Everyone knows there's nothing like good old-fashioned farmyard muck to get roses blooming and crops flourishing. But a single bucketful of cow poo to fertilise a whole 12 acres of vineyard? This is not your average muck spreading spree.
Albury Organic Vineyard on the chalk slopes of the North Downs next to the Silent Pool in Albury, was the scene of a fertility ritual in December, which saw a pile of clean, hollowed-out horns from female cows filled with fresh, organic cow dung by a team of brave volunteers. The practice itself only dates back to 1924, but it draws on a concept of harmony in nature that goes back millennia.
This ritual is fundamental to the practice of biodynamic agriculture founded by the Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner who promoted 'spiritual science' in the 1920s. His biodynamic agriculture was the first of the organic agriculture movements and dealt holistically with the whole natural circle of soil, plants and animals, including, importantly, cosmic forces.
Nick Wenman is one of a growing band of vineyard owners who believes in the power of biodynamic farming for soil fertility and plant health, and although he is a rarity in the UK, plenty of wine buyers follow the biodynamic calendar for wine tasting. The biodynamic year is divided up into leaf, flower, root and fruit days, according to the lunar influence, and fruit days are regarded as the most auspicious for wine drinking. Some even say that the wine actually tastes better on fruit days.
But back to those cow horns, neatly packed with poo. Nick and his team carried them up through the vines to a pit he had prepared earlier, where they were laid carefully to rest, mouths pointing down so that they did not fill with rainwater and go mushy over the winter. They were covered with soil and the burial finished with a pile of stones to deter animals. And there they will stay until April or May, when they will be lifted out again and their precious contents emptied out.
By then, the manure will have a completely different consistency – dark and crumbly and according to biodynamic principles, packed with cosmic forces. Finally, cricket ball sized roundels of the dung are dissolved in barrels of water and the liquid gets sprayed on the vineyard. Like homeopathic medicine, a little is said to go a very long way.
"We bury horns at three places around the vineyard," said Nick. "The horns are from female cows as they are the most fertile animals and they absorb the cosmic influences. The best way to describe it is that when we spray it, even though it is only a tiny amount, it acts as a trigger to regenerate tired soil and improve its fertility."
He has seen at first hand in France and Australia the difference between the quality of soil on biodynamic vineyards and that on chemically sprayed ones. It is the difference between living and dead soils, he says. Many of the great vineyards and wineries around the world are convinced by the biodynamic approach, including Domaine Leflaive and le Roy in Burgundy, Culee de Serant in the Loire, Beaux Freres in Oregon, Hensche in Australia and Jean-Pierre Fleury in Champagne.
"Biodynamic practices in the vineyard encourage a natural harmony between the earth, the vine and the cosmos as nature intended, without the need to use systemic chemicals," Nick adds. "We believe that this results in a more naturally healthy bio-diverse and sustainable vineyard, producing better quality fruit and ultimately better quality wine, with a unique sense of place or terroir."
And what better evidence for the efficacy of biodynamic agriculture than prizes? Albury Vineyard has won two Gold Awards this year for its sparkling wines in the International Organic Wine Awards 2016.These top awards for Albury Estate Blanc de Blancs and Albury Estate Classic Cuvée came hard on the heels of silvers and bronzes in the Decanter Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge competitions. It's clear that something in the cosmos is aligning for Albury Vineyard ...