Monday, 23 August 2010

The dark side of the moon

Collect some fresh cow manure, put it into a cow horn and bury it at the Autumn
Cow horns being unearthed
equinox. Six months later, at the Spring equinox, dig up the horn, remove the manure and put it in a barrel of water. Using a long stick, stir vigorously for one hour: the biodynamic preparation 500 (cow horn manure) is now ready to spray on your vineyard, preferably when the moon is descending and in front of a “fruit” or “root” constellation.
Stirring the "prep"

Sound a bit weird? It might surprise you to learn that spraying cow horn manure on vines is spreading (excuse the pun), as the practice of biodynamics becomes more popular. Once thought of as folklore or hippyish bunkum, nowadays biodynamics is becoming an accepted part of sustainable viticulture combining traditional farming practices with scientific and herbal knowledge.

This kind of New Age thinking might have you cackling into your cappuccino, but biodynamics is moving into the mainstream. Distinctly non-New Age companies such as M&S and Tesco consult the Biodynamic Calendar (2010 edition yours for £4.71 from Amazon) to ensure that they stage tastings on “fruit days”, determined by the orbit of the moon around the earth and the associated zodiac element, which apparently affect the taste of a wine.

So what is biodynamics and where did it come from? Biodynamic agriculture was inspired by the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (best known in this country for Steiner schools) at the turn of the twentieth century. In essence, it takes organic cultivation as a starting point and adds elements of Astrology (the influence of the Moon and planets) along with Homeopathic techniques and principles – applying various “preps”, such as the cow horn manure spray above. If you will, it's organic for people who really mean it.

Driving forward to the present, Jody Scheckter, of Formula 1 fame, is a great exponent of this principle and has successfully farmed Laverstoke Park in Hampshire biodynamically for six years. His creed is that you aren’t just what you eat, but you are (if not vegetarian), the animals that you eat. You can judge the results for yourself by buying at the Laverstoke online farm shop:

How do you spot a biodynamic wine? Easier said than done sometimes. A fair number of biodynamic growers choose not to mention the fact on their labels: their decision to use biodynamics is to make what they consider better wine, rather than a marketing technique to appeal to the consumer; a refreshingly uncommercial attitude.

To further confuse things, the term “natural wine” is hot right now: you might come across it at hip London eateries such as Galvin Café a Vins, Artisan & Vine and Terroirs – or even at your local Oddbins. Guildford's very own Les Caves de Pyrène could be said to have started the whole natural wines phenomenon, but what does it mean?

Any attempt to define natural wine could fill a book, but in general these are wines made in as non-interventionist way as possible, often using organic and/or biodynamic methods and with low or no use of sulphur. As wine writer and scientist, Jamie Goode, puts it: “You just know one when you see one.” Helpful?

Putting aside attempts at classifying and defining these wines, then, let's just have some concrete recommendations that are delicious to drink – the proof of the pudding is, as always, in the eating – or drinking.

Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec 2005, Vouvray - £18.49, Waitrose (certified biodynamic)
A consistently delicious Loire white, whose many layers of flavour make it the vinous equivalent of expertly made flaky pastry. It's dry with chenin blanc's typical piercing acidity, but with honey, almond blossom, beeswax, apple skin and more.

Champagne Fleury Carte Rouge NV - £25.75, Vintage Roots (certified biodynamic)
No home-grown hemp jumper needed to drink this. Fun and frothy, as it should be and a very sensible price for a reliable fizz. Waitrose stocks an almost identical Champagne Fleury Brut NV for £29.99.

Saumur-Champigny, Les Terres Chaudes 2008, Domaine des Roches Neuves - £16.99, Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford (biodynamic)
Another Loire wine (a hotbed of biodynamic growers), but a red. This 100% cabernet franc is sinewy and muscular rather than fleshy – one for claret lovers to enjoy with roast lamb.

Coyam 2007, Vinedos Emiliana - £12.20, The Wine Society or £13.50, Vintage Roots (biodynamic)
Biodynamics is perhaps strongest in France, but this moreish Chilean shows that the New World is not being left behind. It's a veritable cocktail of syrah, carmenère, merlot, petit verdot and mourvèdre and provides a nice contrast to the more austere Saumur-Champigny. Enjoy its full-bodied, robust fruitiness now – or keep it for 4-5 years, if you can.

Talking of keeping wine in optimal condition - Bodegas Amezola de la Mora in Rioja will be storing some of its wine on the seabed at a depth of 12-15 metres, close to the port of Bilbao. The specially designed pods will allow water to flow freely around the bottles and the bodega plans to see if the constant temperature of the seabed provides a better ageing environment than a cellar – and if the seawater has any effect on the wine!
“Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.” Joan Collins

We are sure that the Spanish will be cheered to learn that divers have discovered thirty bottles of Clicquot Champagne (now Veuve Clicquot) believed to have been made between 1782 and 1788, pre the French Revolution, on the Baltic seabed – and still drinkable! It is thought that the champagne was en route to the Tsar of Russia from Louis XVI and is said to be perfectly preserved by the cold and darkness, retaining its fizz and fabulous taste. Proof perhaps that the old ways are not to be scoffed at and we can learn much from the past.

“I love everything that is old: old friends,old times,old manners, old books, old wine” Oliver Goldsmith

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