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What is.. Biodynamic Wine

Well, it sounds very exciting – alive & of the moment – but what is it really all about? & how much does it really differ from regular organic? Or indeed regular regular.

 

Quite a lot, it transpires. The biodynamic movement continues to sweep through the wine industry, converting many a top winemaker along the way. And, although not without its sceptics, produces wines of critical acclaim. Even globally renowned critic, Mr Robert Parker, has adopted its methods his co-owned Domaine Beaux-Freres in Oregan. Interested piqued? Mine too.. Definitely worth digging a bit deeper.

 

Biodynamic Agriculture is by no means a new movement: it was first introduced by a certain Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, in his lectures of 1924. Steiner’s “spiritual science” does not make for an easy read, but its essence is a simple one: of the farm – its soil, animals & plant – being one living organism, & therefore all its components being inextricably linked. Combine that with an awareness & sensitivity to astrological forces, it is easy to see why it has met with such success in the world of wine making where the end product is so dependent the minutae detail of its origin & the dedication & skill of its grower. Not to mention surrounding climactic conditions.

And the beauty is, the deeper you dig, the weirder & wonderfuler it gets. In order to be certified biodynamic, growers must adhere to the strict 9 “preparations” as listed by certifying body, The Demeter Society. These preparations are specific mixes of cow manure, plants & quartz (silica), many of which are prepared/held in specific animal parts (from the humble cow horn to rather more gruesome “skull of a domestic animal”). These of the earth tinctures are then ‘dynamised’ by hand-stirring in alternate directions for an hour or so & then applied to the vines at times dictated by both the phases of the moon & positions of the astrological constellations. No one ever said cosmic connectivity was easy.

 

It is these obscurely precise treatments, coupled with a dedication to working harmoniously with the cosmos, that differentiate biodynamic with that of organic. Whilst both practices shun the use of any chemicals, the biodynamic movement unquestionably comes from more of a spiritually holistic (& indeed mythical) school of thought. Problem with a pest? Simply catch a young virile member of said pests community; remove & burn its skin & then scatter over the affected area when Venus is in the sign of Scorpio. I did promise weird.

 

This is, however, where biodynamic farming gathers its critics: some of Steiner’s prescriptions feeling more akin to a religious cult than holistic farming system. And whilst there is an undeniable gulf in biodiversity & soil health in between it & regular farming practice, trials between biodynamic & organic lead to inconclusive results. Or perhaps conclusively, there is no difference noted.. However the proof is, of course, in the pudding. Or in this case glass.

 

And the glass looks a rather bountiful one, with some of the biggest estates either steadfastly flying, or experimenting with the biodynamic flag.  Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, , arguably one of the best & certainly most expensive wines in the world has been organic since 1985, & after experimenting with biodynamic methods for some time, has fully converterted as Aubert de Villaine found it “the best way to be as close to the vineyard as possible, and for the vines to be most in harmony with nature”. Staying within Burgundy, perhaps one of the most interesting cases is that of Domaine Leflaive, another wholly biodynamic estate. Family owner Anne-Claude Leflaive cited a particular terroir of older vines: riddled with disease they were advised to replant. Since the vines were considered ‘lost’, they decided to experiment, employing solely biodynamic preparations. 20 years on they are now their oldest vines & a picture of health. Domaine Leflaive went fully biodynamic in 1997 after 7 years of taste trials vs organic methods, so not a decision taken lightly.

 

Both de Villaine & Leflaive were, however, trailing in the wake of the Loire’s Nicholas Joly. Seen by many as ‘the godfather’ of biodynamic wine, ex-banker Joly took over his family’s estate, Chateau de la Roche aux Moines, as a modern agriculture sceptic. Until, that is, he came across a book on biodynamic farming.   He made his first biodynamic wine in 1981 & the estate has been fully so since 1985. Joly is a globally published & celebrated author on the matter, inspiring both consumers & growers alike. Rather infamously he has “Nature Assistant” rather than “Winemaker” on his business card.

 

Over 450 vineyards are now fully biodynamic across the world. And this figure continues to grow as many dabble with its ethereal ways in their quest for bottled perfection. Whilst many producers eschew some of the more “voodoo” practices (Demeter thankfully does not stipulate ALL of Steiner’s lore), the ecological harmony promoted by a biodynamic philosophy seems indisputable. Wine is a product evocative of its source; if that source is chemical & barren, one would expect it to taste so. If the source is rich & diverse, nourished & protected by only what is naturally available from that very area, then you would something rather more true to its roots.

 

Whilst cynics may suggest the reason biodynamic methods have been so successful in wine is because it’s the one agricultural industry whose mark-ups can afford to, the success itself is harder to criticize. Be it through grower devotion, or something altogether more other-worldly, biodynamic wine tastes delicious. Whether it is any more so than its organic & less so counterparts is of course subjective, but in a world where we are increasingly aware the health of our surroundings, & indeed ourselves, biodynamic farming feels like a hearty nod in the right direction. And given that we deign to tinker with the tipple of the Gods, it somehow feels wise to keep Mother Nature on our side.

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  • What is… Botrytis

    A most noble of rots indeed. Noble rot? Surely a contradiction in itself..

    No, it really is – botrytis, or “noble rot” is a GOOD fungus that likes moist conditions & ripe grapes. A rot that makes the finest sweet wines in the world, think Sauternes, Tokaji & Riesling Auslese. Scientifically known at Botrytis Cinerea, & from the same family as Stilton & penicillin, the fungus has 2 guises, both of which are at the mercy of the weather gods, “noble” or “grey’. No prizes for guessing the black sheep of the family.

     

    In perfect conditions, there is just the right amount of humidity for the fungus to permeate the skin of the grapes, followed by dry sunshine. Which is why the Graves area of left bank Bordeaux, Sauternes, makes such worthy botrytised fare; subsidiary river Ciron’s close proximity to the Garonne creates a naturally occurring mist that allows the rot to take hold, followed by beautiful Southern French sunshine. This dehydrates the grapes from within, but maintains the all important sugar levels, making for a intense & complex glass or 2. Yes please. Should the humidity decide to stick about, grey rot sets in, ruining the grapes & not making for any glass at all; a most perilous nobility indeed!

    Legend varies depending on its provenance. The Germans, as ever, have done their homework & spun a yarn of Homeric worth. With dates, of course. The tale starts in 1775 at the Bishop of Fulda’s estate. Each year, the harvest of his precious Riesling grapes awaited his say so. However, this particular year the abbey messenger (who had been dispatched to give the holy green light) was robbed en route to the estate, so harvest was delayed by 3 weeks, just enough time for botrytis to nobly install itself. The grapes were deemed unworthy & given to peasants who duly produced a most delicious wine. Spatlese (late harvest) went on to have global acclaim in all its delicately balanced glory.

     

    Not to accept defeat, especially where German neighbours are concerned, Hungarian legend puts its stake in a good couple of centuries earlier, the first record of an aszu (wine from botrytised grapes) in works from 1571. Towel turning stuff indeed.

     

    Modern day botrysised wines are some of the finest & highly regarded bottles around. From Sauternes’ “liquid gold”, Chateau d’Yquem, to Hungarian Tokaji being coined “Wine of Kings. King of Wines” by Louis XIV. This noble rot generally comes with a fairly noble price-tag to boot. And justly so. Perfect weather conditions don’t manifest themselves year on year & the grapes have to be picked by hand. A labour of love with an understandably small yield. Some things are worth their scarcity.

    Grape requirements are thin-skinned & tight bunches. So, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc & Furmint; spanning German, French, South African & Hungarian varietals. Tasting notes range from honey to ginger to mushroom & come in at varying levels of acidity, depending on the grape itself & how long the rot is allowed to settle in.

     

    So there we have it; delicious with dessert, or indeed cheese, or even as an aperitif. Botrytis can come to stay any day, provided he packs his airs & graces. Also a strong contender for scrabble, not to mention hangman. Versatile AND virtuous. I’ll drink to that.

     

     

     

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