If you're of a cynical bent, you might think that the world of wine couldn't possibly become more pretentious than it is. Prepare, then, for your jaw to drop at the practices of biodynamic winemaking. The strangest thing is, as Fiona Sims reports, these odd rituals actually seem to work
A couple of rather odd things happened last week. First, I asked the sommelier at the new Alain Ducasse restaurant in the Dorchester hotel in London to choose the wine for me. The list was huge, and my dining partner was in no mood to let me to spend more than a minute flicking through it, however much I wanted to.
Hugues Lepin chose three - and all were biodynamic. And yes, they were good - great, even. Josmeyer's Grand Cru Hengst Riesling is one of my all-time favourites, and the 2005 was the perfect partner for the simmered duck foie gras, mango and "dolce forte" sauce. Lepin explains: "They have a natural balance, as well as a freshness and a structure that works extremely well with our food without overpowering it. And they also have a sense of place, which is central to our philosophy."
On a second occasion, in hot new London tapas bar Dehesa, I chose a couple of wines to go with my dishes, and both turned out to be biodynamic. Says owner Simon Mills: "Our philosophy is to champion indigenous grapes from small producers, which are biodynamic or organic wherever possible."
What's going on?
It turns out that many of the wines on my personal "hot" list are made biodynamically. Why am I bringing this up now? Because, until a year or two ago, nobody even dared mention the word.
If I told you that a biodynamic winemaker takes the flower heads of yarrow, fermented in a stag's bladder, and applies them to compost, or that he ferments oak bark in the skull of a domestic animal, you would think he was a bit nuts, wouldn't you? That's why people don't shout about it - it's just too weird.
But such processes seem to work. Some of the world's greatest wine producers are already making wine biodynamically, and increasing numbers are dabbling in it, from California to Australia, Chile to South Africa, Italy to France - especially France.
So what exactly is biodynamic winemaking? Good question. Let me say that many winemakers who do it don't fully understand it. "It's like Japanese: if you jump straight into it, it's too esoteric, too strange," says Alsace biodynamic winemaker André Ostertag.
Another convert, Dominique Lafon, from the great Meursault estate of the same name, adds: "At first you can't believe the stories that you hear, but once you see for yourself what is going on in the vineyard, you are more ready to accept it."
The term "biodynamic" translates roughly from its Greek roots as meaning "working with life energies". Biodynamic wines are those made from grapes grown following the principles of biodynamic agriculture, stemming from a series of lectures delivered by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), linking man, the earth and the cosmos.
Steiner believed: "It is impossible to understand plant life without taking into account that everything on Earth is actually only a reflection of what is taking place in the cosmos." The biodynamic farmer thus sees the farm in the context of a wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. No synthetic fertilisers or pesticides are used here instead, they use a range of special preparations (the aforementioned oak bark, etc) to boost the productivity of the soil. These are diluted, then applied in homeopathic quantities determined by the position and influences of the sun, moon and stars.
The height of the moon, for example, is crucial to the planting cycle. When the moon is descending, sap flows downwards and things don't grow as fast (including your hair, apparently - so it's a good time to get it cut), making this the best time to plant young vines. But that, of course, depends on where you are in the signs of the zodiac. I told you it was weird.
The days in the biodynamic agricultural calendar are divided up according to the signs of the zodiac. There are root days (earth signs - Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn), leaf days (water signs - Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), flower days (air signs - Gemini, Aquarius, Libra) and fruit days (fire signs - Leo, Sagittarius, Aries). If you plant your potatoes on a root day in a falling moon, you'll have a perfect crop - or something like that. This is organic farming with knobs on.
It sounds mysterious, I know, but grape growers who have embraced the system report great improvements in the health of their vineyards, while winemakers claim to produce cleaner, more vibrant wines.
Lafon, who first started experimenting with biodynamics more than 10 years ago, says: "You see better growth in the vineyard - longer shoots, with roots that go really deep. I saw a vineyard that was almost dead double its crop after being farmed biodynamically."
And he declares: "Our fruit is riper, more intense, and better balanced in terms of acidity, with a more even crop. And all of us have felt that there's more energy in the wines - in the whites, especially."
There are more than 20 producers in Burgundy who are into biodynamics, but Alsace boasts more than anywhere else in the world. "I guess it's a question of geography - Steiner's influence along the Rhine," explains Ostertag, who first experimented with it in 1997.
He, too, saw a virused vineyard spring back to life with biodynamics. "I was so impressed, I had to try it," he says. "It became less and less strange as I went along, though I can't explain why it works. Even scientists don't understand how it works. It's not rational, and I'm a really rational person. I don't think about it too much, I just do it."
You'll have to do your homework to search out biodynamic producers - most don't exactly shout about it (it's a spiritual thing, rather than a marketing thing), and give no indication on the back labels. Those that do so open up another can of worms, as very few growers are certified biodynamic (Demeter, a certified trademark of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association, is the main certifying body in the UK).
You could always search out Frederic Grappe. He runs Dynamic Vines, the first wine supplier to concentrate on biodynamic wines. His name might be familiar to many in the industry - he was formerly head sommelier at both Orrery and Roussillon restaurants in London. He has about 70 biodynamic wines on his books, from 18 different producers - all French, except one from Spain. And, yes, his on-trade accounts are mostly top-end, so far.
Grappe says: "I feel that these wines really need to be explained, so I need passionate people buying them, with serious lists." That said, one of his biggest customers is a modest French bistro, La Trouvaille, off London's Carnaby Street, whose co-owner, Guillaume Siard, is now a huge fan of biodynamic wines and lists 85 of them on his 100-bin list.
The bistro didn't start out that way, however. "When we opened eight years ago," Siard says, "we specialised in wines from the South of France, but we realised that most of the wines that we had chosen for the list were made organically or biodynamically. I am drawn to wines that have pure flavours, a vibrancy, balance and authenticity - which these have. But you need to choose carefully. Just because the wines are organic and biodynamic doesn't mean they are good."
He does attempt to explain biodynamics on his list, but to keep things simple he marks each wine with an "N" for natural. He explains: "It's much easier that way, as some aren't certified organic or biodynamic, and some are."
Grappe has lots of explaining to do, but most people get it, he says. "Restaurant wine buyers are becoming increasingly bored with the globalisation of wines - the lack of identity and character," he believes. "Biodynamic wines are just so much more authentic - closer to the area they come from."
This is what drew him to biodynamic wines in the first place. "My palate was just moving closer and closer to these kinds of wines," he explains. "It's not just about the wines, either, it's about the people behind it. And there are more and more winemakers moving in this direction. In France, they were seen as complete freaks up until five years ago. Some people still think that."
You can't really blame them. Biodynamic winemaking has provoked a fair amount of scepticism, especially in the scientific community, who are put off by its rather esoteric, cultish image. And no full studies have been conducted yet, which would help its wider acceptance.
Nobody can say for sure how biodynamics contributes to these wines. There aren't any non-biodynamic wines made by the same producers in the same way to compare them against, and the practice has picked up only in the past 10 years.
Biodynamic agriculture is tricky and precise, and requires an enormous commitment from the winemaker, but the fact remains that some of the best vineyards - and vegetable gardens - in the world are biodynamic.
Four biodynamic wines to try
- 2006 Fleur de Lotus Josmeyer, Alsace, France (£7.60, Dynamic Vines, 020 7287 2179) "Combines the raciness of Riesling with the spiciness of Gewurz bright fruit, delicious aromatics"
- 2006 Grolleau Vieilles Vignes, Le Cousin, Domaine Cousin-Leduc, Anjou, Loire, France (£7.80, Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 538820) "Terroir with a capital ‘T' not to everyone's taste, but the funky, bloody, sour-cherry fruit will certainly get them talking"
- 2004 Faugères tradition, Domaine Leon Barral, France (£7.95, Les Caves de Pyrene) "Damson and violet fruit, with a big whiff of the Garrigues supple tannins"
- 2006 Mein Klang Pinot Noir, Burgenland, Austria (£6.60, Vintage Roots, 0118 976 1999) "Soft, smoky cherry and redcurrant fruit with a touch of spice on the finish"
Getting a taste
Want to taste a line-up of biodynamic wines? Then head to Les Caves de Pyrene's annual "Real Wine Tasting" at Il Bottaccio, 8-9 Grosvenor Place, London SW1, on Monday and Tuesday 14-15 April from 10.30am to 6pm. This year, more than 35 top growers from Italy, France and the New World, working in either organic or biodynamic viticulture, will present their wines and be on hand to discuss their winemaking philosophies.