The Life of Wine

 |  September 29, 2011

The Force is strong in winemaking

Wine making’s a funny old gig. It involves tireless graft and a fair amount of prayer that the summers will be warm, but not too hot; that winter will be cool, but not too cold, and that just the right amount of rain will fall on the vines throughout. All so the grapes will have good levels of sugar and acidity when it comes to squishing the juice out. I remember hearing about one French winemaker who wasn’t satisfied with leaving everything to hard work or the gods and decided that chucking a live cockerel into his vats at the appropriate moment would add a certain je ne sais quoi to his blend – until presumably the EU introduced stricter laws on the drinking habits of farm birds.

This crowbars me gracefully onto the subject of the increasingly popular practice of biodynamic wine production, which is not too far flung from the aforementioned grape grower’s attempts to improve the taste of his wine by teaching his birds to swim.

Thought up by a man named Rudolph Steiner nearly a century ago the principles are way ahead of any of the organic farming techniques so trendy today. This Austrian philosopher invented a new spiritual science called anthroposophy, which is terribly hard to say after a couple of bottles, biodynamic or not.

Synthetic pesticides and fertilisers in the vineyard are strictly forbidden in favour of various more natural preparations which are either added to the compost or sprayed onto the vines.

The techniques include getting ones hands on a fresh stag’s bladder, stuffing it with some pretty, sweet smelling flowers, hanging it out in the vineyard to ripen during the summer months and then burying it in the soil over winter. Once retrieved in the spring the contents are mixed in with compost. The bladder itself is disposed of, which is probably sensible. A similar process involves cow horns being stuffed with manure and the skull of a freshly dispatched farmyard beast having the bark of an oak tree inserted before being buried in a particularly damp part of the winemaker’s property. Presumably marked with a stick or something, as one part of a vineyard tends to look much like the rest – before being dug up and the contents added to the fertiliser.

One also needs to procure a cow’s intestine stuffed with chamomile and a peritoneum. I refuse to explain what a peritoneum is as you may be eating your breakfast and you probably get the gist by now.

But it’s not just about burying stuffed dead things in holes. Biodynamics involves every aspect of the vineyard. It assumes that there is a pervading link between the people working with the vines, the soil, the animals which scurry around the roots and the plants that grow nearby. The process involves taking into account the cycles of the moon, the position of the constellations in the cosmos and the rhythms of the universe. Some biodynamic devotees even believe you can ruin a perfectly good bottle by opening it without consulting the astrological charts first. I’d like to throw in the word holistic here, but I’ve never been sure what it actually means and the people who use it make me nervous.

So does it work? If the superb wines of Domaine Leroy and Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley’s Monsieur Chapoutier are anything to go by, then going to the trouble of getting hold of man-deer’s bladder and a cow’s skull may well be the way ahead.

I’m remaining on the fence, but let us not forget what Han Solo once said to Luke: “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.” What a berk he ended up looking.

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