Biodynamic wine: never mind the hype this is as good as it gets

Biodynamic viticulture is based on the simple premise that you can't just keep taking from the earth if you want it to keep on giving. You have to put something back.

" We do things at a human level" says Olivier

Olivier Bellet is a third generation winemaker. Some of the vines on his small estate, deep in the rugged foothills of the spectacular Cevennes mountains in France's Languedoc region, are three times as old as he is. Others were planted by his father the year Olivier was born - 1983.

Monsieur and Madame Bellet potter around happily keeping an eye on things including their rare breed of English hens, ancient olive trees and a garden bursting with colour while Olivier shows me round. 

When, as it were, he was handed the keys to the business by his father Olivier decided to break with tradition in two ways. " We used to grow grapes and sell them to the local cooperative to make wine. I thought what's the point. I've always wanted to make my own wine. So we - the family - decided to keep our grapes and do just that"

The next big decision they took was to forego conventional wine-making. " We took the decision, as a family, to go biodynamic". They bought the equipment slowly over a few years. No loans - in keeping with a deeply-held belief that life needs to be sustainable. 

I spent a morning with Olivier, 35, at his estate, more of a smallholding really, learning first-hand what this mysterious skill, biodynamics, which is taking the wine world by storm, from New Zealand to Oregon, involves. Even some of the great French estates like Romanèe Conti in Burgundy now make biodynamic wines.

As he shows me around his various allotments Olivier stops occasionally and scuffs the soil with his boot. " You see, bits of the terroir have died. Soil is a living thing. You can't expect it to keep giving, generation after generation, without putting something back". That in a nutshell is biodynamic agriculture. 

 Land, vine, man are seen as a single entity, part of a universal whole that includes the seasons, the planets, the universe, everything. 

The principles of biodynamic viticulture are not new. They  go back thousands of years to a time when there were no fertilisers or pesticides. But it was given a new lease of life by the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in a series of ground-breaking lectures in the early 1920s. 

Steiner argued, perfectly rationally, that everything in the universe is interconnected. This interconnectivity includes celestial bodies such as the sun and moon that in turn influence the seasons and if man wishes the world to survive he must find a way of balancing these forces. 

Steiner isn't everyone's cup of tea but his influence over a range of disciplines from education through community as an organising principle and biodynamic agriculture is unquestionable. 

Proponents of biodynamic winemaking say that it permits the only true expression of what the French call 'terroir' - the environmental mixture that imbues a wine with its essential character and quality. 

Terroir is something that Olivier takes very seriously. In his tasting room lined with magnificent casks hand-made from holm oak, he picks up a russet-grey rock from his land and says" This is what I'm trying to reproduce.What's in this rock" 

Biodynamic is organic plus. It uses natural ingredients grown without artificial additives but it also puts something back into the land which conventional agriculture degrades. Everything is produced on the spot. Compost is natural. Other additives include special preparations of mineral and herbs.

In addition the various tasks - planting, pruning, harvesting - are regulated by a special biodynamic calendar - the trusty Farmer's Almanac, the farmer's bible. Each biodynamic calendar day coincides with one of the four classical elements of Earth, Fire, Air and Water that have been used since before Plato’s era: Fruit Days: Best days for harvesting grapes; Root Days: Ideal days for pruning; Flower Days: Leave the vineyard alone on these days; Leaf Days: Ideal days for watering plants. 

Pure biodynamic winemaking does have practices that are a bit bizarre. One that goes back centuries is that cow horns are stuffed with special compost preparations. After being buried for a time, the contents are used to make a ‘tea’ for fertilizing the vineyard. The cow horns are dug up and reused. 

Even though it's just a ritual this kind of practice gives big agriculture the perfect excuse to label biodynamic practices as hippy, dippy, tree-hugging nonsense. More politely posh wine distributers who wish to cash in on this growing market say somewhat sniffily that biodynamic methods take winemaking to a 'spiritual' level. This is patronising nonsense. 

Nevertheless the movement has split the wine world right down the middle. “Natural wines are in vogue,” reported the Times last year. “The weird and wonderful flavours will assault your senses with all sorts of wacky scents and quirky flavours.”

But as natural wine has grown, it has also made enemies: luddism, a cult rolling back progress in favour of wine best suited to the tastes of Roman peasants are just some of the jibes. The Spectator unsurprisingly has likened it to “flawed cider or rotten sherry” and the Observer to “an acrid, grim burst of acid that makes you want to cry”. Well they haven't tasted Oliver's nectar.

Biodynamic methods work. Especially for the small winemaker who does not have the resources to make things on an industrial scale. Nor does he want to. " We do things at a human level " says Olivier" Not everything is profitable but we make a living. We feel close to the land and we know that if we look after it the land will continue giving". 

And of course the final proof is in the cask. If the crusty old Spectator were right then it would be a waste of time. 

Olivier and I sat in the cool of his tasting room filled with the pungent aroma of fermenting grapes. First he poured some of his heavenly cold-pressed, virgin olive oil on home-made bread crusts to munch on. Then we tasted a few of his vintages. This culminated in a little masterpiece Les Clos Riverial Les Mores 2015, a refined, tannin-rich, earthy red, full of fruit and, yes, terroir, as fine as any young wine I've tasted.  

I had to virtually beg him to sell me a bottle. 

Alain Catzeflis

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