A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about organic wines and organic grape viticulture. A good friend of mine who read the article then asked me what the difference between organic and biodynamic is. I took a deep breath, and basically told her the following:
Whatever your politics are, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there are some pretty huge problems inherent in the current business of agriculture. Way back before anyone was yammering about corn subsidies or crop rotation, though, an Austrian scientist in the 1920s named Rudolf Steiner developed a revolutionary treatise concerning the growing of grapes for wine. Though he didn’t coin the term “biodynamic” himself, his ideas are the basis of this school of thought. The core of his philosophy centers on the idea of natural balance. More specifically, the symbiotic balance of the soil and air here on earth, as well as with the cosmos. He thought that if there were complete balance between man, nature, soil and the cosmos, the earth would be healthier and, in turn, the grapes that grew from that soil.
These ideas penetrate every aspect of grape growing, starting with farmers timing their every activity in accordance with the position of the moon and stars. The fertilization of the field, pruning and harvesting are all mapped out, not only to the day, but down to the hour that is the most favorable in the eyes of the universe. The farmers who practice biodynamism say that there is a marked difference in the plants come harvest time. The leaves are healthier, the grape skins thicker and the grapes themselves ripen earlier.
As in organic winemaking, chemicals of any kind are out of the question. In biodynamics, however, the type of fertilizer used for the vines is so specific that growers must use a different fertilizer type for each part of the plant. Regular old cow dung compost is used for the soil. For the roots, however, horn dung is used. Finally, for better photosynthesis, horn silica is used. This is pulverized silicum and water mixed in the horn of a cow (a mixture that must be stirred in a specific pattern to adhere to, you guessed it, the cosmos) then buried for several months to cure.
“These people sound crazy!” you are probably shouting.
If the wines made by these moon-dancing lunatics were no better than wine made by anyone using typical modern wine-making techniques, I would completely agree. But many of them aren’t just better. They’re the best.
M. Chapoutier, arguably the most well-known producer in the Rhone Valley, uses biodynamic techniques in most of its wines. Many of Chapoutier’s Rhone wines are prohibitively expensive, but they have a handful of less expensive offerings that are just as good, including Chapoutier Bila-Haut 2008 Cotes de Roussillon ($13.99 at Morrell & Company, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Fifth Avenue betw. 49th and 50th streets, 212-688-9370). Grown south of the Rhone, this robust red still uses the typical Southern Rhone grape varietals—syrah, Grenache and carignan. It is spicy up top with baked strawberry fruit through the middle and a cedar-y, cinnamon-laden finish.
Nicolas Joly is the last word in Savennieres, the complex white wine that hails from the central Loire Valley in northwest France. To produce full-bodied whites that can go toe to toe with most high-end white Burgundies, Joly also implements 100 percent biodynamic practices. Nicolas Joly “Les Clos Sacres,” 2006 Savennieres ($48.99 at Beacon Wine and Spirits, 2120 Broadway at 74th Street, 212-877-0028) may be a bit more pricey, but it is worth every penny. Right out of the bottle it gives tons of green apple, pear and honeysuckle, but once it has opened for a half hour or so, it begins changing. Scents of wildflowers and notes of burnt sugar, tropical fruit and a nutty finish on the palate make this one of the most interesting white wines I have ever tasted.
Whether or not you are a convert to the ideas (and ideals) behind biodynamics, it is difficult to argue quackery when faced with amazing wines like these.
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