Biodynamics pass the smell test

Alois Lageder, a great vintner from Italy’s Alto Adige region, was in town last year and gave a fascinating talk on the virtues of biodynamic farming.

But when I asked whether he used phases of the moon or any other biodynamic practices to choose the date he picked his grapes, he quickly responded with an Italian version of “negatory, good buddy. 

It was reassuring that Lageder (left) was not so beholden to the biodynamic calendar that he would risk what many winemakers call their most important task: choosing the picking date. After all, Lageder’s wines are delicious, and it would be a bit disconcerting to think that the moon phase or some cow dung in a horn might be entirely responsible.

The previous fall, during our visit to Burgundy, Phillipe Drouhin had touted the virtues of biodynamics. Three other justifiably esteemed French wineries — Domaine Leroy, Zind-Humbrecht and M. Chapoutier ““ have been champions of the practices concocted by Rudolf Steiner.

For most of us, the whole biodynamic thing has prompted a mix of intrigue and skepticism. Many wine people strongly believe in a calendar that is divided into root, flower, fruit and leaf days (actually partial days).

So it was refreshing and illuminating to get the take of a local wine purveyor and enthusiast, Artisan Vineyards’ Nicholas Livingston:

“I’ve been reading [biodynamic calendars] over the last few years and have gone from bewildered disbelief to accepting that there must be more to it. All of our blind tests (among our own staff and participating retailers and restaurateurs) suggest that wines, biodynamic or otherwise, are in fact more harmonious, complete and expressive on Fruit and Flower days.

“On Root or Leaf days, however, the wines were described as disjointed, clumsy, sharp, thin, closed and dumb by comparison ““ even though the wines we tasted both days hailed from the same vintage and even the very same case!

“There is a bit of The Blind Men and the Elephant going on here, too; we realize there is certainly something to all this but without being able to explain with reductive science how the stars and lunar calendar impart these energies, it has proven a challenge to pin down just what’s going on ““ not that we have to! It’s just fascinating is all ““ especially being brought up on the empirical method as a man of science.

“One curious outcome during our first blind tasting was that on the Fruit day even seasoned and respected palates in the trade (who can unerringly identify a varietal wine accurately) confused Gaillard St. Joseph Blanc as an over-oaked California chardonnay when we usually go on about the elegance and supple complexity of that wine. Does this beg the question: If wines are already brimming with richly ripened fruit, must they be drunk on Fruit days or might they tone all that effusive fruit down a bit on “˜off’ days so as to let other aromas and flavors come through?

“Learning a little only seems to inspire more questions. Are wines made according to biodynamics affected more or less by these calendar days? Is it the wine what’s changing or is it the subject drinking them? Are heavily oaked wines affected differently because they’re not exclusively made of fruit? So many questions to explore only prove that the more you learn, the less you realize you know. Isn’t this world more inexplicable than we’d like to believe?”

Yes it is, and ain’t life more grand because of it?