Biodynamic wines, slipping into the mainstream

New guide provides useful tool

guide_des_biodynamieGENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Organic wines, known as “bio” in French, and more particularly biodynamic wines, were long regarded suspiciously by many consumers, conjuring up vague (and not quite right) images of hippy wines made with animal horns and consumed with unpalatable brown rice.

Those were the bad old days and happily for winedrinkers and producers of these products, biodynamic wines, identifiable by their Demeter certification labels, are moving into the mainstream of wine production.

It’s taken nearly a century: Demeter International was created in 1927, Demeter Suisse in 1947. Demeter covers the gamut of biodynamic products, not just wines.

A sign of changing public attitudes and broader acceptance of this holistic approach to agricultural products, notably wines, appeared in Switzerland this week, with the launch of a very good French guidebook to biodynamic wines. It was accompanied by a tasting session of some of these wines, made by four Swiss producers.

Jacques Granges of Domaine Beudon near Fully, whose Gamay 2009 is one of the top wines in the book, says the time is right for broader public acceptance and interest in biodynamic wine. The horsemeat scare was important, he says, because it made people question how their food and drink are made, what’s behind the final product, but the trend started before this recent problem.

Guidebook makes it easier to find biodynamic wines, but also rates them

Details: Guide des Vins en Biodynamie, author Evelyne Malnic, publisher Féret, price euros 19.50.

Some 380 wineries were identified for the book; 102 of them submitted 382 wines from the past three vintages for tasting. Of these 92 percent were retained for the book, “an excellent score” according to the author.

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Destalking vines last May at La Capitaine in Begnin

The guide includes 19 Swiss wines from French-speaking Switzerland; wine journalist Alexandre Truffer contributed the Swiss section of the book, which may, in future, be expanded to cover a larger part of the country, he and the publisher said Wednesday at the Chateau d’Aigle in Vaud, where the launch was held.

Two of the 19 wines received top scores of five ladybugs (or ladybirds, depending on your English origins). The cheerful and helpful little garden bug is the mascot for biodynamic products.

Domaine de la Liaudisaz in Fully, Valais, winemaker Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, has five ladybugs for her “Dôle” 2011, with the guide noting “Pure pleasure!”

Domaine Henri Cruchon near Morges, canton Vaud, the Cruchon family led by Raoul, has five ladybugs for its “Sidéris” red 2010 blend, described as “aristocratic” and seductive thanks to a perfect marriage of elegance and maturity.

Some of the wineries are less well-known, but if they are included, they are worth exploring.

Mixed feelings remain about biodynamic, in the wine world

Biodynamic wines as a separate group of products is a movement that does not have a consensus of support in the wine world, but for an odd mix of reasons.

Worldwide, many wineries have improved their products in the past 10 years by reducing the use of chemicals and returning to more natural, often older practices in the vineyards. Some of these producers now pooh-pooh the idea that biodynamic carries this to a natural and necessarily better conclusion.

Others, and this is an old cliché that hangs around, ask if organic and biodynamic wines can really be good, because the emphasis isn’t on the wine itself, the quality of the end product.

The good, the bad, the ugly: ask the right question

This is simply the wrong question, says Reynald Parmelin of the domain La Capitaine in Begnins. It makes little sense to ask whether biodynamic wines are good or not, he argues.

“A wine is either made well or it isn’t, and that includes biodynamic ones.” Parmelin, who also has organic wines, was given Switzerland’s Prix Bio for his organic wines three years in a row, 2009 to 2011.

What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic, both of which are sometimes included in the phrase “natural wines”? It depends a bit on who you ask. I asked Raymond Paccot of Féchy five years ago, when he hosted a small group of producers who were discussing biodynamic methods. “Philosophy,” he said, noting that while organic producers use methods that are better for the soil, the plant, the end product, biodynamic requires a commitment to a more holistic approach to the end product and the entire chain of events that leads to wine in the bottle, its place in the natural order of things.

Swiss wineries, among the world’s most environmentally minded

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Jacques Granges, Domaine Beudon, Fully, which sits high above the Rhone Valley, in splendid agricultural isolation, presented a fresh and young 2004 Riesling and Sylvaner – none of guessed the grape variety when asked.

Switzerland is a pioneer in integrated production wines, which, as one grape grower told me a few years ago, is as close as you can get to organic without being there because your small patch of vines is too close to your neighbour’s.

IP became popular in the 1970s and has grown steadily since then. The reason is easy to see. In a country that cannot produce massive quantities of wine because of limited growing space – look at those mountains and lakes! – maintaining the raw material, the soil and plants, in order to have top quality wines, becomes crucial.

Organic wines have strict rules and regulations for certification, and in a country of small vineyards, even those who would like to go the organic route are not always free to do so.

Canton Vaud is now 90 percent integrated production and other cantons have similar rates: it’s safe to say Swiss wine producers are some of the world’s most environmentally minded. IP has become so widespread that most wineries no longer bother using the Vinatura label to show they are certified.

Beyond this, many of the philosopher-wine producers who opt for the biodynamic path are doing this same: yes, being certified is important but no, saying their products are biodynamic is not their main marketing point. Quality is the bottom line.

The new guidebook makes it easier for the rest of us to find the best bottles.

Notes on 3 wines tasted at the Chateau d’Aigle book launch

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Two Swiss biodynamic wines, in front of the vineyards at Chateau d’Aigle, 20 March 2013

Domaine Beudon, “Gamay” 2009

This is a beauty – fruity, fresh, vibrant, a wine with real character. Curiously, it was turned down twice for the Gamay AOC, apparently because it wasn’t “typical” enough. If so, that’s a paradox, because it comes from a line of old family vines that were saved and that may represent the closest thing we have to the Gamays of the past in this region.

La Capitaine, “Réserve Gastronomique blanche” 2011

An exquisite blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc that is surprisingly dry while also aromatic. It was designed in partnership with the Lausanne Palace to go with their seafood and shellfish dishes.

Anne Mueller, “Chasselas” from Villeneuve 2011

My first meeting with relatively new winemaker Mueller, who is energetic and passionate and creative, left me wanting to know more. She has wine genes in her family, but spent some years working in special education before the vines called her home. Her Chasselas is a beauty and the guide’s description of pear and rose petals, delicate aromas in a wine with body, is spot on. The woman’s touch here did not go unnoticed!