Saturday, October 06, 2012

Doesn't really quench, but satisfies

Taburno 2011, Falanghina Del Sannio, Fattoria La Rivolta

Italy white, $19.25, SAQ # 11451851

Leaner than last vintage. Lemony, and add some pear juice as well. That’s the extra bit of body right there. Get’s saltier as it warms. You don’t really notice the minerality at first but the more you drink, the more it takes up space. It’s almost oppressive. Only almost. Bottle gone.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Alsace and Biodynamics

Understanding Biodynamics in Alsace

by bill zacharkiw 

I was chatting with wine maker André Ostertag next to his vegetable garden in his vineyard in Epfig. We were discussing how his vision of biodynamics had evolved since we had last seen each other three years ago. He suddenly stopped talking and with a note of frustration in his voice said, “you know, when I go to Japan and I explain what I am doing, they get it immediately. Most North Americans just think we are crazy.” 

I must admit that even though I’m very sympathetic to it, biodynamics can give the left side of the brain a bit of a work out. The biodynamic approach to grape growing has become one of the more controversial issues within the wine industry. The skeptics, who are many, see it as an incredible waste of time and money. For some, it is pure quackery, an affront to science and modern thinking. 

But what began in the early 1990s has developed into a movement whose practitioners include some of the world's best winemakers, producing some of the world's most unique wines. Many are their respective region’s best producers and the list of those wineries who are either biodynamic or in the process of converting is impressive: Pingus and Clos Martinet in Spain, Clos Jordanne in the Niagara, Joseph Phelps and Opus One in California, Castagna in Australia and Oregon’s Beaux Freres. 
Pierre Gassmann
 French adherents include the Rhône's Chapoutier, Burgundy's Domaine Leroy, Comte Armand and Leflaive. In the Loire, there is Muscadet’s L’Ecu, Nicolas Joly and Domaine Huet. Other high-end producers such as Drouhin and Romanée Conti have parts of their vineyards farmed biodynamically. 

But there is one region which surpasses all others in terms of sheer numbers of biodynamic wineries, and is considered by many the spiritual home of the movement: Alsace. The list is a "who's who" of the region's best: Domaine Marcel Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Weinbach, Réné Muré, Kraydenweiss, Bott-Geyl, Pierre Frick, Josmeyer, Rolly Gassman and Ostertag to name but a few. In all, over 30 different wineries are biodynamic.

Why is Alsace such fertile ground for biodynamics? The reasons are rooted in the region’s cultural and political history, and how these influences manifest themselves today are as complicated as biodynamics itself. But first, what exactly is biodynamic agriculture?

Biodynamics, not organics

Biodynamics is often lumped together with organic farming however there are some important differences. While both rely on organic materials for enriching the soil and do not use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, biodynamics embraces a much more holistic perspective. Unlike both chemical and organic agriculture, biodynamics is not just concerned with the nutrients a plant needs to grow.
Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann

Those who practice biodynamics view the health of the vine in a more unified ecological vision. They are not simply concerned with the plant itself, rather they believe that the health of the vine and the ultimate quality of the resulting wine is dependent upon the health of a number of life forces - the soil, the vine, the people who work in the vineyard, and all the other plants and animals that are a part of the eco-system. Biodynamics is concerned with the subtle manipulation of these life forces, or energies, and aims to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

On a practical level, biodynamic farmers use homeopathic doses when treating their plants and the soil. Some of the oft-lampooned "interventions" are compost energizers made from plants fermented in animal bladders and bones, or spraying ground-up quartz on the vine to increase the luminosity of the sun. Leaf sprays, used for treating and re-enforcing the vines, are made from the juice of ground-up flowers, dried plants and other natural sources.

Biodynamics also has its astrological influences. Many biodynamic winemakers will add compost, spray their plants, work and weed the soil, and ultimately pick their grapes and bottle their wine following a calendar that is loosely based on the position of the moon, the stars and the constellations. As British wine writer and scientist Jamie Goode put it, "biodynamics sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms."

The spiritual father of the biodynamic movement was an early 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. While he knew little about wine, his musings gave birth to anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy or spiritual science that attempts to bridge the gap between science, art and religion. It espouses a principle of "human respect" for the community at large and the belief that every individual has a unique destiny. Aside from biodynamics, the Waldorf school network, which includes close to 2,500 schools worldwide, uses a holistic approach to teaching that is based on these principles.

What this has to do with wine, and why Alsace?

Looking east from the vineyards in Alsace you see the Black Forest, and the border with Germany. Because of this proximity, throughout its history Alsace has bounced back and forth between French and German control, leaving it with distinct ties to both. Many still speak the regional dialect, which sounds German but is loaded with French vocabulary.
The Deiss man
When I asked Jean-Michel Deiss about what made Alsatians in particular so open to biodynamics, he cited the marriage of these two cultural influences, but what each brought was not what I had expected. There is a tendency to look upon the French as the romantics, with the German influence bringing a more dogmatic, logical way of looking at the world. But it is in fact the opposite.

“The German spirit,” he told me, “is all about a unity. It’s a romantic sensibility and it’s mythology is tied directly to religion and nature. The French spirit,” he continued, “is much more rational, it is a spirit of logic.”

A quick study of the two country’s past and present support Deiss’ assertions. many of the great French philosophers and thinkers, such as Descartes and Pascal, were rationalists. The world was understood through logic, through observation. What could be deduced was via a certain scientific rigour. Across the border, German poet Goethe, was considered one of the philosophical world’s most important writers of Humanism. One of the tenets of Goethe’s teachings was that the individual, to realize his or her own full potential, must develop their individuality to their fullest, and only by doing so can they fully experience their own humanity, and thus be at one with all humanity, including the natural world.

The reality of these influences can be seen throughout the social and political sphere today. The most telling example is that it was in Germany, and not in France, where the Green Party gained significant political power. Deiss mentioned “look at German politics, it is full of religion.” And while consumer demand for organic produce is growing across Europe, it was in Germany, and not in France, where this demand started. Back in 2000, according to The Journal of Agrobiotechnology, “Germany was the leading country in terms of organic production and consumption with 28% of the EU market.”

But it was in France, and not in Germany, where biodynamic wine production took hold. A reason for this might lie with the French fascination with the concept of terroir. The majority of the wine makers I talked with believe that is through biodynamic agriculture that the subtle expressions of soil and climate can be best transferred to their grapes. As he reached down to pick up a handful of earth, Jean-Baptiste Bott, from Bott-Geyl, told me “ if you want to get down to the primary, most elemental part of terroir, you can’t use chemicals. You have to work with nature, and not against it if you want to express it fully.” Réné Muré went even further, “you can’t make truly great wine without biodynamics.”
Andre Ostertag and his fave tree
The biodynamic continuum 

Depending on which wine maker you talk with, you see a blend of these seemingly contradictory influences of French rationalism with Germanic mysticism. My first question to each of the wine makers was “What attracted you to Biodynamics?” The responses were varied, but clearly reflect this cultural duality. “I am a student of Pascale and Descartes,” proclaimed Réné Muré. “For me, biodynamics is logical,” was Josmeyer’s Christophe Ehrhart’s response. However, get Jean-Michel Deiss or André Ostertag talking about the subject and the reasons are much more a desire to be in a sort of communion with the earth and their vines. Deiss sees logic as a roadblock. “Sometimes I don’t know why I do certain things, I just feel the urge to go out and till certain field, because I have to.” Olivier Humbrecht, who seemed to walk the line in between the two camps, was more direct, “Organics just didn’t go far enough.”

I asked Humbrecht to give me an example of what is so logical about some of his biodynamic treatments and he had no shortage of examples. “Take stinging nettle for example,” pointing to a tea-like liquid that was sitting in a plastic container in the corner of his equipment room. “We spray it on the vines because nettle, no matter what the weather conditions, will always produce the same amount of flowers. We are teaching the vine how to deal with vigour”

So plants can learn from other plants. A number of wine makers reiterated this same principle though Ostertag tied this belief in with one of the larger principles of Anthroposophy. Biodynamics is not only concerned with the health of the plant, but the health of the individuals who work with these plants. “In the modern industrial system,” said Ostertag “the place of each individual is written down. Man becomes machine. Biodynamics allows people to exist as human beings.” I asked him how this approach makes for better grapes. “Plants are receptive, and not just to what you feed them. The whole concept of the ‘green thumb’ is based on being receptive to what a plant needs, and when they need it.”

Réné Muré and Christophe Erhart believe that biodynamics will be shown experimentally that it works. Deiss and Ostertag see this type of approach as unnecessary, that the proof is in what you see in your own vineyard. In fact each wine maker I talked with has his or her own vision as to what it is. “Biodynamics is about evolution and personal reflection,” said Maurice Barthelmé of Domaine Albert Mann. “It is about adapting and preparing the plant.” Olivier Humbtrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, remarked that “there is a danger to being too dogmatic, like the person who refuses a transfusion out of principle.”

But the real lesson here is that we still have much to learn about the subtle interactions in the natural world. It might be due to that Alsace is one of the more densely populated areas that has made so many Alsatians so concerned about their land. Deiss made the point that, “maybe that has forced us to be more attentive to our environment.” But whether their approach was more scientific or more romantic, each of the wine makers talked about making not only wine, but nature even better.

They all mentioned in one way or another what I believe is the real importance of biodynamics. It lies in a crucial paradigm shift, from humans behaving as masters of the natural world to that of participants. Biodynamic agriculture is about healing and protecting the life forces that sustain the Earth rather than simply consuming its resources. In light of much of the evidence pointing the finger at humans as being the culprits behind climate change, dead or sick water systems and putrid air, maybe this shift is essential if we are to confront these problems.

Albert Einstein once said that "the religion of the future will be a cosmic religion...It should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity between the two." When Ostertag told me that not only the Japanese understood the essence of biodynamics, but us North Americans seem so resistant, I wonder why we are so hesitant to embrace a different reality, how are so attached to proof and logic. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from what is happening in Alsace.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The dry dam ain't dry, damn

Riesling 2011, The Dry Dam,  Fleurieu Peninsula, D'Arenberg

Australia white, $18.95, SAQ # 1115788

Drunk cold, it's great, but hides the slight imbalance. As it warms, the minerality shows, but the sugar seems to float on top of the wine. So you start sweet, finish sour. Perfect balance in riesling is tough - this one almost has it. Could have been just a touch leaner, but for the price, I'm being overly picky. Might just need time.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Patience (forgetfulness) is rewarded

Corse Figari 2010, Clos Canarelli 

France red, $36.50, SAQ # 11794521

It took two days so lazy folks move on. Opened it Saturday, poured a glass, had that reductive stink of a rodent's hovel. Put the cork back in and left it outside in the rain and cold until tonight. Okay I forgot about it but whatever. Now incredibly intriguing. Animal is there, but now more alive. The spice element is so complex- sandlewood, cinnamon, nutmeg. Very pure plum. Absolutely rocked my couscous with merguez. Sexy dirty. Wish I had more.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Day 1 - The Wine Trip

Yes, I have a pretty good job. I get to taste lots of wine, but the best part is the opportunity to travel the world’s wine regions. Being on the ground is essential to understanding more profoundly what the wines are all about. It’s about meeting winemakers and grape growers on their turf.

But wine travel is not always easy. Winemakers tend to be a festive group — wine writers can be as well — and love pouring their wines. Once they get you in their grips, they will pour and pour. These trips are a constant battle with staying on schedule, avoiding excess and, most importantly, trying to get enough sleep.

My partner used to give me that “yeah, right” look when I would arrive home from one of these trips and would need a few days to recover. That was until I brought her along on one of them. After Day 1, she said I would never be allowed to complain again. After Day 2, she was only tasting half the wines poured during the afternoon visits. By Day 3, she didn’t even want to put a glass to her lips.
So what’s it really like? Right now, I am in France’s Loire Valley. What follows is a typical “Day 1” — from winemaker to winemaker, one glass to the next.

Sunday, Sept. 9

7:50 p.m.: Plane is taxiing and leaving on time. It’s packed. I’m in economy, hoping to sleep as I have to hit the ground running tomorrow morning.

Monday, Sept. 10

8:10 a.m.: Six-hour flight and a six-hour time change. That’s the problem with the overnight flight — there isn’t enough overnight. Managed almost three hours of sleep, so not bad.
9:15 a.m.: Cleared customs in Paris and have my luggage. Looking for my taxi driver.
9:26 a.m.: Found her. My driver, Inès, says we have a minimum 2½-hour drive to get to Sancerre, the easternmost appellation of the Loire Valley. I need a coffee in a bad way, and haven’t eaten anything aside from a poor excuse for a muffin on the plane.
10:15 a.m.: Stuck in Paris traffic. I was hoping to sleep, but Inès loves to chat. Turns out we have a common challenge: raising a 12-year-old daughter.
10:48 a.m.: Finally cruising down the autoroute. Coffee stop No. 1. Automatic espresso dispenser at the gas station. That will have to do. We’re late. I knew I wasn’t going to make the first winery visit of the day at 9 a.m., and now I will have to miss the second. We are going directly to a restaurant in Sancerre, where I am to join up with my travelling mate, Toronto sommelier John Szabo, who arrived a day earlier.
12:30 p.m.: I arrive at the bistro, on time, to meet John and a woman named Hélène who works for the local wine syndicate, which handles the promotional and communications needs of the Centre Loire (the regions of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and other neighbouring areas). She will be driving us — making sure we arrive sort of on time — over the next two days. John and Hélène aren’t here, but I get an espresso and sit in the sun and wait.
eing poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.

1:05 p.m.: They show up late, but that isn’t a shock. It is rare that a winemaker doesn’t open one last bottle of something special just before you are supposed to be leaving. I am just happy to have some food and wine. Four bottles are open. One great white from Tinel-Blondelet, the tasting I just missed, and a great red from Chotard. Good to have a glass of wine and eat some crottin de Chavignol, the famous goat cheese of the Sancerre region.
2:15 p.m.: Next tasting is scheduled for 2 p.m., which means I’m late for it. The little village bistro where I’m eating is not big on speedy service. “The dessert is coming,” says our waiter. It gets there 10 minutes later, and after another espresso, we are off.
2:40 p.m.: Arrive at Pascal Jolivet winery, which was luckily only a 10-minute drive from the restaurant, 40 minutes late. Quickly lay out the game plan for the visit with the people at the winery: 30-minute vineyard tour with the vineyard manager to learn about soil types. Interesting guy with 30 years of grape-growing experience. Lots to talk about: organic conversion, the different soils found in the region. Thirty minutes becomes 60.
3:40 p.m.: Begin tasting with the head winemaker and the vineyard guy. Fifteen wines on the table in front of us, each from a different vineyard site. Talk centres on the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. In the end, there isn’t that much of a difference.
4:24 p.m.: Powering through the wines. Next visit is with Alphonse Mellot, a legend in the region, scheduled for 4 p.m. He said not to be late. He won’t be surprised that we are, as many winemakers will say this just to make sure we aren’t really, really late.
4:37 p.m.: Only around 40 minutes late; Mellot is there and full of energy. It’s cloudy and hot. Coffee buzz has worn off. Starting to feel really tired.
5:19 p.m.: Mellot loves to talk. Been tasting wines from last year’s vintage from barrels for the last half-hour. Haven’t even started tasting bottles yet. There is a lot of action in the facility, as harvest starts in two weeks and the barrels and grape presses need to be cleaned.
5:41 p.m.: I need air, so we take the tasting outside — on the street of this tiny village. Mellot leaves and comes back every 10 minutes with a new wine to taste. I sit on the curb, spitting into the street drain. Lose track of how many wines we’ve tasted.
6:15 p.m.: My third wind kicks in; I am feeling more energetic. Four Austrians show up to taste, then Nadine, the assistant maître d’hôtel at a local restaurant. Yan, a friend of John from Ottawa, shows up out of nowhere.

6:28 p.m.: Haven’t moved from my spot on the curb. Mellot keeps coming back with more and more wine. Locals passing by stop and join in. This is becoming a street party wine tasting.
6:54 p.m.: Really need to check in to my hotel, and desperately need a shower. Mellot brings a bottle of white, no label, and wants to play “guess the vintage.” The wine is still fresh; the colour is getting golden. Something tells me it’s a 2002. I am right. I ask for my prize and I get a big hug from Mellot.
7:10 p.m.: Really want to go now. Have a dinner with a winemaker in less than an hour. Mellot now wants us to try a white wine that has spent 24 years in barrel. I stay. Tastes like sherry.
7:40 p.m.: Hélène finally drives me to the hotel. John has stayed with Mellot and said he will meet us there. Just time for a quick shower and a change of clothes. A bit dizzy now from the tasting, trying to synthesize all this new information under a lack of sleep.
7:55 p.m.: Hurry downstairs and meet Hélène, who is waiting to drive to the restaurant to meet Sophie, winemaker at Eric Louis winery. “Where’s John?” she asks. “Dunno,” I reply. “Probably still with Alphonse.”
8:10 p.m.: Late again, trying to find John in the maze that is Mellot’s wine cellar.
8:15 p.m. Find him, and hurry to the restaurant.
8:25 p.m.: Make it, though our initial reservation for five has grown to seven, as we have invited Nadine and Yan to accompany us.
11 p.m.: Dinner almost finished. Have tasted maybe 15 Sancerres and Châteaumeillants (a new appellation that grows gamay and pinot noir on granite soils). Coffees all around. Feeling good. We decide to take the 15-minute walk back to the hotel. John grabs a bottle. “Just in case,” he says.
12:30 a.m.: As usually happens, I don’t really feel tired now — even though I haven’t slept in what seems like days. Jet lag has officially kicked in, and from experience I know that the key is to stay up as long as possible. John, Yan and I end up sitting on a curb having a nightcap, catching up. It’s a beautiful night in a tiny country village, though I go through waves of fatigue.
1:30 a.m.: Finally moving back to the hotel. Come across a small bar, the Ramparts. Typical of the French, Champagne is being poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.
Each winery has its own story. My job is to take all these stories, and all the information culled from these visits, and turn them into a portrait of the region. In a few weeks, I will do my first article on the Loire. After I catch up on some sleep.

Originally published in The Montreal Gazette, September 23, 2012