Why biodynamic agriculture doesn’t need to make sense to make great wines
Farmers who use biodynamic growing methods choose to plant, weed, treat, harvest and, if they’re winemakers, vinify in concert with the movement of the planets. The point of biodynamic growing, an agricultural movement that looks at organic farmers as folks who do something right if somewhat incompletely, is to look at the growth cycle of the entire field as one holistic unit. To those of us who bear an empirical mind and like to see cold, calculating and clear evidence to support assertions (and I do count myself among that number), biodynamic practices with their airy-fairy reliance on manure-filled and cow-horns that are buried and exhumed, water’s circular memory, and a vague tie between planetary movements and “energy” can make us roll our eyes.
Some people decry the ability of biodynamic agriculture to actually make a difference in winemaking. It’s too magical, too lacking in substance, too weird, and too unscientific, they argue. It is hard to understand exactly how or why water that has moved in one direction rather than another would affect a plant’s hydration, and it’s hard to see how burying a cow horn would do anything to affect a vineyard’s production. Being fairly empirically minded, I might accept these arguments had I not spent an afternoon with Luca di Napoli Rampolla at his biodynamically maintained Tuscan estate, Castello dei Rampolla. This afternoon changed my thinking about biodynamic methods, and even if I don’t understand them, I became a believer.
It might have been spending a couple of hours walking around the estate as Luca pulled up tufts of grass and named each plant in his hand. It might have been his patient explanation of the ways that his vines interact with the trees that surround them, with the soils that support them, and with the weather that touches them. It might have been the clear, unremitting commitment that Luca makes in every choice for his estate—from the solar panels on top of the vinification area to the placement of his chicken coop.
It might be all of that talking, walking and looking helped me grasp that choosing to prune according to how the alignment of the planets will affect the plants. Or it might be sitting on Luca’s terrace, drinking the wine that he made helped me believe. But on that Thursday afternoon, I became a biodynamic convert. I don’t really care how the science works. It’s clear to me that there’s something very special, very alive and very unique about this wine.
Italy, unlike the United States, is a place where people continue to believe in magic. I’ve never lived long enough in other areas of the world to make further comparisons, but while Americans might wistfully wish for magic, Italians feel it. It’s in the mountains and in the sea. It’s in the cities, like Venice and Rome, that shouldn’t exist, not as they do, not after all these centuries. It’s in the food and in the wine. And sometimes, I think, you just have to put science on hold, sit back, exhale, and enjoy the magic. It’s ephemeral, beautiful and vital. If it’s biodynamic, then it’s simply all the better.
IWM has the new 2011 Sammarco release coming from Castello dei Rampolla. Don’t miss this extraordinary biodynamic Super Tuscan!
A look back at the week that was
Probably the post with the biggest bang for your blog-reading buck this week was from David Bertot, our acquisitions manager. As the guy who deals with shipping logistics, David knows a thing or two about weather, so his post about IWM’s hot weather shipping–paired with two great reds for your summertime enjoyment–is more or less required reading. We continued our series on Italian white wine grapes with a look at Pagadebit to Riesling Renano, and, wow, did we learn a thing or two about Trebbiano! Francesco Vigorito explained why the best wines come from the worst soil (it’s called Sassicaia for a reason), and over in Aspen, Emery Long raised a glass of Antinori’s $25 Super-Tuscan rosato from Bolgheri.
Our Experts were in an Italian frame of mind this week, starting with David Gwo, who chose two affordable luxuries from Piemonte icon Aldo Conterno. Garrett Kowalsky looked towards Chianti for his picks, selecting a pair of biodynamic Super-Tuscans that blew him away at past tastings. And Crystal Edgar asks you to put down the rosé wines and pick up the amber ones; she picked two Josko Gravner beauties that will make your summer sing!
Summer 2015 shows clear skies for great wine! We hope you’re enjoying yours with people you love!
Why you need to challenge the vine to produce the best wine
Here’s an interesting cocktail fact: grape vines used for the production of quality wine must be planted in infertile soils in order to generate high quality grapes. In fact, grapevines cultivated for wine grow best in soils that are not fertile enough to sustain other agricultural crops. This concept may seem contradictory at first, but as you will see shortly, it makes perfect sense.
The most important factor in making great wine is the quality of fruit, and the only way to get quality fruit is to choose an optimal vineyard site for the grapes that you want to grow. Climate, position, and soil, (otherwise known as terroir) are the three factors in choosing this site. Each one of these is important on its own merit, but this post will focus on soil—really, really poor soil.
When say I say “poor soil,” I mean just awful soil. In some places, as in the Rhone Valley or some areas of Toscana, there is not even an ounce of dirt in sight, just rocks. It’s hard to believe that a pile of rocks can produce such amazing wine. However, rocky soils provide excellent drainage for the vines as well as capture heat during the day to warm the vines at night. Interestingly, to cultivate great grapes, it’s more important to regulate water supply than to have highly nutritive dirt. In short, bad dirt equals good wine.
Grapevines need to be stressed to produce quality fruit. The poor soil encourages the roots to dig deeper for water and other nutrients. As they dig, the roots begin to ramify, and the surface area of the roots that eventually comes into contact with the soil increases. In turn, more nutrients are delivered to the precious clusters of berries. Also, more roots equal better regulation of water supply, which is very important during the veraison, or the ripening stages of grape.
The fertile and rich soils that are used to grow commercial crops would spoil the grapes—much as spoiling a child makes for a bad-tempered kid, spoiling grapevines makes for ill-flavored fruit. Fertile soils make it too easy for vines to produce grapes, and the vines take advantage and produce like crazy. When this happens, the quality of fruit is sacrificed for quantity. It’s like a child never having to work a day in his or her life. The harder an entity has to work for something, the greater it will be rewarded in the end. Grapes—and winegrowers—like it tough, and I have to love them for it.
These basic concepts are not universal, but they do provide a good background in understanding why growers make wine where they do, and how the soil influences the grapes. Consider it a grounding for your understanding of that delicious beverage we call wine. And feel free to show off by telling people not only does the name“Sassicaia” come from the word “stony,” but also that the wine grown in any other soil would hardly taste as sweet.
Nicolas Joly Visits IWM
This week at IWM we welcomed the esteemed Loire producer Nicolas Joly. Joly is famous within the wine community for his staunch promotion of the winegrowing and winemaking principles of biodynamics. Joly not only practices biodynamics in his vineyards and winery, but he also personally lives the principles. This effectively means that he believes in harnessing the “life forces” of the universe by first trying to understand, and then trying to provide for the natural needs of all things, his vines coming first and foremost. His goal is to express his appellation to its fullest extent in each bottle of his wine.
Joly claims, “It is not that the wine is in biodynamics that is it good,” and I appreciated his admission, especially phrased as it is in his charming English. I’ve heard many wine professionals and fanatics wax rhapsodic over how biodynamic wines are always better in quality, and I respectfully disagree. It may be true that if you look at the whole of the wine world and then at the whole of the biodynamic wine world, the greater percentage of higher quality wines certainly sits in the biodynamic camp. However, I’ve tasted more than a few biodynamic wines that are wanting in one way or another. (I’d further say that you can’t make an absolutely true blanket statement about wine.) Joly went on to explain that the holistic approach is what brings it all together. He observed that “When you are seeing the forces, pulling the right forces into place,” you naturally create quality. Perhaps Joly is right and perhaps he is not, but I do know that his life forces were seamlessly aligned when he created his 2007s. They are showing brilliantly!
In order to fully harness his appellation, Joly strictly avoids adding anything to the winegrowing and winemaking process that is not totally organic and naturally part of the appellation. He explains that when winegrowers don’t abide to this strict biodynamic code, the wine is no longer an honest reflection of its appellation. These additions could be oak chips, enzymes, or they could be the biggest enemy—yeasts, especially aromatic yeasts (mon Dieu!). Having heard some pretty extreme philosophies on this topic of additives from other producers, such as the protest that Rainer Lingenfelder launched at growers who trucked in water from a nearby lake to hydrate their vines during the persistent heat of 2003, I found Joly’s ideas pretty easy to accept.
Then his train of thought moved to sulfur additions, and I was pleasantly surprised that Joly was not completely against adding sulfur. He does, however, point out the sulfur must be natural and not a product from the oil industry, and I agree. First, small amounts of sulfur are naturally produced by yeast during the fermentation process. Second, as Joly points out, “If you ship far away, your wine should have it” because most wines without added sulfur don’t travel well. Joly recollected more than a few bottles he has opened that were not in good condition because the winemakers refused to add sulfur, and by doing so, denied their consumers a better bottle of wine.
But, enough of my “Cliffs Notes.” Click into our videos to hear from the man himself!