Biodynamism


Maison M. Chapoutier traces its roots to 1808, when Marius Chapoutier and his family moved to the Northern Rhône town of Tain l’Hermitage from the Ardeche mountains. In their new home, Marius broke into the wine business by acquiring an estate owned by Comte Monier de la Sizeranne, but the dedicated acquisition of vineyards didn’t actually begin until 1879 with Polydor Chapoutier. For much of the 20th Century, the domaine was run by the well-known, out-spoken and miniscule Max Chapoutier, though when he retired in 1977, quality went into decline. The revival occurred in 1990, when 26-year-old Michel Chapoutier took over operations, and in the process of building back the family’s reputation and in expanding throughout the Rhône — the company produces wine from every region of the long north-south-running valley — and into other areas of the South of France and to other countries made himself into one of the wine world’s most influential figures.

Chapoutier has been run on biodynamic principles since 1991. Use of new oak and small barrels is judicious. In a region where wines are frequently blends of several grape varieties, Chapoutier often holds to a single-variety philosophy; the two white wines under consideration today, for example, employ only marsanne grapes, with no roussanne, as might be typical, while Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape is all grenache. The other innovation for which the company is well-known is that since 1996 the labels for all Chapoutier wines include information in Braille.

You know how it is when you sniff and then take a sip of a wine and you don’t want the experience and the sensation ever to end? That’s how I felt with these Hermitage blanc wines from Chapoutier, which I tasted at “The Return to Terroir” event in New York at the end of February. I didn’t want that one-inch pour (if the pourer is generous); I wanted a full glass, the bottle, a table at a great restaurant overlooking Central Park or the Seine with LL and simple but extraordinary food and a chauffeur-driver Mercedes at my disposal, a brilliant night in which strange and wonderful constellations leaned out from their galactic watch-towers. In the circumstance, I had to content myself with what I was given, and believe me I harbored these pours as if they were liquid gold, of which, in fact, the wines reminded me. In whatever amount, these were magnificent, complete, confident, rare, expensive — and very different — wines.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, New York. Image of Michel Chapoutier from vitaminbwine.com.
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Made completely from marsanne grapes, the M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, was made one-third in new oak casks and two-thirds in stainless steel, the understanding being that casks are generally larger than the standard barriques. This is a complex and many-layered wine, packed with detail in deep and broad dimension, exuberant without being flashy. Fairly amazing aromas jump from the glass in a welter of roasted lemons and peaches, buttered cinnamon toast and Bit o’ Honey, jasmine and honeysuckle, bees’-wax and hazelnuts. Plump and fleshy without being quite voluptuous, the wine is steadied by the implicit tact of taut acidity and buttressed by scintillating limestone-like minerality. To flavors of peaches and greengage plums add notes of quince, ginger and slightly bitter orange marmelade (without the latter’s sweetness, for the wine is boldly dry) and touches of dried thyme and cedar. The finish is long, racy, spicy, with hints of slate, lime peel and grapefruit rind. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. 350 six-pack cases imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, shares pedigree with its cousin of the Lark’s-Song yet feels very different. There’s more structure here, more reticence and a sense of rigorous elimination for the sake of purity and intensity, spareness and elegance. Also made completely from marsanne grapes, grown on vines 60 to 70 years old, the wine aged half in “big wooden barrels” (quoting the winery website) and half in cement vats for six months. The color is medium gold with faint green shadows; the bouquet features scents of verbena and lemongrass, some austere and slightly astringent little white flower, candle wax, roasted lemon and a back-note of sage, all tightly woven and subtly unfurling. The wine’s spicy element grows — cloves, sandalwood, allspice — as does its mineral qualities in the limestone-shale range, ensconced in a texture that’s dense, chewy and supple. Flavors of macerated quince, pears and peaches are full-blown and tasty, yet their ripeness is subdued by a savory quality and by the authority of brisk, bright acidity. The finish packs in limestone and slate to the point of crystalline austerity. 13.5 percent alcohol. 40 six-pack cases imported. This for the near future and the ages; best from 2014 or ’15 to 2028 or ’30. Exceptional. About $190.
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I first tasted the wines of Tenuta di Valgiano in March 2006, at the third “Return to Terroir” event in New York. I returned to that city at the end of February this year for the latest manifestation of that gathering of biodynamic wineries and tried the wines again. Happily, I see no reason to reject my initial notes, which followed the lines of “wonderful … fabulous… great character & tone & balance … vibrant … resonant…”

The estate, distinguished by a handsome 16th Century house, lies about 10 kilometers northeast of Lucca, in one of Tuscany’s neglected vineyard regions. Most people, that is, wine consumers, know about Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino and perhaps Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, but fewer realize that wine is also made around the ancient towns of Siena and Pisa and Lucca. Tenuta di Valgiano is owned by husband-and-wife Moreno Petrini and Laura di Collobiano; she seems to be the face of the winery, traveling, officiating at tastings, giving interviews.

Tenuta di Valgiano has been run on biodynamic principles since 2002. In an interview with earthwine in April, Laura di Collobiano listed the methods utilized in the estate’s vineyards: sowing of various herbs and green manure, clay, copper and sulfur treatments, biological action against parasites, and careful management of the leaf canopy – hence yield, quality, health of the vines, and aromatic characteristics of the wine have improved. I find this recitation fascinating, because the practices di Collobiano mentions are, it seems to be, only common sense when farmers, vineyard managers and winemakers approach their jobs in truly thoughtful fashion. Of course one would want to exercise “careful management of the leaf canopy;” that has nothing to do with the philosophy of biodynamic farming.

“Green manure” is not the fresh poop of young cows; the term refers to the use of cover crops sown between rows of vines to retain nitrogen in the soil or to suppress weeds. Among the first group are cowpeas, soybeans, sweet clover and vetch; among the latter are such non-leguminous plants as millet, sorghum and buckwheat. I have trod the earth of many vineyards around the world that employ “green manure” techniques — the rows also look very pretty — and most of them did not operate by the methods of biodynamism but under the assumption that cover cropping made sense economically and agriculturally.

“Biological action against parasites” generally means using good insects to fight bad insects — sort of like good cholesterol and bad cholesterol — the approved predators including dragonflies and damselflies, mantids, lacewings, beetles and some species of wasps and ants. Again, many practitioners of sustainable or organic farming employ the techniques of “biological control”; they are not limited to biodynamic followers.

So while Petrini and di Collobiano subscribe, according to their statements, to the principles, the philosophy and the practices of the biodynamic movement, it sounds to me more as if their procedures embody a sensitive deployment of discrimination, deliberation and common sense as applied to the health of the vines and the well-being of the soil.

The property produces four wines, a bianco and rosso Palistorti di Valgiano; the single-vineyard Scasso dei Cesari, 100 percent sangiovese; and the simply named but powerfully framed Teunta di Valgiano, a blend of sangiovese, merlot and syrah.

Imported by several small companies. Cropped image of Laura di Collobiano from bbrblog.com.
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The winsome and terrifically appealing Palistorti di Valgiano 2010, Colline Lucchesi Bianco, is a blend of 50 percent vermentino grapes, 25 percent trebbiano and malvasia and 25 percent chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. It’s fresh and clean and bright, an amalgam of almond and almond blossom, roasted lemon and lemon balm with a touch of lime peel; there’s a hint of hay, and a touch of the sea about it in an intriguing whiff of sea-salt and salt-marsh. Spare and elegant, permeated by flint and limestone-like minerality, Palistorti Bianco 2010 still yields a gorgeous, almost golden texture as it unfurls aspects of dried spice and flowers, citrus and stone-fruit flavors and frisky acidity. Now through the end of 2012 or into 2013, with grilled fish or shellfish or marine-based pastas and risottos. Excellent. About $17 to $22.
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The blend of the Palistorti di Valgiano 2009, Colline Lucchesi Rosso, is 70 percent sangiovese, 20 percent merlot and 10 percent syrah. The wine is clean, fresh and very spicy, deeply imbued with scents and flavors of ripe black and red currants, blueberries and plums permeated by elements of briers and brambles and undertones of dried fruit and flowers, orange zest and black tea. Moderately dense but well-behaved tannins, vibrant acidity and a touch of mossy earth and granite-like minerality support juicy but not lush or blatant fruit, all this devolving to a mineral-packed and slightly austere finish. This calls for burgers, red-sauce pasta, barbecue brisket or a steak. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17 to $22.
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The flagship Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Lucchesi, is a serious wine with a structure that’s almost brooding in its intensity and concentration, yet it comports itself with finely honed dignity and a sense of resilience and expansiveness; in other words, great character, tone and presence in a wine that will begin to unfurl from about 2014 onward. It’s a blend of 60 percent sangiovese grapes and 20 percent each merlot and syrah that even in this state of youthful power and darkness manages to feel elegant in its balance and dimension. It’s not easy to spend time with a wine at a trade event, but I happened to take my meager glass of Tenuta di Valgiano 2008 to a fairly secluded corner and swirl, sniff and sip for a few minutes. Even that brief acquaintance allowed the wine to bloom a bit, so while the color of course remained deep kingly ruby-purple, my nose detected beguiling elements of lavender and violets, dusty graphite, a hint of iron and iodine and, almost more implied than in evidence, spiced and macerated black and red currants, plums and mulberries. Enormous potential, but the patient will give it two or three to five years. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $55 to $60.

Image, much cropped, from magnusericsson.wordpress.com.
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Sometimes we can learn a lot about wine from small producers who keep ambition, not to mention grandiose schemes, in check and focus on doing an excellent job on a small but impeccable scale. Such a producer is Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot, from whose 10 hectares of vines — a bit more than 25 acres — around the city of Beaune in Burgundy come about 4,350 cases annually of what could be considered minor wines, at least compared to the Big Leagues of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards. Emmanuel Giboulot, the name of the owner and winemaker as well as the domaine, is not trying to be all things Burgundian to all people, accumulating a few rows here and a few rows there in all the prestigious appellations up and down the Côte d’Or, in the manner of the important negociants. No, Giboulot steadfastly works in the Côte de Beaune, up on the hilltop, or to the east of the city, in the little-known Vin de Pays area and manages to produce wines of precision, clarity and integrity. He does make one Premier Cru wine, the white Rully La Pucelle.

This is a bio-dynamic estate. Giboulot went all organic in 1985 and bio-dynamic in 1996, and he subscribes to most of the principles: root and flower “tea” preparations; the infamous dung buried in the cow horn; organic composts. He also uses methods that just make sense: indigenous yeast, manual harvest, very careful deployment of sulfur, minimal new oak. How much the success of the wines depends on the bio-dynamic approach I couldn’t say; I do know that while we are not looking here for the glorious depth and dimension of chardonnay and pinot noir from the world-renowned Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards what Giboulet delivers is a gratifying sense of infallible craftsmanship, unimpeachable character and lovely purity.

These wines were tasted at the “Return to Terroir” event in New York on March 6. A Becky Wasserman “Le Serbet” selection for Domaine Select Wine Estates. New York. Image of Emmanuel Giboulot from rawfair.com
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Made from chardonnay vines that average 50 years old, the Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot La Grande Chatelaine 2009, Côte de Beaune, is a wine of “verys” and verities, that is, it’s very floral, very spicy and very minerally, and it expresses what feels like the truth, the verity, of the chardonnay grape’s fruit, acid and mineral-driven essence; 18 months in oak lend suppleness to the texture but do not hamper the crystalline purity and intensity of the grape. The vineyards of the Côte de Beaune appellation lie nestled around the tops of the Montagne de Rochetin and Les Mondes Rondes — 396 and 350 meters, respectively — above the prime area of the Beaune appellation, which are adjacent to the famous medieval city of that name; we do not expect wines from Côte de Beaune — red and white are permitted — to be as full-bodied, complex, generous or expansive as from Beaune’s Premier Cru vineyards. I mean, to take a rather extreme example, last night a gentleman at an event I attended poured me a glass of Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2007, from the great vineyard north of Beaune; the wines produced from the Côte de Beaune vineyards could not attain that level of sublimity, not would we expect them to. Pleasure, however, occurs at many different planes and ranges of excitement; if this were not so, we would die of transcendent satiety. The point is that Emmanuel Giboulot’s La Grande Chatelaine 2009 offers its own essay, as it were, on the virtues and character of the chardonnay grape, among which are a lovely dense, almost talc-like texture balanced by crisp clean acidity; a full range of citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors fleshed out with slightly macerated and baked elements; and a burgeoning earthy limestone and shale quality that keeps the wine scintillating and vibrant. 12.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $39.

Image, much cropped, from vinloyal.wordpress.com.

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Also from the Côte de Beaune appellation, the Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot La Combe d’Eve 2009 is 100 percent chardonnay and aged 12 months in small oak barrels, none new. The color is mild straw-gold; the bouquet is a penetrating and beguiling amalgam of jasmine and camellia, damp shale, spiced peaches, yellow plums and pears. The wine feels lacy, transparent, edged with limpid and lucent limestone elements and bristling acidity that decorate and support the delicious citrus and stone-fruit flavors. The finish is lithe and silky smooth, packed with spice, stones and bones. 13 percent alcohol. It would be difficult to find a prettier, more seductive chardonnay. La Combe d’Eve means “the valley of evening” or perhaps of Eve herself. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $39.
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Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot Terres Burgondes 2009, Vin de Pays de Sainte-Marie-La-Blanche. This seldom-seen Vin de Pays, established in 1979, covers 17 parishes in the Côte d’Or administrative department that surround the village of Sainte-Marie-La-Blanche, four miles southeast of Beaune. We are, in other words, in the flatlands not entitled to the name Burgundy. Red and rosé wines may be made from pinot noir, gamay and pinot gris grapes, whites from chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc, aligoté and auxerrois and even melon de bourgogne, the grape banished from Burgundy by royal edict in the 17th Century; it migrated to the Nantais and became the grape of Muscadet. Anyway, Emmanuel Giboulet makes the red Terres Burgondes from pinot noir; the white is pinot gris. The red Terres Burgondes 2009 — is the name Giboulot’s way of saying that the wine still comes from “Burgundian earth”? — is a light cherry color; the bouquet offers delicate, almost ethereal scents of dried roses, spiced cherries and red currants and a hint of briers and slightly mossy underbrush. The flavors are a bit warmer and fleshier — there’s a touch of mulberry and plum — and definitely more spicy, yet this remains a spare, dry, earthy and slightly austere pinot noir, held soldier-straight by a backbone of brisk acidity and graphite-like minerality. 11.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $32.

Image from bonamanger-bonapenser.com.
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The Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot Beaune Lulune 2010 is from the Beaune appellation, not Côte de Beaune. One hundred percent pinot noir, it offers a light, almost transparent red cherry color that makes up in radiance what is seems to lack in darkness; red Burgundy does not need to be blatantly dark in hue. Aromas of macerated and slightly roasted cherries and currants are borne by briers and brambles, a touch of mossy earthiness and a delicate wafting of that characteristic beet-root scent, a hint of honed granite. How is this wine different, you ask, from its cousin from the wrong side of the tracks? (The Paris-Lyon line runs east of the town of Beaune, and Sainte-Marie-La-Blanche lies beyond that.) The difference, particularly on the palate, is concentration, intensity and duration and, paradoxically, a sense of refinement. Every aspect of the Terres Burgondes 2009 can be found in its Lulune stablemate, but in deeper more profound qualities, with more breeding and elegance and with a longer, slightly more layered finish; the wine is kept vibrant by clean acidity that cuts a swath on the tongue. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $54.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge is one of the great producers of the wines of Burgundy’s Volnay appellation. The domaine is small, owning just under 25 acres of vines, and producing only about 4,000 cases annually, but the wines are models of their genres. The family has been cultivating grapes in Volnay since the early 19th Century and possibly back to the late 18th Century. Very gradually did the Lafarges accumulate, piece by piece, the portions of vineyards that comprise their domaine; these include Volnay Clos des Chênes and the wholly owned Clos du Chateau des Ducs, Beaune Grêves, Pommard Pezerolles (all Premier Cru) and parcels of Volnay village and Premier Cru, as well as Bourgogne Aligoté and Bourgogne Passetoutgrains and a village Meursault.

Lafarge was a pioneer in bottling its own wine, rather than selling the wine to a negociant, beginning with the harvest of 1934. The wines see only about 25 percent new oak, typically aging for 15 to 20 months, depending on the vintage and the vineyard. The entire domaine has been farmed on biodynamic principles since 2000. Does that mean that the wines are better than they were before the domaine’s steps toward biodynamic methods were instituted in 1997? And what would “better” mean? My experience with the wines goes back only to the Meursault 2002, Volnay Clos-des-Chênes 2003 and Volnay Clos du Chateau des Ducs 2004, so I have no standard of comparison, though these wines were superb and a little challenging — of the Clos du Chateau des Ducs 2004 my first note was “a chill comes off this.”

The literature, however, is primarily unstinting in regard for the classically proportioned and detailed pre-biodynamic wines — read Clive Coates on the Volnay Clos des Chênes 1990, 1983 and 1952 — so is it possible that the post-2000 wines are in some sense truer, more authentic, more reflective of the vineyards than they were for all those decades? The domaine’s philosophy has always been to pay close and careful attention in the vineyard and to leave the wine as undisturbed as possible during its making. What more could grapes or wine ask for?

Tasted at “Return to Terroir: La Renaissance des Appellations” in New York, February 27, 2012. Becky Wasserman Selection for Martin Scott, Lake Success, N.Y., and other importers around the country.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Raisins Dorés Bourgogne Aligoté 2009. Aligoté is Burgundy’s “other” white grape, grown usually in the highest or lowest sites, that is, not in the areas of the superior vineyards in the middle of the slopes. The wine is bottled as Bourgogne Aligoté; only in Bouzeron, in the Chalonnaise, does it get its own appellation. We expect aligoté to be immensely crisp with acidity — which is why it’s essential in a Kir, combined with cassis — even sometimes fairly arid with acidity’s drying quality, but this example leavens the intense vibrancy and nervosity with a lovely supple, moderately dense texture and tasty flavors of lemon curd and roasted lemon, subtly wedded to cloves, dried rosemary and limestone. A beguiling jasmine and honeysuckle aspect gets matters off to a good start. 14 percent alcohol. Seductive harmony and balance. Very Good+. About $23, but prices range from $18 to $28.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009. I’ll repeat the phrase from the previous note — “seductive harmony and balance” — but add something individual, almost feral that lifts this commune wine above its counterparts. It opens with notes of jasmine and lilac, cloves and orange rind, wedded to roasted lemon and lemon balm. The wine feels fleet, transparent, luminous, with lovely depths of spice and limestone, light citrus and quince-like fruit and a sort of crystalline distillation of chardonnay character, enrobed in a texture of ethereal silkiness and enlivened by bright acidity. This is chardonnay that I could drink every day, if I could afford it. 13 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $44 to $48.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Bourgogne Passetoutgrain “L’Exception” 2009. We rarely see the quaffer Passetoutgrains outside Burgundy — Lafarge spells this without the “s” — where it’s often consumed with simple meals. The wine is made from a minimum of one-third pinot noir with the rest gamay. This example offers a light ruby-cherry color and delicate aromas of red currants and black and red cherries supported by modest brambly tannins and shimmering acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. More character and less rusticity than most Passetoutgrains I have encountered. Very Good+. About $25 to $28. (Can that be right? Passetoutgrains used to sell for $15 to $18.)
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Volnay “Vendages Selectionnes” 2009. Classic Volnay, made from a selection of older vines. The color ranges from mild cherry at the rim to a slightly darker ruby-cherry in the center; the bouquet is a subtle weaving of dried spice and flowers with red currants and black cherries and a touch of plum and, at the heart, an almost ethereal gamy, slightly earthy aspect. The texture feels like the most delicate and ineffable of satin draperies, yet you sense, also, the structure of stones and bones and the clean acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. There is fruit, of course, red and black, a little spiced, macerated and stewed, yet nothing forward or blatant. The wine is elegant and graceful but very dry and draws out a line of spareness and austerity through the finish. Now through 2018 to ’20. Wonderful quality for a village wine. Excellent. About $68 to $75.
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The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
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Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
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Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
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Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
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Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
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Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.
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The advocates of biodynamic methods of agriculture range from the mildly committed, who employ bio-dy techniques selectively and ignore the mumbo-jumbo aspects, to disciples for whom the words of Rudolf Steiner and Nicolas Joly are gospel.

The last part of that sentence, or something similar, was much on my mind late in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, as the group I was with paid a visit to Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, one of the most highly regarded estates in Germany’s Rheingau region. The winery, situated at the outskirts of the incredibly charming village of Oestrich, offers nothing fancy and neither do the unpretentious Peter Jakob Kühn and his wife Angela, who are friendly and down-to-earth, though she is more forthcoming than he, who is the shyer of the couple. (She is a former German Wine Queen.) Both, however, are passionate about their 18-hectare estate (a bit less than 47 acres) and the wines they produce.

PJK has been certified organic since 2004 and this year became a member of Demeter, the organization that certifies biodynamic estates. Much of what Peter Jakob Kühn does in the vineyard, along with being scrupulously meticulous, seems like common sense. Compost the vineyards with estate-produced materials in the Spring. Plant crop cover between vine rows in the Summer and in the Spring plow it under. Avoid chemical nutrients. Apply minimal pressure in the winery; stainless steel and large barrels for riesling, with a light filtration. Anyone could do that.

Peter Jakob, also, however, follows many of the stipulations of biodynamic agriculture as laid down by Rudolph Steiner in his famous lectures of 1924: horn compounds of manure and silica; teas of horsetail, stinging nettle and chamomile to spray on the vines; careful consideration of the phases of the moon to supplement the “movement” of the wine, including during bottling.

We stood with Angela Kühn by a vineyard that sweeps up to one side of the winery, accompanied by the winery’s 13-year-old Labrador, Acino. Here’s where things got a little sticky. One of the group mentioned that the rows did not have great shoots springing from the tops of the vines; were they cut back?

“No,” said Angela, “in the best parcels, we don’t cut the tops of the stems to give a message to the vines that no one wants to damage them and cut off their lives. If you cut the stems, it creates a sense of urgency and power because their lives are in danger, and they want to regenerate the next generation. This pushes the sugar level up. By not cutting the stems, by reducing the stress and gently tying the stems back” — the stems are wreathed along the top of the row and tied with soft but durable material — “we create a more balanced wine. Vineyards that get not only care and concern but love, we feel the vines will profit from it.”

This is the point where I throw my notebook and pen into the air and say, “Oh, please!” Not really, because my mother taught me better, but come on, the vines think their lives are in danger if you cut the stems? You have to love the vines, not just take care of them? Does the same principle apply to tomato plants and rutabagas? Amber waves of grain? Corn as high as an elephant’s eye?

But these are sweet and gentle people, and their attempts to live and work in harmony with nature are touching, and the wines they produce, which is really the issue here, well, the wines are pretty damned wonderful. (And all the wines are closed with screw-caps.)

Take, for example, PJK’s basic wine, the Jacobus Riesling trocken 2008, made in stainless steel. My notes: “Big, ripe, fleshy; yellow plums, camellia, honeysuckle; intense, concentrated, seductive; full, lively, dynamic; v. spicy; crushed stones, pulverized slate and gravel; really great.” The price in Germany is 8.60 euros, or about $12.50. An amazing wine for the price. Jacobus is named for the founder of the estate, Jacobus Kühn, who started making wine here in 1786.

The next level is the stainless steel Quarzit Riesling trocken 2008, and the name tells it all. My notes: “V. stony, v. pure and intense, v. spicy; yellow flowers, yellow fruit, stone fruit; huge hit of minerals, slate and limestone; v. dry, crisp, vibrant, austere.” This is, one admits, a little demanding; it needs a year or two. 13.90 euro, about $19.50 to $20.

We tried two of PJK’s top rieslings. The Oestrich Doosberg 2007, aged in 2,400-liter barrels, is a brilliant medium gold color; the wine is intense and concentrated, coiled like a steel spring, offering incredible energy and nerve and verve; it’s very ripe, very spicy, sleek and lithe and racy, and could stand to mature for two or three years before being opened, or you could wait until 2015 to ’17 and see how it develops. Extraordinary. Not surprisingly, the price goes up at this point, 26.60 euros, about $37.50. The Mittelheim St. Nikolaus Riesling 2005 — current release is ’07 — is powerful and earthy and exotic, an eloquent expression of pure minerality with hints of petrol, jasmine, crystallized ginger and a touch of banana, all leading to a finish that’s almost brutal with granite and limestone. This too needs a few years, say 2011 or ’12 through 2016 or ’17. 24.60 euros, about $34.75.

Finally, there was the Oestrich Lenchen Riesling Spätlese 2008, a pale gold-colored wine of piercing minerality that offered subtle touches of lemon, lemon curd and peach, a wine delicately sweet, winsomely floral and sustained by such a surge of acidic nervosity that the glass feels electrified in your hand, and then from mid-palate back the whole package turns startlingly dry and austere. A lovely and slightly challenging riesling that needs a year or two in the bottle. 18.30 euros, about $26.

So, at this point, Readers, you’re saying, perhaps rather smugly, damn your eyes, “Ah ha, F.K., now you have to revise your negative opinion of biodynamism and admit that it works!” Well, what I will say is that Peter Jakob Kühn is a brilliant winemaker and that he certainly makes brilliant wines, making that judgment on a brief exposure. If biodynamic methods in the vineyard contribute to this brilliance, then I will say that, yes, the principles work here. I wonder though: If Peter Jakob Kühn did not bottle his wines “in a diminishing phase of the moon,” would they be any less brilliant? If he did not spray with, say, the horsetail compound, would the wines be less compelling? Would Peter Jakob Kühn — meticulous, thoughtful, hard-working and attentive — not make brilliant wines under any circumstances?

The wines (or some of them) of Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the U.S. by Domaine Select Wine Estates.

Images of the winery and Angela Kühn & Acino are by Ernst Büscher; image of Peter Jakob Kühn is by Tim Wegner.

The times and the tastes they are a-changing in Germany. Look at this statistic from the German Wine Institute: In 1980, the ratio of white wine produced in the country to red wine was 88.6 percent white and 11.4 percent red. In 2007, the production figures are 63.2 percent white and 36.8 percent red. Yes, the German wine consumer is turning away from white wine in favor of red wine, and red in Germany generally means pinot noir (spätburgunder). Plantings of pinot noir in Germany’s wine regions have grown from 3.8 percent of total acreage in 1980 to 11.6 percent in 2007 or about 30,377 acres.

(Though plantings of white grapes are down, plantings of riesling itself increased by about 1,235 acres in 2007. Germany’s total vineyard acreage in 2007, about 102,000 hectares — 262,140 acres — lands it in seventh place in Europe behind Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Moldavia and Greece, but ahead of Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Spain’s vineyard acreage — 1,169,000 hectares or 3,004,330 acres, by far the largest in the world — beggars the imagination. What happens to all that Spanish wine?)

The pinot noir grape has a long history in Germany, but the problem is that it’s not easy to get pinot noir grapes to ripen around the 50th parallel, which runs through the upper Pfalz and Rheinhessen. As a result, German pinot noirs tended to be thin and acidic. Climate change in the past decade, however — and if you don’t believe in global-warming, talk to German winemakers — has brought the blessing of milder winters and slightly warmer summers (“slightly,” except for the brutally hot summer of 2003), resulting in the potential for riper grapes all around.

The additional problem, though, is what to do with these fully (or more fully) ripe pinot noir grapes. With a couple of exceptions, the red wines I tasted in Germany two weeks ago seemed unsatisfactory from myriad aspects. Many producers in Germany, like their counterparts in the New World, seem to believe that making serious wine means deploying serious oak, even if the grapes involved inherently don’t take kindly to the heavy-handed treatment with wood. For example, Rainer Eymann, at Weingut Eymann in Gönnheim, Pfalz, gave his Gönnheimer Sonnenberg Pinot Noir 2005 two years in oak, effectually killing any flavor, or as my notes say, “Jesus! Where’s the fruit?” On the other hand, he aged his Gönnheimer Mandelgarten Merlot 2007 one year in barrique, the somewhat standard 59-gallon French barrel, and produced one of the best, most interesting and complex red wines we tasted on our trip.

The so-called “noble” grapes varieties in Germany are highly susceptible to the potentially devastating fungal diseases downy mildew and powdery mildew, and great efforts have been made in the past 20 years to concoct grape varieties that are more resistant. Some of these crossings include, for white wine, Johanniter, Phoenix, Solaris and Monarch, and, for red wine, Regent (the most widely planted, but only about 5,600 acres), Cabernet Cortis, Cabernet Carbon and Prior. We tasted a few red wines made from blends of these or other hybrid grapes and found them mainly sappy, weedy and foxy, as if they were a combination of gamay, pinotage and black muscadine, though they were presented with pride and hope. Better to work with pinot noir and try to get that right than to trifle with these minor, goofy grapes.

On the other hand, we tried some pinot noirs that were not just encouraging but outright fine achievements, though, as one would expect, they were individual expressions of the grape; all pinot noir wines don’t have to imitate the Holy Grail of Burgundy, but they need to be recognizably varietal. One of these was the Spätburgunder 2005 from Heiner Sauer, an organic producer since 1987 in the village of Böchingen, in Pfalz. (Sauer also owns Bodegas Palmera, a winery in the Utiel Requena region of Spain.) Sauer’s Spätburgunder ’05 sported a radiant medium ruby-magenta color; a deeply spicy, smoky bouquet of mulberry and black cherry; and a chewy, almost muscular texture that cushioned elements of leather and moss, black pepper and cloves, fruit cake and plums. The wine aged 10 months in barriques, of which 50 percent were new barrels. This excellent pinot noir, both authentic and individual, would sell in Germany for 17.5 euros, or about $24.70.

Another well-made pinot noir was the Rotwein (“Red Wine”) Barrique 2007 from Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, a rigorously biodynamic estate in the Rheingau village of Oestrich (and I’ll write more about this estate and its methods in a few days). As seems to be the case with pinot noir wines from Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, this one emphasizes the grape’s spicy aspects; is this stylistic choice or climatic necessity? The color was a lovely medium ruby with a slight brick-red cast; the bouquet delivered beguiling aromas of cloves and allspice with spiced red and black currants and plums. The wine was quite dry, earthy and loamy, reminding me of some location-focused pinots from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and while there was a sufficient (though not abundant) quantity of delicious black fruit flavors, the wood really showed itself from mid-palate back. Personally, I could have used a grilled veal chop with this wine, but we were in the tasting room at Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, and no such thing was in sight. If you lived in Germany, you would pay 22.70 euros for this wine, about $32.

The wines of Weingut Heimer Sauer and Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the United States by Domaine Select Wine Estates.

Truly, though, the pinot noir that I enjoyed the most in Germany came on our first night in Oppenheim, at the restaurant L’herbe de Provence in Hotel Zwo, a sleek place that, like the other small-town establishments where we ate, consisted of a restaurant that occupied the entire first floor with two floors of rooms above. The main course at this introductory meal was a “back” of a country-style “Donnersberger” suckling pig served with asparagus and polenta; with it we drank a Guntersblumer Eiserne Hand Spätburgunder trocken 2007 from the Gehimrat Schnell winery. This was a lovely little pinot that boasted a ravishing bouquet of plums, mulberries, dried spices and dried flowers and winsome flavors of macerated and spiced red and black currants with overtones of lilacs and brambles. Not a great pinot noir by any means, but immensely appealing and drinkable. It would set you back the lordly sum of 8 euros, about $11.30.

Once we left St. Antony and Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Thursday (July 9) in Rheinhessen turned into a day of contrasts, not that contrast is a bad thing; often one learns the most through the process of give-and-take. The bus took us south from Nierstein, through back roads, to Ludwigshöher, a village about the size of a baseball diamond, where we were scheduled to have lunch and taste the wines of Weingut Brüder Dr. Becker — this is the estate and winery of Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller — and also wines made by their friend Christine Bernhard, of Weingut Janson Bernhard in Zellertal-Harxheim, in the Pfalz region, a sort of preview for our next day’s exploration. Lotte Pfeffer-Müller is chairwoman of the board of ECOVIN. She and Bernhard prepared a spectacular lunch for us, which we’ll get to in a few minutes.

It’s easy to perceive the sensibility of a winery after a few minutes walking around and talking with the owner or winemaker. Brüder Dr. Becker has roots in the late 19th Century, and the facility has accreted gradually over the decades. Even the newer buildings, apparently from the 1960s, seem well-used, practical and rustic. Vines grow abundantly over arbors and trellises, moss furs the paving stones, and close by a rooster protests the presence of strangers in his precincts. Müller took us around the back, into an open shed where old machinery is stored, or simply waits for mechanical eternity, to talk about crop cover in the vineyards. What he showed us was a long table on which stood wide shallow bowls filled with the seeds of the plants — yellow, white and red clover, buckwheat, caraway, wild carrot, black lentils and some kind of pea plant — each type of seed remarkably different from the others, some fine enough that they almost felt like fine meal in the hand, others rough and pitted.

He took us into the winery, down two flights of stairs to the cellars where large oval barrels slumbered in the dim light. I promise, My Readers, that once you have seen a thousand steel tanks and 10,000 barriques, you never want to see another, but oddly shaped, venerable casks — some of these were from the 1930s and ’40s — silently hunkered down in a cellar carved from stone, highlighted by the unforgettable aroma of young wine and old wood, make for an experience of which I never tire.

Back upstairs, we walked into a room set for lunch in a manner that would have made the editors and stylists at Food & Wine and Gourmet magazines weep with envy. Out came the cameras to record this sight: a long, long table, overflowing with bright, colorful flowers and set with platters and bowls of the most gorgeous food imaginable, everything artistic yet artless, beautiful and carefree. There were slices of quiche with nettles; baby carrots wrapped in mint and thin slices of ham; lamb meatballs with feta cheese; pancake-like wraps of tomato pesto and feta cheese; bales of herb salads; home-made herb butters and dipping sauces, all made from organic ingredients and as locally-grown as possible. As delightful as this feast was, it didn’t make the best setting for tasting wine; there was too much going on, too much to eat and talk about, but, being the professionals that we were alleged to be, we forged professionally ahead.

While we ate and tasted, Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Christine Bernhard provided commentary, each weighing in with a zinger. “If you don’t produce ecological wines,” said Pfeffer-Müller, in her motherly yet uncompromising way, “then you don’t make real wines. If you don’t grow ecologically, then you cannot talk about terroir. It’s a kind of lifestyle.” And when we were trying Bernhard’s irresistible Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007, she said, “Riesling is unforgiving, but he’s adorable, too.” She always referred to the riesling grape in masculine terms. Both women asserted that since changing to organic methods in the vineyards, the grapes are “healthier” and the wines “better,” but, again, we had no standards of comparison. The wines we tasted, as these briefs notes should convey, ranged from appealing and delightful to profound. (Sorry, I only recorded prices for a few of these wines.)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Silvaner trocken 2008. Clean, fresh and spicy; vigorous acidity and minerality; lemon and yellow plums; thirst-quenching, delightful. 9 euros. ($12.70)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Silvaner trocker 2008. More substance to this sylvaner, a little fatter, spicier. 5.80 euros. ($8.20)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Schwarzer Herrgott Riesling & Traminer trocken 2008. Another delightful wine, a blend of 50 percent riesling and 50 percent gewurztraminer; lively and spicy, very floral.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Dienheimer Riesling trocken 2008. Fresh, clean, bright, floral; very dry, tremendous minerality. 6.90 euros. ($9.75)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Tafelstein Riesling 2007, Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru). Gunflint and lilac, very pure and intense, very dry; profound minerality (limestone & shale), scintillating acid; awesome.

>Janson Bernhard Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007. this is beautiful; pure and intense and concentrated; great balance among ripeness and acid and minerality; peaches and apricots, touch of apple and pear; rigorous acidity, yet lovely, delicate; very dry finish. A lesson in the balance of delicacy with power.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008. Deep, earthy and spicy; lime and grapefruit, very floral; poised between spareness and opulence; towering minerality, a sense of balance that’s actually exciting, electrifying. Wow.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Traminer Beerenauslese 2005. Close to angelic yet years to go, as in 2015 to ’18.

We also tasted a red wine from each estate, which I’ll save for a post on red wine in Germany.

After leaving Brüder Dr. Becker — late, of course — we wended our way through fields and lanes and minuscule towns to the southern fringe of the Rheinhessen and a broad windswept hill in Hohen- Sülzen, home to Weingut BattenfeldSpanier and Weingut Kühling-Gillot and the forward-thinking and purposeful couple Carolin Spanier-Gillot and Oliver Spanier, whose marriage in 2006 united two old wine families. If Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller look like farmers, a sort of “Pleasant Peasant” version of American Gothic, Gillot and Spanier look like young gods, poised, elegant, modern. Their tasting room resembles one of Philip Johnson’s Glass Houses; their website could be a series of still photos from a film by Wong Kar-Wai, all poetry and shadows and evocation — and not very helpful.

Oliver Spanier, we discovered, takes self-confidence to steroidal levels, and as he poured wines for us, he delivered his opinions in rapid-fire and authoritative fashion, and in impeccable English.

On winemaking: “I don’t cool wines, I don’t heat wines. I do nothing. It’s all about fantastic sites and fantastic grapes.”

On biodynamic practices: “I don’t like to talk about bio-dy. I need minimum 20 years to see the results. Many young winemakers are doing biody and maybe it makes a great job to show the wines, but bio-dy is only part of the picture. I don’t believe in the moon and the constellations. The oceans go up and down whether there’s a full moon or not. When I do something, I must show it in science. I hate teas, teas do nothing. [Spanier is referring to some of Rudolph Steiner's root, plant and herbal teas that are sprayed at intervals on the vines.] We do spray the horn manure. This definitely works. You can see it in the grapes.”

On Rudolph Steiner (inventor of the biodynamic method of agriculture): “Steiner was a sick man. That says it all for me.”

On fruit in wine: “I hate all this discussion about fruit. All this makes me crazy. These writers are writing that a wine tastes like strawberries picked when the dew is still on them! [And I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, where can I use that?'] I like wines that are spicy and interesting. With this kind of wine, you can’t talk about flavors and boring things.”

On Bordeaux red wines: “I hate Bordeaux! Latour tastes like Coca-Cola!”

The wines, though, I thought were pretty damned wonderful, but they were controversial in our group. One of my colleagues acknowledged that they were well-made but “soulless.” That was not my impression. Brief notes:
(more…)

Wine making, from beginning to end, starting in the vineyard, is a matter of balance. It’s either the easier thing in the world or one of the most complicated.

Listen to Rainer Eymann, owner and winemaker of Weingut Eymann, whose facility is located in the village of Gonnheim, in Germany’s vast Pfalz vineyard region. Standing in one of his vineyards, within a five-minute walk of the winery — even as a village, Gonnheim ranks as small — you will see, off in the west, the blue-gray bulk of the Haardt mountains, while farther away in the east, you discern the distant blur of the Odenwald. Also in the east, about 15 kilometers from where we’re standing, winds the Rhine River, the waterway that over thousands of years created this broad valley and laid down its rich loess soil.

Eymann has run his domaine using organic methods for 27 years; in 2006, he increased the intensity of the treatment by going with biodynamic principles. The estate consists of 15 hectares (about 39.5 acres) of vineyards around Gonnheim, planted to 70 percent white grapes, mostly riesling, and 30 percent red, mostly pinot noir, with a broad range of other grapes. He makes a little sparkling wine in addition to still wines.

“When I began organic,” he said, “people around here thought I was looney, but times have changed. Organic and biodynamic have reached the top producers now. There was a legend that organic wines would not be high quality, but everybody knows now that it’s not true. Still, we’re always learning with organic and biodynamic agriculture. In 20 years, we may be doing something different.”

The soil where Eymann has planted his feet in stalwart fashion between two rows of vines is some 30 meters deep, with eight to 12 percent lime, or “calcareous soil.” The sky that hovers over us is mottled with shifting and blowing dark clouds; one would swear that rain was on the way, but Pfalz in actually the driest area of Germany.

“The problem,” said Eymann, “is that the weather comes from the southwest. It rains in the mountains, but stops in the plains and then picks up again in the Odenwalt to the east. We have soil that can store lots of water, but we don’t have enough rain, and this effect is enforced by the change in climate. We put down the cover crops between the rows [between every other row] to help the fertility of the soil, but that also takes away some of the water that we need.”

This delicate balancing act, as if the vineyard were poised on a high-wire and the farmer/winemaker were a circus master urging the performer carefully onward, requires craft and experience to maintain. First, Eymann lays down a rough compost material in alternate rows (alternate to the cover-crop) to protect the soil from erosion, because, “we don’t get much rain, but when it rains, it pours.” Second, and especially after the record-breaking and death-dealing heat of the summer of 2003, he installed a drip irrigation system.

Constant work goes on in the vineyard toward leaf, canopy and cluster management. Harvesting is done by hand.

To defeat fungus, Eymann sprays, from the organic farming tradition, different extracts of plants, seaweed, mixtures of stone-dust, minerals, copper and sulfur. He also uses the well-known (or infamous) biodynamic mixtures called 500 — “horn manure” — and 501 — “horn silica.”

When I asked Eymann why he decided, three years ago, to take his organic methods to the level of biodynamic, he said, “I was just interested in what’s happening. I was in contact with a lot of farmers using biodynamic and we talked, and I decided to try it. The main point is that you have the basis of organic farming, and biodynamic is the apex of it. After three years, you cannot tell safely by statistics that anything is different, but we are building on the basis of 20 years or more of good organic practice. We have done many things, so I would never say that because of 500 or 501 that we are making good wine. We have to wait and see.” He did say that he believes that because of using biodynamic methods his wines taste more authentic, that you can smell and taste the vineyard more intensely, and that the wines “are more sophisticated.”

What is important, he said, is the health of the grapes. “Quality comes from the vineyard, from selecting the grapes and treating them gently. Quality is not coincidence. It takes planning and craft and management. We do not want to produce the same wine every year. The wine should reflect the vineyard and the vintage and the fingerprint of the winemaker.”
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O.K., Readers, it’s 12.45 a.m. on Saturday, and I have a plane to catch in Frankfurt at 12:25 p.m. I suppose I should get a few hours sleep, but maybe I should go ahead and pack. Or read for a few minutes. Each day on this three-day whirlwind tour of organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, we have visited three or four wineries, had lunch at some and tasted wines, met other winemakers for dinner and tasted their wines. I have a lot to write about, not only about individual estates and wines, and meals we had, but about the issues and concerns that surround organic and biodynamioc methods. We had a terrific group of wonderful, funny and companionable people, though I’ll tell you that if you give 12 journalists a big enough bus, they will not share a seat! No way! We need the second seat for all our gear! Actually our number was diminished today (I mean yesterday), and sometime, perhaps, I’ll tell you the story — like something out of Beckett or Flann O’Brien — of the jolly Irishman who had to drive back to Dublin suddenly because he discovered that his passport expired at midnight.

But that’s for another day.
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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.
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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.

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