When Wine Tastes Best

David was asked to write a piece for the 2013 edition of “When Wine Tastes Best”, the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers by Maria & Matthias Thun published by Floris books.

Nettles, yarrow and oak bark. Stag’s bladder and cow horn. Dynamising collected rainwater by stirring endlessly to create a vortex. Performing tasks in alignment with the Lunar Calendar. You may think you have stumbled upon some pages of witchcraft or sorcery from the Middle Ages, but no, this is happening now. It’s not a bunch of hippies dancing around naked in the moonlight, this is a movement gathering momentum across all backgrounds, with clear-headed, rational advocates who are not barking mad. People like you and me.

I am a wine merchant and travel extensively around Germany, France, Italy, Spain and California to find wines that excite me and my colleagues. Over the past decade and a half, I have heard a similar story from many growers.

Rudolf Trossen from the Mosel in Germany calls himself a wine farmer and is often seen in his leather waistcoat and Scholl footwear. He looks and sounds like an Eco-warrior. His father came back from the Russian front after the second world war with half a leg missing, so Rudi had to do all the spraying and had an allergic reaction to the chemicals. Having not been convinced he was going to take over from his father, his allergies got him thinking about ecology. He had found his cause. “Biodynamics started here in Germany with Rudolf Steiner’s theories from the 1920s”, he says. Trossen has less than three hectares of vines on the steep, slate slopes of the river Mosel at Kinheim-Kindel and was one of the founding members of Ecovin, an association for German wine-makers. “My system is biodynamic and I have been working this way since the late 1970s”. How do you make your decisions about what to do when? “They come to me in the dream-like state just before waking-up”. Do you know what part of the cycle the moon is in right now? “I know exactly where it is”.

“Many people in our area seemed to be dying early, many with cancer”, says Corinne Comme, on her small family estate just outside Sainte-Foy, at the far eastern end of Bordeaux. “We wanted to find out where this sickness was coming from and we kept coming back to the chemicals that we had been spraying on our vines since the 1960s. We needed to find another way.” She is convinced. “Biodynamism is not only good for the earth, it’s good for us”.

“My neighbours thought I was mad when I started with biodynamics.” Former sommelier Thiébault Huber, originally from Alsace and a disciple of Marc Kreydenweiss, inherited some vines from his grandmother in the village of Volnay in Burgundy. Despite being a small winery, he has thirty-four different parcels of vines spread across five villages. To avoid chemical run-off, he had to negotiate agreements with each of his sixty neighbours to treat the first adjacent row of their vines. “The vines just look healthier. You should see my fruit compared with my neighbours’. They are not quite so sceptical now.”

In April 2009 I found myself at the centre of a small media blizzard, well, more of a gentle breeze. I had often wondered why some bottles from the same case of wine tasted better than others (excluding any with technical faults). Could the Lunar Calendar have a part to play? If wines bottled on Fruit Days generally showed less evidence of bottle shock (the sense that a wine has become dumb immediately after bottling), could the Lunar Calendar affect the taste, or our perception of the taste of wine? We ran a tasting for Robert Booth of The Guardian to find out if the same line-up of seven wines tasted different on a Leaf Day compared with a Fruit Day. The answer was yes. Five wines in the line-up didn’t show well on the Leaf Day. The same five wines were markedly better on the Fruit Day and all seven tasted as they should. BBC News and Sky News ran features as a result of the piece. Part of the story emerging was that many supermarkets’ wine departments had long been holding their tastings for journalists on Fruit Days. They were reluctant to admit it for fear of sending out a message that wine could only be drunk on Fruit or Flower days. As a wine merchant, I could understand their fear. However, the message is not that your wine will taste horrible on other days, it’s simply that it is most likely to peak on Fruit or Flower days.

Our trial may not have been scientifically rigorous, but, in dealing with the senses, we are operating in a very subjective area. Since our original trial we have tested and re-tested and have held our monthly tastings exclusively on Fruit or Flower Days. The wines have all showed remarkably consistently. Bang. Bang. Boom. Fully-formed and as they should be.

This calendar has also been a very handy resource on our wine buying travels. If a grower’s line-up doesn’t seem quite as “on song” as usual, we can check the calendar and, if it was a Root or Leaf Day, we can take that into account.

There has been a huge upsurge of interest in biodynamic wines. Judging by the success of the RAW and Real Wine Fairs in London in May 2012, consumers are thirsty to experience alternatives to the mainstream. Debate is lively and charged. There are new associations and splintering factions, a Natural Wine movement with a hard core of growers who are anti-sulphur (sulphur dioxide is generally held to be an indispensable compound in the winemaking process, inhibiting oxidation and unwanted bacteria). As a result, some of these wines oxidise prematurely and their advocates tell us we simply have to get used to these more challenging flavours. There is no single umbrella organisation or standard at this moment, the area is in flux, but two things are becoming clear. More growers are ditching their chemicals and more consumers are keen to try their wines.

How do we convey these multiple messages to our customers at The Winery? They are open-minded and enjoy the journey wine takes them on. The stories about who makes the wine, the beautiful places they are made, the difficulties that are overcome. The stories about dandelion and nettles, cow horn, wild yeasts and the cycles of the moon all help the appreciation of what’s in the bottle.

Enjoy your wine – enjoy the journey.