OPPENHEIM — Well, Readers, I’m seriously underdressed for this expedition. Last week the temperature was in the mid-80s in northern Europe, and I packed my bag accordingly. Yesterday morning, I could have used a scarf and sweater when we boarded the bus that took us to the Geisenheim Research Institute (about 45 minutes away), for a presentation by Prof. Dr. Randolf Kauer and to visit one of the school’s experimental vineyards. (We also had lunch in the student cafeteria, where the food was neither better nor worse than the food in any student cafeteria in the world.) Kauer is apparently the only scientist in Europe devoted exclusively to the study of organic and biodynamic farming methods, and he and his students take a rigorous approach to these important subjects.

They’re important for two reasons. First, more and more grape-farmers, estate-owners and winemakers are turning to organic or biodynamic methods to ensure the health of the soil and terroir and to (theoretically, at least) produce better wine. (Still, “more and more” adds up to less than two percent of vineyard acreage in Germany.) Second, the notion of “organic” in this new sense, along with the general tenor of the “green” movement, permeates world culture now; the zeitgeist is green, friends, and marketability and profitability in many industries is tied (however tenuously and temporarily) to the process of going organic.

I’ll hit some high-points of Prof. Kauer’s illustrated lecture here and delve into the implications of organic and biodynamic practices next week when I’m back in the USA. Kauer was well-spoken, engaging and slyly humorous. I mean, you have to like a guy who will stand up in public and say, “What is spontaneous fermentation, I often ask myself.”

Kauer divided organic practices into three levels: (1) Sustainable or Integrated Viticulture, that is “good viticultural practices” that all growers should perform; (2) Certified Sustainable Viticulture, which take #1 and adds guidelines set down by the federal states (of Germany); (3) Certified Organic or Biodunamic Viticulture, which takes points 1 and 2 and adds the guidelines and controls of the various organic associations, such as ECOVIN and Demeter.

These levels of activity are aimed at producing the healthiest soil and the healthiest vines possible, most of the work involving treatment of the vines themselves — reducing vigor, exact training systems and canopy management, creating looser clusters — such treatment being, as Kauer said, “the highest priority.”

The professor spent 30 minutes or so — he was giving us, he said, “a whole course work of information in two hours” — on biodynamic methods, his attitude toward such practices as horn manure, dynamization, various teas and mixtures, following the progress of the moon and stars, being with “an open mind.” When I asked him if, as a scientist, he shouldn’t also take a skeptical approach, he said that he had to balance his openmindedness with his training as a scientific skeptic. “We cannot say at this time if biodynamism is scientifically based. The result of our tests and trials could be that they make no difference.”

One of our group asked if that result would be accepted by the adherents of “bio.” Kauer said, emphatically, “No,” meaning that fanatics for the principles of Rudolf Steiner will not be unconvinced. “We do see,” he added, “that with the use of horn silica the grapes are ripening earlier.”

Because the European wine industry is highly regulated and the American wine industry is not, many of the problems that profoundly engage government bureaus, grape growers, winemakers and producers and the EU in general will seem arcane to their counterparts in America. Besides regulations, many based on historical, regional traditions, that govern permitted grape varieties, plantings, yields, use of sugar and acid and so on, the debates about how organic practices should be regulated are fierce. For example, the use of sulfites in processing wine is very controversial. According to Kauer, producers in Italy want to reduce the amount of sulfur permitted in wine processing by half in organic wines. Producers in Germany, France, Austria and other countries, however, want to use the same level of sulfites in organic wines as are permitted in “conventional” wines, because, the argument goes, many winemakers use less than the permitted amount anyway.

“Sulfite content should not be a criteria for organic labeling and regulation,” Kauer said. “We don’t need such regulation. We already have the regulations against GMOs, and that is enough.” The Italians, Kauer suspects, “are looking toward future marketing,” a stance that perhaps says as much about attitudes toward Italy as it does about the use of sulfites.

After lunch, Kauer met our group at the institute’s experimental vineyard high on a hill overlooking the Rhine and the outspreading valley that looked like a succession of rolling hillsides, villages, vineyards and the distant points of steeples against the cloudy sky.

He explained that the students at the institute maintain sections of conventional vines, organic vines and biodynamic vines side by side in order to track the similarities and differences in the soil, vines and grapes that result. To try and keep all factors equal, the various composts used for the vineyards, whether the composts are produced conventionally, organically or biodynamically, are often measured to make sure that the nitrogen levels in the applications are the same. Cover crops between the rows consist of up to 30 different grasses and flowering plants and herbs, making not only for healthy soil and providing cover for tiny animals and beneficial insects but offering a distinct wild beauty to the vineyards.

I asked Kauer if, because the sections of vineyards — conventional, organic, biodynamic — are planted next to each other, there was any bleed-through of elements and influences that would have an impact on the trial conclusions. He said that two lines of vines on each side of the sections are not measured and the grapes from those vines are not harvested to avoid contamination by other methods.
Readers, I had intended to write this post last night, but we didn’t get back to the hotel in Oppenheim until midnight, and about the only activities I could manage were brushing my choppers and crashing into bed. I did, however, get up at six this morning to write and post this entry. Yesterday, we also tasted a group of organic wines with Gotz Drewitz, executive director of ECOVIN (and we were not terrifically impressed, particularly with the reds), and then traveled to the village of Oestrich, where the bus had difficulty maneuvering in medieval streets originally intended for goat carts, to the winery of Peter Jakob Kuhn, where he and his wife Angela devote considerable efforts toward biodynamic farming. The wines are splendid — more on them in another post — but is their high quality directly connected to their methods? Then we traveled to the village of Hattenheim, where we had a wonderful dinner at Hotel & Weinhaus Zum Krug, and more on that later, too.

Now it’s nine o’clock, and we’re about to set off on another day of traveling through the Rheingau, visiting estates and tasting wine. I’ll check back with you when I can.

Au revoir, or whatever.