On Wine

Posted: July 05, 2000

You may have heard of a kind of super-organic farming called biodynamics. It's based on ideas developed in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), for a course given to a group of farmers near Breslau (which was then in the eastern part of Germany and is now Wroclaw in Poland).

The course was developed in response to farmers' observations that soils had become depleted following the introduction of chemical fertilizers at the turn of the century.

A basic ecological principle of biodynamics is to conceive of the farm as a unique organism. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops, recycling of nutrients and the maintenance of soil as a living thing. This sounds like an approach congenial to the French notion of terroir (tear-wahr), the idea that each vineyard has its own essential, irreplaceable taste. (That this notion is self-serving for the folks who own the small French vineyards with the high-priced grapes is something we'll talk about some other time.)

While biodynamics is like organic farming in many ways, it's different in its association with the spiritual outlook, and in its emphasis on farming practices intended to enrich the farm, its products and its inhabitants with life energy. This is also where biodynamics starts to sound a little, um, far out to the average person. Some of the concepts, like subtle energy and chi, sound like some of the more speculative ideas in alternative medicine.

But we can get back to earth very quickly: A fundamental tenet of biodynamic agriculture is that food raised biodynamically is nutritionally superior and tastes better than foods produced by chemical farming. If we could taste biodynamically grown wines, we might be able to tell if there was anything to this stuff.

And so we gathered at the cozy Blue Angel for a tasting of the wines of Michel Chapoutier. The Chapoutier name is familiar to anyone who enjoys a Cote du Rhone with his summer barbecue and in 1990, Chapoutier switched over to biodynamic farming in his vineyards.

The wines that we tasted were unconventional, the flavors smaller than usual for Rhone wine, but also subtler, more complicated. They were wines that became more interesting with food. Here's a selection:

Chapoutier Hermitage 'La Sizeranne' '98 ($80). The star of the show. Smoky, peppery flavors with a restrained hint of cherry. The tannins were soft and integrated into the rest of the taste. Chapoutier claims that this softness and the drinkability of this wine at such a young age are direct results of the biodynamics' effect on the soil. If this wine really tastes like the soil it's made from, I wouldn't mind ordering a plate of the soil to go with it.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape 'Le Bernardine' Blanc '98 ($35). Austere and interesting, this wine had a peppery nose on a thin fruit structure with a nutlike presence in the bouquet.

M. Chapoutier Banyuls, Vin Doux Naturel 1 '96 ($17/500 ml). This red is one of the most charming and versatile dessert wines I've had in years. Rich cherry-berry flavors and earthy hints make it a formidable companion for most desserts and a perfect nightcap when it's too hot for port. Banyuls is said to be that rarity - a wine that goes with chocolate. No matter what you pour it with, it's a great bargain.

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