A tale of biodynamics: Do moon rhythms influence a wine’s taste?

Nice day for a wine? Image from Adrian Paterson

Over recent decades, biodynamic agriculture, or biodynamics, has been promoted by some people outside of traditional agricultural as the most “earth-friendly” agricultural management system. The philosophy of biodynamics was founded by Rudolf Steiner based on a series of lectures titled “Spiritual foundations for a renewal of agriculture” given in 1924. Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher by training, believed in using cosmic and terrestrial “forces” to influence organic life on earth. For example, Steiner did not believe plants suffer from disease, but merely appeared diseased when the moon’s influences in the soil become too strong.

In order to counter those unfavorable influences, Steiner listed several essential biodynamic preparations, insisting on packing cow manure or silica or various plants, respectively, into cow horns or skulls or organs of animals and burying them for a number of months. Afterwards, the contents, “biodynamic fertilizers”, could be sprayed onto soil or crops. Steiner believed that cow horns and animal skulls, by virtue of their shapes, acted as ‘antennae’ for receiving and transferring the cosmic forces to the materials inside. By spraying them onto soil or crops, the terrestrial and cosmic forces would be imparted onto the soil and crops and then to the humans that would consume them.

Modern biodynamic agriculture has advanced to include many more conventional farming practices, such as crop rotation and intercropping, that were not included in Steiner’s original teachings. In addition, according to the recent biodynamic certification standards by Demeter Association, Inc., the required practices in biodynamics are nearly identical to those for organic farming except for the required inclusion of Steiner’s biodynamic preparations.

As an alternative to conventional agricultural practice, modern biodynamic agriculture has been increasing in influence within the international wine industry. A recent article published in Forbes Magazine has expressed this in a business point of view that biodynamic wine is the future. The author argued that this is due to consumers demand for ‘premium’ wines will continue to increase, and meanwhile biodynamic-certified and -labeled wines being receiving comparatively higher quality rankings than non-certified wines. On the 30th of June, the Organic & Biodynamic Wine Conference was held in Wellington, New Zealand. The theme of the conference was “Liquid, Life & Label” and as stated by the conference organiser, the conference aimed to share insights and stories, both challenges and successes, in marketing organic and biodynamic-certified wines.

Biodynamics for wine growing is emphasised primarily in the vineyard before winemaking takes place. Biodynamic viticulture is proposed as a management system that balances the terrestrial and cosmic forces between the moon, soil, grapevine and human. The various tasks, e.g. planting, pruning, harvesting, mulching, composting and manuring, involved in biodynamic vineyard management, are regulated by the biodynamic calendar focused on lunar rhythms. This calendar divides days into four categories, namely the root, fruit, flower and leaf days.

Each day is associated with one of the four elements of earth, fire, air and water, which is categorised according to star constellations and the movement of the moon. For example, root days are when the moon is in any of the earth signs: Capricorn, Taurus and Virgo; flower days are when the moon is in any of the air signs: Gemini, Libra and Aquarius; leaf days are when the moon is in any of the water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces; fruit days are when the moon is in any of the fire signs: Aires, Leo and Sagittarius.

According to the biodynamic calendar, fruit days are the best days for harvesting grapes, root days are ideal for pruning, and leaf days are deal for watering plants, whereas flower days are not suited for any viticultural practice. Furthermore, there has been extension of biodynamic philosophy from viticultural practice to include wine tasting.

Figure 1. Biodynamic Calendar. Image by www.biologicwine.co.za

Since 2010, the biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers has been published annually by Floris Books in Edinburgh for the UK time zone. This calendar provides wine consumers with information on whether it is considered a favorable day or unfavorable day to drink their wine. It was also available in the App Store, called “Wine Tonight”, for smart phone users. Currently this app is not available for downloading. With a built-in time zone adjustment function, this app allowed wine consumers around the globe to use this calendar in their local time zone. As dictated by the biodynamic calendar, fruit and flower days are considered best for wine tasting, while root and leaf days are generally not recommended for enjoying wine.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence for any of this, according to wine industry media, some wine producers, as well as wine professionals in the retail outlets and the distribution companies, appear to accept that the movement of the moon exerts some sort of influence over how wine tastes on a particular day. After all, this assumption of the movements of the moon influence a wine’s taste has it basis in attempts to understand why some wines do taste differently across different days.

In 2016, Dr. Wendy Parr from Lincoln University along with Dr. Dominique Valentin (Université de Bourgogne Franche Comté), Phil Reedman (MW, master of wine from Adelaide), Dr. Claire Grose (Marlborough Institute of Plant and Food Research), and Dr. James Green (University of Otago) decided to look into the influence of lunar rhythms on wine taste (full article is available here). In their double-blind experiment, 12 Pinot noir wines were chosen from five winemaking regions in New Zealand from conventional, organic and biodynamic producers. Nineteen New Zealand wine professionals were recruited as sensory panelists to judge and rate the 12 wines for each sensory descriptor on fruit days and root days.

The aim of their experiment was to determine whether or not wines will taste different in systematic ways on days designated by the biodynamic calendar for consumers as favorable or unfavorable for wine tasting. The biodynamic calendar predicts that wines would be perceived as more aromatic, fruity, concentrated, and overall flavorsome on fruit days than on root days where wines were predicted to be less balanced, more aggressive with green, leafy characters and faults becoming prominent.

Save it for another night? Image from Adrian Paterson.

Dr. Parr and her team found that based on the sensory descriptions and mean ratings for each sensory descriptor, there was no evidence that wines tasted better on a fruit day than root day. The biodynamic calendar predicted that wines tasted on fruit days would have more sensory descriptions on the positive side and wines tasted on root days would have more descriptions on the negative side. However, the data obtained from their study showed that there were as many comments projecting onto both sides from wines tasted on the root day as from wines tasted on the fruit days.

Rating data showed that the differences in mean ratings between a fruit day and a root day tasting were less than 0.5% of all variation. Furthermore, instrumental analysis on the 12 chosen Pinot noir wines demonstrated that the testing day (i.e., fruit day vs. root day) did not result in any significant difference on the chemical components of each wine.

Overall, the findings reported in their study provide no evidence in support of the belief that how a wine tastes is regulated by the lunar rhythms. The authors also found that the type of wine production (biodynamic or organic or conventional viticulture) was not a contributing factor in the overall ratings of the selected wines. Several wines that were given highest overall quality were from the producers practicing conventional viticultural management.

According to Dr. Parr, the anecdotal reports of the influence of lunar rhythms on a wine’s taste that have been featured in wine-industry media could be due to an expectation effect rather than actual differences in the wine. However, Dr. Parr did not deny that a wine might be perceived as tasting different across two successive tastings of the same wine. She explained that many factors could underline such perceived differences including wine component factors as well as human factors, such as memory and mood of the taster. The latter is always associated with complex cognitive processes.

Consumers that were told to follow the biodynamic calendar expecting a wine to be more expressive and aromatic on fruit days might actually perceive them as such due to top-down cognitive effects. Top-down processing refers to a cognitive process that describes the information that has already been brought into our brains can affect our senses and sensory perceptions. This process is very well known and examined in the field of psychology. In the experiment by Parr and colleagues, panelists were not told the purpose of the experiment nor the hypothesis. In this case, not knowing any information about the 12 wines and not informed with the biodynamic calendar guidelines let the panelists judge the wines merely based on the sensory characteristics showing on the two tasting days. Ultimately this helped minimize the top-down cognitive effects.

In conclusion, the notion that the taste of wine is regulated by the lunar rhythms still lacks scientific evidence. Future studies may be required to manipulate the lunar calendar information provided to the tasters, which may help in validating and explaining the expectation-driven effects. But for now, if you are longing to open a bottle of wine either to treat yourself or share with friends and family, don’t over think too much, just do it.

The author Yi YAng is an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenoloy honours programme taught at Lincoln University. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

 

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