Moonshine, Part 2 A blind sampling of 20 wines shows that biodynamics works. But how? (This, by the way, is why we went into journalism.)
(FORTUNE Magazine) – In our last issue we reported on biodynamics, a radical viticultural method whose proponents claim it produces superior wines by combining elements of astrology and homeopathy with organic grape growing. We decided to road-test these claims, and set up a blind tasting of biodynamic vs. conventionally made wines.
Out of ten pairs of wines, only one of the conventionally made wines was judged superior to its biodynamic counterpart (see table). Says Doug Frost, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier: "The biodynamic movement seems like latent '60s acid-trip-inspired lunacy--until you taste the wines."
While the majority of our panelists were skeptical about the theories behind biodynamics, they were not surprised by the results. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Master of Wine and co-author of Wine for Dummies, says, "I almost always perceive biodynamic wines ... to have more fine-tuned aromas and flavors than 'normal' wines." Several panelists suggested that the biodynamic winemakers are a self-selecting group with a common trait that makes them better craftsmen. As Bernie Sun, head sommelier at New York City's Montrachet restaurant, puts it, "Most biodynamic winemakers are artists--they're very intense and focused."
On the whole, the biodynamic wines were found to have better expressions of terroir, the way in which a wine can represent its specific place of origin in its aroma, flavor, and texture. Indeed, that is one of the principal claims of biodynamic vintners, particularly those making wine in prestigious locales. Ray Isle, managing editor of Wine & Spirit magazine, says, "It's kind of a no-brainer as a consumer. If you buy wines from producers who are biodynamic, you're getting wines made (a) without pesticides and other inimical chemical whatnots, (b) with meticulous attention to detail in the vineyard, and (c) by growers who really believe that a vineyard's character should be expressed in the wine. So what if they also think burying cow horns full of manure will help them channel new life forces from the cosmos?"
Despite its growing popularity, biodynamics is in no danger of becoming ubiquitous. Its founder, Rudolf Steiner (1861--1925), is highly controversial, and his works are more than a bit convoluted. In his treatise on agriculture, for example, Steiner wrote, "Those beings who stream from the sun down to the earth, unfolding their spiritual activity, encounter throughout spring and summer the being that belongs to the earth itself. In this exchange the organs are formed through which the earth perceives those beings, for the plants do not perceive." Okay!
What does seem certain is that the practice of biodynamics will continue to evolve through the ceaseless experimentation of its numerous break-the-mold adherents. Alberic Mazoyer, winemaker for Maison Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley, says, "Now we have proved that biodynamics preserves the taste of the terroir. Using biodynamics, we have the possibility to go much further. We are trying elevate the spiritual level of the wine.... We are on the verge of a revolution." Stay tuned.
JEAN K. REILLY is a freelance wine writer and educator who is based in New York City.