Alois Lageder is a 54 hectare (135 acre) family winery in the stunning Alto Adige region of Italy. Here, every function is carried out biodynamically. “Quality is the fruit of many individual, mostly small, often unpredictable details. By paying close attention we can recognize these hidden connections,” says a video produced by the family.
Biodynamics is a holistic practice, a philosophy developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner at the turn of the 20th century. Biodynamic practitioners see the farm as a self-sustaining environment, a culture that balances natural life forces for a healthy atmosphere. No synthetics are used, so the consumer can trust that their wine contains no chemicals. Any treatments that the vineyard requires are natural and in the truest sense of biodynamics, they are also produced from materials or animals nurtured on-site or nearby. The lunar cycle dictates when tasks are performed and biodiversity is a key purpose, from the soil to the surrounding lands. In winemaking, these same objectives apply in the cellar.
Biodynamics work with nature, based on the realization that any technique acquired through industrialization is likely resisting nature. Monocultures designed for increased yields lose balance, and many establishments have chosen to treat these imbalances with fertilizer and chemicals. Biodynamics instead considers all aspects in a frame of interplay.
Back to Alois Lageder where the dream of biodynamics hatched in the 1970s, when Alois Lageder IV “repositioned” the family operation towards quality, innovation and sustainability. Lageder thought that conversion to biodynamics “took courage” and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the family began to experiment with the practices — by 2004, Alois Lageder had officially converted to biodynamics.
Now their facility is made entirely of earthly products and is climatized naturally through the use of water and a rock wall employed to chill the air in the winery. Alois Lageder operates under a sustainable energy concept and the winery has zero carbon production. Biodynamic treatments include horn manure, six compost preparations, 20 types of cover crop and horn silica on the vines. At Alois Lageder, they know each treatment item as well as its source. Astromaps placed around various locations remind the team to “look at the moon and planets” as a guide. “Nature is much more powerful that we are,” says Alois Lageder IV.
The Lageder family welcomes cows, donkeys, fowl and sheep into the vineyard to help control weeds and contribute to soil fertility. A “lullaby” is played in the cellar to harmonize the aging wine — it’s Bach, played on delay so one minute of music is stretched to one hour, to give the wine “more to time to age, to slow down,” according to Alois Lageder IV. The labels on the bottles were designed by artists, brought in to capture elements of the vineyard and winemaking process.
In addition to their own vineyards, they partner with 80 other Italian growers — 50% of which are practicing biodynamics — with a goal to convince all partner-growers to convert by 2023. The Alois Lageder team is literally “knocking on doors” to educate others about biodynamics.
The estate is under the care of the fifth and sixth generation of Lageder family winemakers — Alois IV and his children, siblings Clemens, Anna and Helena Legeder. I had the opportunity to ask Clemens Lageder a few questions about life at their biodynamic winery and vineyards.
Jill Barth: For farms and vineyards in conversion to biodynamics from another way of agriculture, do you have a few words of wisdom about the process?
Clemens Lageder: Be patient and be open to learn as many new things as possible. Biodynamics is not a magic wand, where suddenly everything gets better, but you have to deal intensively with the matter. It helps to broaden one’s own horizon. You question the approach in the vineyard and in the cellar, but also yourself. This allows you to develop constantly.
JB: Please describe the atmosphere in your vineyards. Sight, smells, animals, sounds…
CL: We promote biodiversity by sowing ground cover plants and planting shrubs. We have cows and sheep grazing in the vineyards from September until April. The animals with their manure help to build up more humus in the soil and thus to increase fertility. This means that there are more worms, which in turn attract more birds. We also have many more different flowering herbs than before. You feel, see and smell that there is life in the vineyards. Biodynamics is all about breathing life in the landscape.
JB: How is biodiversity important to vineyards? Is monoculture a threat?
CL: It helps to increase and maintain fertility of the soil without using chemical fertilizer. Fertility is the most important value of a soil. An infertile soil isn’t worth a penny.
JB: Can you speak to the farm as self-sustaining? I know this is an important element to biodynamics.
CL: One of the goals of biodynamics is to build a closed farm organism and to increase diversity and fertility. Therefore we collaborate with mountain farmers who bring their cows and sheep in the winery’s vineyards during the autumn and winter months, following the old tradition of transhumance. This helps to increase the vitality of the grapes and the biodiversity.
JB: Please share the philosophy behind COMETS wine.
CL: These wines are all about experimentation and innovation. Some experiments are successful, some are not. However, the COMETS always help us to learn something new and work on the quality of our wines all the time, also concerning the changing climatic conditions.
That’s why they are called COMETS: Comets flash by, leave a trail, and burn out. Some last for years, others just a few seconds. They can light a path to guide us in what we do every day. The COMETS influence our work. Some burn up and are rejected, while others become stars and an integral part of our assortment. We are experimenting with exotic grape varieties, which are not typical for the region, rediscovering forgotten native varieties and trying out old, traditional vinification methods.
Every COMET is unique, just like a fingerprint, and the labels on every single bottle have been made by hand: the tail of a comet painted on with a finger.
The experiments can be traced back to the 80s, when my father Alois Lageder IV started cultivating exotic grape varieties in Alto Adige in response to the latest climate models. For example, he planted Tannat, which is better adapted to warm temperatures. The variety remains part of the experiments in the vineyard and cellar, and also makes up the bulk of the CASÒN Rosso cuvee since 2017.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.