Biodynamic wine: the true taste of terroir
'Terroir’. Many a wine fancier’s rhapsody has rung out over ‘terroir’ – the idea that the liquid being supped is an expression of the specific geology and climate of the land the grapes are grown on. Many, it has to be said, aren’t supported by anything other than an emotional or a commercial interest in that land.
The truth is, the wine maker’s science or art is almost always a matter of interrupting the natural process. Wine production on the scale that supplies us with the supermarket bottles we drink, is not as simple as growing grapes, funnelling their juice into barrels and waiting for a long time. There’s huge amount of tinkering that goes on to ensure that the producer’s aims (uniformity of taste, vintage after vintage, optimum production level and so on) are met. Chaptalisation, elaboration, acidification and deacidification are just part of the producer’s routine, and the list of processes goes on and on. As does the list of additives used in these processes.
From picking the grapes to corking the bottles, wine producers in the EU are allowed to use more than 50 additives to make their wines ‘just so’. In other parts of the world the list of additives legislated for is even higher. Making sense of these lists is something you may not fancy doing, unless you have an A-level in chemistry.
Sulphur dioxide is the big one. This compound is used widely as a food and drink preservative. It’s also often blamed for a drinker’s hangover, and is done so unreasonably (the real cause is an over-indulgence in alcohol; the same goes for the ‘mixing your drinks’ myth). Another one that stands out is isinglass. This is made from the dehydrated swim bladders of certain fish, traditionally sturgeon. There’s also lysozyme, bentonite, potassium ferrocyanide, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone… I should point out that I only managed GCSE chemistry.
The use of these 50-odd additives is common practice, but the good news is that they merely sound malign. So long as they are used by a wine maker who knows what he’s doing, they are not detectable in the final product. They do however put the idealised notion of ‘terroir’ in perspective. They also prompt the question: what do we want our wine drinking experience to be about?
Yes, occasionally a bottle of wine from the corner shop will meet our needs, but what about when we want to exercise a bit of epicurean virtue? At such times, surely pleasure lies in wine that is, as far as possible, an expression of the land and weather conditions that made it possible. Wine that can offer a broader spectrum of taste from bottle to bottle, vintage to vintage. This brings us back to ‘terroir’, and there is one place where the term ‘terroir’ can be meaningfully applied: the field of biodynamic winemaking.
Biodynamics as an agricultural method emerged in 1924. European farmers, worried that industrialisation had weakened their soils and enfeebled their crops, turned to philosopher and all-round enlightenment man Rudolf Steiner. Influenced by the holism of Goethe, astrology and occultism, Steiner came up with a way of cultivating crops that did away with the chemicals and mechanisation of large-scale agriculture. Instead it was guided by the cycles of the moon and used only natural aids to grow crops: organic compost, biological green manures and herbal treatments. The aim was to produce a sustainable system of agriculture that would enhance the quality and flavour of whatever was grown – and make people feel better.
The spread of biodynamics was cut short by the Second World War, but continued to be practiced on a small scale here and there, as it continues to be today. There are, for instance, about 400 biodynamic vineyards in France, and a handful have begun to pop up in the UK (though at the time of writing only one is certified as biodynamic). But biodynamics is catching on. Last December a Decanter magazine debate concluded that the wine trade should promote biodynamic methods. The stuff has even made it on to our supermarket shelves. Waitrose has “around 14” wines that are certified as biodynamic, “with many others that choose to follow certain principles of biodynamic winemaking”.
One biodynamic producer I have had the pleasure of visiting is Jacques Broustet in Bordeaux. Owing to his unorthodox methods, he is known in and around the commune of St Pierre d’Aurillac as ‘le sorcier’. For the past eight years, on his modest 3-hectare estate, Monsieur Broustet has been producing wine according to strict biodynamic principles. He is someone who, more than the people at Chateau Margaux, Petrus, or any other of his region’s premier-league wine producers, can justifiably claim to be producing ‘terroir’ wine. The true taste of Bordeaux, if you like. Jacques’ current red, Autrement de Lamery 2009, is available from the excellent natural wine specialist Caves de Pyrene, based in Guilford, Kent.
Biodynamic wines, as Jacques himself says, are based on “respect de la nature et du terroir”. And happily, the absence of an A-level in chemistry won't stop you from fully enjoying them.
Written by: Darren Smith