29th Nov 2011
Biodynamic wine: more than moonshine?
by Brian Miller
"Biodynamics produces wines that make you think more clearly". This thought-provoking announcement was made by a winemaker recently in the press. He continued: ?With biodynamic wine you are tasting all of the cosmos distilled down into one spot". All of it.
In his novel, The Information, Martin Amis said of the cosmos: "It would seem that the universe is thirty billion light years across, and every inch of it would kill us if we went there. This is the position of the universe with regard to human life". So decanting biodynamic wine is recommended. The crust will be mostly dark matter anyway.
Biodynamicists glow with good intentions but, unchecked, their language can drift from earthbound common sense into esoteric eco-babble. Organics and Biodynamics tend to blur, perhaps intendedly, but there are distinctions. Organic agriculture is entry-level ecology. It involves muck, mulch, manure and the lyrics to Big Yellow Taxi. Composting is comforting, celebrity gardeners gambol in the stuff and it woos worms. On the other hand, there is a reason why potting-mix comes with a warning-label urging you to don face-mask and gloves. It?s called Legionnaires' Disease and is as potentially lethal as it is entirely natural.
Biodynamics demands a further leap of faith, and into one. It grafts astrology to oenology and involves rites, rituals, calendars, cow-pats and a founder who believed that eating potatoes causes journalism. True. Rudolf Steiner was the cryptic mystic inventor of Anthroposophy, which was easy for him to say. He never actually practised farming but that did not stop him from authoritatively addressing agriculture and giving birth to biodynamics. He also expressed some odious opinions about spirituality and skin colour, and he wasn?t talking about grape skins.
One wine writer, who used to be as funny as Woody Allen used to be, underwent a consummate conversion and now advocates biodynamism with the evangelical zeal of a Thermomix demonstrator on heat. He wrote: "We carry within us an archetypal idea of wine as a natural product of the earth ... we carry, too, a little deeper down, a remnant awareness of wine?s ancient cultural and spiritual significance ? we like to believe that the wine we drink has not been buggered around with too much.? That?s fine, and finely written, as long as reality has not been buggered around with too much either.
Natural? Well, not quite. There is little that?s natural about a vineyard, be it biodynamic or businesslike. Grape vines in nature do not line up in regimented rows, nor trim their own trunks. Their natural inclination is not to make hooch for humans. It's to climb trees, seek sunlight and make baby vines. We severely subvert that natural endeavour by annually offing their offspring and drinking their blood.
There is even less that?s natural about wine. Grapes in the wild do not change into Grange. They turn into new vines or sour grapes. Wine is a much manipulated beverage and is no more ?natural? than raw-milk cheese, brown sugar or Brazilian blondes. Neither is there anything natural about the biodynamic practice of cramming cow poo into a cow?s horn. Left to their own devices, cattle tend not to do that. The concept may be cosmic, but it is far from intuitive and you wonder about the first person caught doing it behind the barn.
It is true that the Earth is a profound source of natural power and elemental energy. If once-living organic matter is buried underground for a period of time, and the planet is allowed to exert its natural influence, free from human interference, you end up with ? petroleum. And coal. A build-up of bird droppings will mutate into nitrate, and supernaturally into superphosphate. Some refining is required, just as organic wine is refined to make organic brandy.
The significance of the spirituality I can not speak for - and neither can anyone else without a ouija board - but the cultural influence is approaching cult status. A bunch of winemakers are now manically biodynamic, dozens are dabbling and fellow travellers are ?in conversion?, which means they are converting to biodynamism about as quickly as I?m converting to celibacy. Self interest also plays its part. A cosmic connection enhances your chances of selling wine to a holistic new market-segment of caring, sharing, environmentally-conscious, new-age customers. Like British and German supermarket chains.
Biodynamic vignerons would be difficult to dislike even if you wanted to. They are invariably charming, disarming and as well-meaning as water-diviners - unless you are a stag or a steer, and value your bonce and your bladder. They could be more open about the involuntary involvement of the insides of animals in the alchemy. The excuse that "The cow was dead when we got here? - also known as the ivory smugglers' defence - won?t wash with vegans.
Biodynamicists idolise the Moon, a remote rock that knows nothing of liquids, lunacy, months or Mondays, and does not discriminate between sea, land, water, wine or world events. Its strongest physical influence is when we can't see it, at the new moon, and only then because it has the intense clout of the Sun?s gravity behind it. Some life-forms evolved to take advantage of the incidental, comparatively small and strictly coastal tidal pull, including sardines, soldier crabs, sea-turtles and real-estate agents. But grape-vines are ocean-ambivalent at best and equally immune to the moon. That serene Stiltonic disc sends us down three things - weakly reflected sunlight, very faint gravity and inspiration for lame song-lyrics.
But apart from that, and apart from the occasional shocker, many biodynamic winemakers make fine wines and most would not know how not to. And that factor alone may be more important than all the moonshine combined.
So I tracked down a Pinot Noir made by the winemaker quoted at the beginning of this article and shared it with a friend. By the end of the bottle - as mystical as this must sound - we were definitely thinking more clearly. Or we thought we were.