Without appearing too controversial, there is a point I would like to make and hopefully ‘de-mystify’ the whole situation. There has been much spoken and written about biodynamic viticulture. I can hear you thinking and asking what is that all about then?
Perhaps, you have heard a wino rant on about it in the papers or read it on some wine expert’s tweets or on the back label of a wine bottle. However, contrary to popular belief, it is not a recent wine making phenomenon, which has been dreamt up by some Merlin-like vigneron in his cave (in this sense a wine cellar) performing near-alchemic, wine ‘hocus pocus’. Unfortunately, thanks to a few boffins in the marketing department, who have jumped upon this faddish bandwagon and put their spin on it, frequently this is how it has become portrayed.
Moreover, as a result, I really think that this adds much unnecessary ‘mystery’ and confusion into the pot, instead of providing much-needed clarity to the relatively grey area, in which this topic sits. To make a comparison, it is similar to making a consommé i.e. you need to whisk in some egg whites to clarify the bubbling cloudy stock to achieve its glorious transparency. Yet to really understand this fully requires much thought, time and curiosity, but it is almost like opening a complex issue. When you have the time to stop and think about it, instead of all you are twittering, it all seems to make perfect sense.
As I mentioned before, biodynamic viticulture was not just created over night, as it was actually established more than a century ago, primarily as an agricultural practice. During the 1920’s, Dr Rudolph Steiner developed and elaborated upon this and a set of viticultural principles were born. Briefly, natural processes, using primarily organic methods, burying cow horns filled with manure, treating the land with natural preparations, following lunar, stellar cycles, produce the wines, and man is very much an integral part of the subsequent ecosystem, which is created achieving a natural expression and harmony. It all sounds rather fastidious really, but to the novice or sceptic it just sounds like a load of jiggery-pokery because of ignorance. To sum up, my main point I am trying to make is that everything is inter-linked somewhere, has relevance, displays a natural harmony and has a genuine sense of place and it all ends up in your glass. Wine is a beverage to be enjoyed, not a glass of chemicals. Quite straightforward really…
For a few years now, on my worldwide quest in search of the ‘holy grail’ for the ‘perfect’ wine, I have been on an epicurean odyssey and have travelled to many vineyards. In fact, I have participated in vintage harvests, which have been invaluable experience. Within France, especially the winemaking regions of the Loire Valley and Alsace, there are the biggest concentrations of vignerons who use these viticultural practices. Moreover, I am big fans of and have visited some of these including Andre Ostertag, Domaine Weinbach and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace and Domaine Huet and Nicolas Joly in the Loire. The latter is considered the truest exponent of bio-dynamism and is the leading light within France. There are also a couple of producers in New Zealand, whom I have also visited, but also deserve a mention. These are James Millton at Millton Estate in Manutuke, Gisborne and Clive Dougall at Seresin Estate in Blenheim, Marlborough. I have much respect for them and their wines because they taste good, yet they keep their natural personality, individuality and expression. I know that they are made in this style, yet that is not the main reason why I like them.
Overall, the people who make these wines care about what they are doing and they play their part to look after the environment around them, because that has a large impact on the flavour of the wines. You get nature in a glass. They may not be to your taste, because they come across as being too wacky or quirky, but that is part of the wine. When I taste these wines, they do not come across as being ‘technical’, but natural and display a genuine sense of place. These people are crafting wines in an artisan fashion and are in it with a long-term strategy, not just out to make a fast buck, concerned with quantity instead of quality or as a ‘hobby’. At the end of the day, it is a way of life. I have also found that with this personal effort to travel to the vineyards, meet the people behind the wines, learn about and tread the soils, which produce them, it has greatly enhanced my understanding and enjoyment. I can sincerely achieve this in a greater sense than just reading the jargon or wine speak which is on the label, as sometimes this can be mis-leading. This is why I still emphasise that there is a confusion and mis-understanding amongst the consumer.
It is a bit more complicated than that, and at times, I wish life were more simple and less challenging. These wines are made according to a biodynamic calendar. Within one year, you have four types of days – fruit, flower, leaf and root. Again, a man in a white lab coat somewhere, but took a German woman called Maria Thun 55 years of research has not just thought up all this information. She published an annual guide and calendar on biodynamic sowing and planting. For many years now, it has been used, not by everyone, yet by many people around the world for planting, growing and harvesting crops, fruits, flowers and vegetables, even beekeepers for making honey. Thus, by following and employing these agricultural techniques and principles outlined in the calendar, the winemakers will carry out the required tasks on whichever day is the best to do it. They also encourage a pro-active growth of flowers and other crops within the vineyards, utilise the manure from such animals that graze nearby and re-cycle the organic eggshells. By using the same principles and utilising the calendar as a guide, I was wondering on which day would be the best to drink wine? So, let us get started before your eyes completely glaze over and I blind you with too much science.
Whilst at Orrery in Marylebone, I got to know the famous astrologer Shelley von Strunckel quite well. We became acquaintances, as she came in to the restaurant from time to time and I attended a couple of interesting events she hosted involving star signs, aromas, tastes, flavours, wines and food. To tell you the truth, I am a bit fascinated by star signs and have always wondered how the personality of a particular sign of the zodiac could be reflected in wine and food. For instance, I am a Gemini and in the biodynamic calendar, this is a flower sign. As with the four days, the biodynamic calendar is also linked to the constellations, hence the influences of astrological characteristics. The air signs are all flowers, earth signs are all roots, water signs are all leaves and fire signs are all fruits.
Well, what does all this mean? Again, to put it concisely, the best days to drink wine are on fruit and flower days. Root and leaf days are best avoided if you want to get the best out of your bottle. Of course, it would also be a lot easier if you had the guide to hand. Hmmm…I know, you are still a bit sceptical, but please stay with me.
So, why or who decided for it to be best to drink wine on flower and fruit days? Does the day on which you choose to drink a bottle of wine really affect its flavour? It is actually the wine industry itself that discovered the tendency for many wines to be at their best on those days – so much so, that at least two major supermarket chains (Tesco and Marks and Spencer) only hold their wine tastings for critics on fruit and flower days. I very rarely purchase wine through the large supermarket chains, because I prefer independent wine merchants such as Philglas and Swiggot for personal consumption, but this is an important consideration.
Moreover, as sommeliers, we would normally chose not to list wines of such a high-volume, mass-market appeal because we chose to have a point of difference and a certain degree of ‘exclusivity‘. Normally, you find heavily branded wines on the shelves in the supermarkets etc and they lack the ‘personal touch’, which you find in smaller wine merchants. However, between them these retailers sell a third of the wine drunk in the UK, so they are probably onto something – something about which it is time the rest of us found out. I am not saying that you can’t drink wine on other days, of course, but you might like to enjoy your best wines, those prized ones you keep in your Euro caves, the case of 1961 Chateau Latour you have stashed away, or hold an important dinner party, on a day that will show off your special purchase off to best advantage.
Sir Stuart Rose, other directors and employees of Marks and Spencer were regular guests of mine when I was in charge of wine at the Orrery. To quote Jo Ahearne MW (winemaker for Marks and Spencer): “Before the tasting, I was really unconvinced, but the difference between the days was so obvious I was completely blown away.” However, do not just take her word for it, as each palate is different. Wine is extremely personal. We all have to discover our own taste. There are many influential factors, which can affect how good a wine tastes; regardless of on which day you are drinking it. These can include your mood and circumstances: a glass of lovely rose wine enjoyed on a warm, sunny evening in the idyllic Provencal countryside, can taste hugely different from a rushed gulp when the kids are shouting and driving you up the wall at home and you are tired and stressed from a hard day’s work. Try it, and see if it works for you. After all, if you have spent good money on a decent bottle of wine you deserve to get the best from it.