From Buyer’s Guide + Issue May 8th, 2009:
Wait! Think twice before dumping that wine down the sink and cursing the critic who recommended it. Maybe it’s just having a bad day. Can it be true, that just like us, your wine can ‘bad days’ as well? To find out, we’ll have to delve a little into the wild world of biodynamics.
Biodynamic agriculture is a worldwide movement that has slipped out of an obscure, cult-like darkness and into the virtual mainstream. What used to be a sub-rosa whisper amongst a few marginalized believers, like the secret subterranean meetings of early Christians, is now openly discussed at tastings, even flaunted as cutting-edge, sustainable, the only route to true terroir wines. It is no secret that many of the world’s top wines are made from grapes grown according to biodynamic principles. Most are even willing to admit it, without risking the raised eyebrows and unbridled skepticism that met the pioneers of the movement begun nearly 30 years ago. I have met many practitioners of biodynamics around the world, and they are all connected by the same unshakeable belief in what they are doing, as though once understood, there is no other way. There manner of speech, too, is similar, as they often gaze into the distance, observing the sky and the soil with an almost mystical reverence as they discuss their methods.
This is not a treatise on biodynamics, the scope of which would be far too lengthy to include in an introduction to a semi-monthly newsletter of wine reviews. But I would like to offer something for you to think about as you enjoy one of the excellent recommendations found below: At what point, if ever, does the “biodynamic” influence on wine cease? If the lunar, solar and even daily energy cycles that are followed to grow grapes and then make wine have such a profound effect on the outcome, then would these same rhythms not continue to affect the way a wine tastes after it is bottled?
Last week I attended a lecture at Geisenheim University in Germany offered by biodynamicist Georg Meißner. A regular lecturer at this internationally respected school, Meißner offered a succinct overview of the principle tenets of biodynamic agriculture. Essentially, the aim is to establish the farm as an organism with its own individuality, incorporating all four “kingdoms”, as outlined by Rudolph Steiner in his 1924 lectures on biodynamics: mineral, plant, animal and human. Man presides over the first three, acting as a mediator between the cosmos and the earth, similar to the way in which a plant is a type of mediator between sky and ground, absorbing sunlight and replenishing the earth with nutrients.
Human beings create a cultural environment, a landscape from nature, thus “agriculture”, brings culture to nature. The farmer creates a specific landscape, which in turn creates or defines a country. S/he therefore has a cultural responsibility towards the land. Look at the etymology of the French words: paisage-paysan-pays (landscape-farmer-country). The connection is unmistakable. Consider the cultural responsibility of tending to a vineyard that has existed for 2000 years, for example. Shortsighted commercialism would be irresponsible.
The biodynamic approach is not to fight with nature, but work with it. Conventional agriculture pits man against nature, in a type of reactionary farming. In an ideal picture of the farm organism, there would be biodiversity with many different organism interacting with each other, which in turn leads to increased sustainability, soil fertility, plant health, animal health and eventually human health. This is hardly a radical concept – it has been around for centuries. One need only look at the structure of an old monastery: self-sustained organisms.
Once you have understood that the life of the farm is linked to all forces, cosmic and earthly, the impact of lunar, solar and daily cycles is easier to grasp. In fact our calendar and traditional holidays are intimately tied to these cycles. Christmas falls near the winter equinox, for example, and Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox.
Biodynamicists speak of periods of “breathing in” and “breathing out” during these cycles, which in turn affect plant growth cycles. Thus a “breathing in” time begins around the summer equinox, when fruits are ripened and energy reverts back to the roots, to the earth. The vine is evidently related to the movement of the sun: bud break occurs around the spring equinox, flowering around the summer solstice, harvest around the fall equinox, and dormancy at the winter solstice. There are daily rhythms to consider too. Morning is a period of breathing out, afternoon breathing in, with a period of change, turmoil and chaos between about 12pm and 3pm. This is precisely when wise individuals are having their siesta. Moon, planetary and astral cycles are of course all considered as well.
Finally (well, not really), the contribution to biodynamics of German grandmother Maria Thun over a half-century ago was the realization that the timing of various farming activities like sowing and harvesting, had a big impact on crop quality. “Maria Thun discovered that plants sown when the moon is passing in front of a constellation bearing the qualities of the Earth element have enhanced root growth. Results were consistently similar with leaf growth and the element of water, enhanced flowering and the element of air, and fuller development of ripe fruit when seeds were sown with the Moon in relation to the element of fire.” http://www.stellanatura.com/use.html Thus Thun devised a calendar in which the days of the year are divided between ‘fruit’, ‘flower’, ‘leaf’ or ‘root’ days. Pointless to plant a radish on a flower day, unless you eat radish flowers, or plant a tomato on a leaf day, unless you like bushy, leafy tomato plants, for example.
So, if you’re still with me, here’s the point. If it makes sense to plant and harvest on specific days to enhance specific characteristics, will wine also show different characters on different days? And what time of day is it and how has that affected you? And what time of year?
This surely sounds crazy, but there is ample evidence, at least anecdotal, to indicate that wines do change their flavour profile on different days and at different times of day. When I used to sell wine to restaurants in Toronto I would grab some samples and try meet with as many sommeliers as possible to maximize sales from each bottle. I was constantly struck by how differently the wine tasted at different times of day and in different environments. The sommelier would of course not notice anything, but I, who had been following and sampling along at each location, could discern noticeable differences. Strange indeed. The same is certainly true of barrel sampling, as I am constantly reminded by winemakers. “Sorry, I’m afraid this barrel isn’t showing well, but we can try that one…” I notice it too, in the few barrels of wine that I make in Hungary. Each time I arrive I’ll race down to the cellar to taste the wines. Sometimes I’m elated, other times, crestfallen. But sure enough I’ll go back down on the second or third day of my visit and the wines will have changed character once again.
If you’re still not convinced, perhaps the recent decision of two major retailers in the UK might give you more to consider. It recently emerged that Tesco and Marks & Spencer's, who together account for one-third of all bottles of wine sold in Britain, “now only invite critics to taste their ranges when the moon-related biodynamic calendar dictates that wines will be at their best… Pier Paolo Petrassi, Tesco's senior product development manager, admitted his firm held its tastings in line with the calendar. "Our first choice is a fruit day. We seek to avoid root and leaf days.” http://news.scotsman.com/uk/Bad-wine-day-It39s-.5183861.jp
Atmospheric pressure, rain, sun, moon, stars, seasonal cycles, time of day, leaf, root, flower & fruit days, your mood and that of your companions, and likely so more to consider…. Just when you were feeling confident that you could tell good from bad, chardonnay from Sauvignon Blanc. Well, there you have it. It’s at least worth thinking about.