine for bottling. If the winery is Lightfoot & Wolfville, you may also find yourself in the barn in the wee hours of the morning, birthing the calves, lambs and piglets that are just as much a part of this winery as its grapes and its winepress.

The Annapolis Valley winery, which began releasing wines in 2015, recently received biodynamic certification for its estate vineyard from Demeter International, the world's largest biodynamic certifying body, and oldest organic certifier. If all goes well, some of Lightfoot & Wolfville's 2016 wines will also be certified biodynamic.

Coming to understand the interconnectedness of all elements of the farm — the cows, the vines, the microscopic life in the soil, minerals, the moon — is the most interesting part of biodynamic farming for winemaker Josh Horton and assistant winemaker Rachel Lightfoot. For owner Mike Lightfoot, it's being in the moment: "I have to be present in the vineyard, really paying attention."

Developed in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher and architect Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture treats a farm as a holistic organism, with a focus on soil fertility, biodiversity (hence the cows and sheep) and the cosmos to grow robust plants. The basic idea in biodynamics is to use nature's own checks and balances, on the microscopic and macroscopic levels, to steward a farm that gets healthier, not more depleted, with each crop.

Biodynamic agriculture is similar to organic agriculture, in which farmers encourage plant and animal health by enriching the soil with beneficial bacteria and fungi rather than synthetic fertilizers, and by creating a balanced ecosystem rather than killing weeds and pests with herbicides and pesticides. Biodynamic farmers also use astrological calendars to guide their practices, and a series of preparations made from herbs, minerals and manure to inoculate compost and encourage plant health. A biodynamic farm also keeps heritage breed livestock to provide the material for many of those preparations.

070117biodynamicIIMPViticulturist Matt Patterson and assistant winemaker Rachel Lightfoot at Lightfoot & Wolfville's recently certified biodynamic estate vineyard on the Minas Basin. (MOIRA PETERS)

According to Mike Lightfoot, his vineyards have been growing in their immunity to disease, becoming less susceptible to the moulds and mildews that plague Maritime grape growers.

This is particularly noteworthy given Lightfoot chooses some of the most difficult grapes to cultivate in this part of the world, particularly Pinot Noir, but also Chardonnay, Riesling, New York Muscat and even Chasselas and Sauvignon Blanc.

Biodynamic farmers try to work with nature in sensible ways, like using manure from their own cattle to build compost, letting pigs clear underbrush in the forest surrounding the vineyard to allow airflow and deploying sheep into the vineyard to mow down weeds in early summer.

Lightfoot plants on a "root day" as determined by a lunar calendar. This may seem a bit whimsical, but anyone who lives on the Bay of Fundy, and has been caught on a sandbar as the tide comes rushing in, knows not to take lightly the effects of the moon on the Earth.

Some biodynamic practices border on the bizarre. Preparation 500 is a manure tea sprayed over the vineyard five times throughout the season. It is made by filling a cow horn with cow manure, burying it on the vineyard on the fall equinox (mid-September) and digging it up in the spring. Preparation 501 is an atmospheric spray, made by burying fine silica in a cow horn and digging it up in spring, stirring it in water and misting it over the vineyard in a fine spray.

070117biodynamicMPScottish Highland cattle at Lightfoot & Wolfville, a winery in the Annapolis Valley. (MOIRA PETERS)

These preparations, odd as they sound, have their purpose. Preperation 500 promotes root bacteria and stimulates beneficial bionutrients in the soil. Preparation 501 stimulates photosynthesis.

"We have to watch the sun with this one, because the silica can act like a magnifying glass and burn the vines," says Horton, a winemaker.

Other preparations, like 503, which involves shooting a deer on the property and stuffing its bladder with chamomile, inoculate the farm's compost, creating a "specialized culture" for the grapevines.

On top of all the conventional work a vineyard demands, like shoot positioning, leaf thinning and the enormous tasks at harvest, these biodynamic practices are a lot of work. Is it all worth it?

"Putting oak bark in a cow skull in a slow-moving stream, it seems silly," says Horton, especially when there are so many other things to do in the vineyard. "But when you take it out and look at it, it's full of life. ... It sometimes feels like hocus-pocus. But altogether, it works."

Lightfoot & Wolfville's wine has been very well received. The first wines released — 2013 Ancienne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — set the bar high for subsequent releases of rosés, Tidal Bay, bubblies and Riesling.

It could be argued that the folks at Lightfoot & Wolfville simply grow fabulous grapes (their vineyard sites are exceptional) and make really good wine because they're meticulous farmers and talented wine craftspeople who have some excellent consultants in their corner. But the wine world has come to understand that biodynamic wines tend to be of superior quality, in ways that are extremely difficult to achieve. Namely, they exhibit the virtue that the entire biodynamic philosophy is built on: balance.

070117biodynamicIVMPLightfoot & Wolfville's 2014 Ancienne Chardonnay exemplifies balance. The 2016 vintage could be certified biodynamic. (MOIRA PETERS)

Lightfoot & Wolfville's 2014 Ancienne Chardonnay ($40), which already meets much of the biodynamic criteria, exemplifies balance. This French oak-aged chard quietly tells its story: subtle vanilla (the oak) and salt spray (the Bay), oyster shells (the soil) and lime (the grapes), and a lightness carried by the acidity of our cool climate.

Rachel Lightfoot hopes the 2016 vintage of this wine will be certified biodynamic, which demands its own set of practices.

"The booklet is this thick," she says of the list of Demeter's requirements, measuring out three inches with her fingers. 

"We have to use different cleaning agents, we can't use any products made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms); we have to use less sulfites and other additives; we use wild yeast only, unless we end up with a stuck fermentation; the malolactic bacteria for second fermentation also has to be indigenous."

Wild or indigenous yeast and bacteria, those that accumulate naturally on grapes and in the environment, are more difficult to control than packaged yeast and bacteria, and therefore riskier.

Lightfoot and vitiulturist Matt Patterson walk me to the top of the estate vineyard, in the midst of which a crane hoists roof trusses two stories above the vines. Lightfoot & Wolfville is building a tasting room and retail store that will include a barrel cellar, a patio, a private tasting room and a tent to host events. They plan to open this facility in June, adding to — and cashing in on — growth in the local wine industry.

The natural forces that bring about ecological harmony are powerful, and not well understood. The team at Lightfoot & Wolfville is OK with that, and they embrace the extra effort involved in caring for animals and creating potion-like fertilizers, especially when the final product is exquisite wine.

And it's not all magic.

"We have to keep rigorous cleaning records, and careful records for where our grapes for different batches of wine are coming from," says Lightfoot. "I actually really like it. You have to be consistent, and set up a good system, but it's not hard." She laughs. "Paperwork is a big part of it."


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