What’s the Fuss About Biodynamics?

By Margaret Elderfield

I’m frequently asked how often I can tell whether a wine is made from organically grown grapes or not. The answer is more or less never. But the same is not true of wines from biodynamically grown vineyards. I do find that the latter often have an extra dimension of vitality.” – Jancis Robinson (jancisrobinson.com)

With Olivier Humbrecht joining us for a winemaker dinner later this month, it’s a great moment to focus on biodynamics, the movement Olivier embraced in the mid 1990s.

What is it?

Biodynamics is a farming philosophy that dates back to the early 1920s. 

It was introduced by an Austrian chap called Rudolph Steiner, who set out a grand vision for boosting the health of crops and livestock in a series of lectures. Steiner advocated a natural, holistic approach to farming. He saw the farm as a living, self-sustaining organism. By using natural preparations instead of chemicals, working in harmony with the cycles of the moon and the planets, and maintaining the right diversity of plants and animals, soil health would be enriched and revitalised. In turn, the crops depending on that soil would thrive, and so would the animals eating those crops.

His philosophy also incorporated mystical and spiritual elements. In Steiner’s vision,  biodynamics could harness the cosmic energy of the universe into self-sustaining farms that were teeming with vital life essences.

Zind-Humbrecht, Biodynamics, Alsace, Wine

Horse-drawn ploughing at biodynamic estate Zind-Humbrecht

Biodynamics and Fine Wine

So how did Steiner’s teachings make their way into the fine wine world?  

Fast forward to the 1980s. Only a handful of winemakers had started to use biodynamics (led by Francois Bouchet and Nicolas Joly in the Loire).

A microbiologist working for the French government named Claude Bourguignon grabbed the headlines.  He complained that the soil of the great domains in Burgundy – after years of spraying the vineyards with herbicides – now had less microbial life “than sand in the Sahara desert”.  He freely admitted to winemakers that he didn’t understand exactly how biodynamics worked, but he’d seen that biodynamic vineyards had soils rich in microbial life, and vines with deeper, stronger root systems.

His ideas resonated with some of the top producers in Burgundy, including the great Anne-Claude Leflaive. In an effort to improve wine quality, she began experimenting with organic and biodynamic methods at Domaine Leflaive, and giving blind tastings to professionals in the industry.  When taster after taster preferred the biodynamic wine, she had all the evidence she needed to set about converting the entire domain to biodynamic methods.

Anne Claude Leflaive, Burgundy, Winemaker

Anne-Claude Leflaive

Over time, the methodology spread, and momentum has been building since the 1990s.   Many top flight winemakers throughout the world have converted to biodynamic. And nowadays there are two well-known institutes (Demeter and Biodyvin) who inspect and certify biodynamic wine estates.

So Does it Really Work?

Most of the scientific community is skeptical – they see biodynamics as more of a “religion” than a scientifically proven way to improve crops.

But it’s impossible to ignore the incredible quality of wines from domains like Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaines Leflaive and Leroy in Burgundy, Jacques Selosse in Champagne and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. 

Is it mystical forces at work?  Or is it because these winegrowers have to work harder to keep the vines healthy without resorting to chemical sprays?  Either way, it’s worth getting to know these wines.

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Think Pink

Well done to all who managed to stick to your dry January resolutions. Only one of our team at Clos & Cru attempted it this year, and she very nearly made it. (Charlie, your willpower is awe inspiring for having ‘slipped’ on merely one occasion!)

As February rolls around (and Valentine’s Day nears), our own thoughts are rolling around to rose champagne, as they do every year at this time. Honestly, what’s not to like? Flavours range from the merest hint of elegant raspberry to pastry and sweet spice. Not to mention the gorgeous range of colours – pale salmon to deepest rose.

But how do winemakers achieve that pink colour?

There are 2 main ways.

Assemblage

A.k.a. Blending. By far the most widely used method in Champagne. The winemaker produces a ‘blanc’ champagne in the normal way. Then, before the second fermentation in bottle, they blend in a portion of still red wine (anywhere from 5% to 20%) until they achieve the right colour and flavour profile.

The trick here is getting a still red wine of high quality. And in enough quantity. The Champagne is a northerly region, and the red grape varietals – Pinot Noir and Meunier – don’t always ripen to perfection. They’re also more prone to rot in humid weather than Chardonnay, the region’s white grape.

Pinot Grapes Champagne Roederer

Healthy Pinot grapes   © Louis Roederer

Charles Heidsieck’s non-vintage Rose Reserve – winner of a Gold medal at the Sommelier Wine Awards for 2016 – is a great place to start for anyone wanting to try an assemblage rose champagne.

Saignee

A.k.a. Bleeding. In this method, the winemaker allows the skins from the red grapes to macerate with the juice for a short period before pressing. Just long enough to “bleed” some pink colour into the juice from the skins, but not so long as to make a red wine. Once the saignee is complete, the winemaker makes the champagne as normal.

The challenge is having the knowledge and experience to judge exactly how long to bleed the colour before the wine is even made. Contact with skins doesn’t just bring colour, it brings other aromas, flavours and textures. Too little contact, and the house style might not be achieved. A fraction too long, and vegetal or bitter notes could creep into the finished champagne.

Cristal Rose, the prestige vintage cuvee from Louis Roederer, is made with this method, and is a favourite of top champagne critic Richard Juhlin. The 1979 vintage still features on his list of all-time favourite champagnes ever tasted – at 99 pts out of 100.