~“Great wine starts in the vineyard.” It’s an old axiom but can today’s general viticultural practices sustain great wine production into the future?
~Some winemakers who answer no are going organic for their stake of the future.
~Prior to the 20th century, soil and plants were viewed as part of an environmental ecosystem (lack of a viable chemical industry helped preserve the concept). Just about all farmers were "organic." In European viticulture today, many top French, Italian, German and Austrian producers still farm this way, but they haven’t been saying so on their wine labels. They simply see nothing special about how they grow their grapes.
~The view of post-World War II agribusiness in the United States is that soil is inert—unable to grow anything without the help of new and improved synthetic chemicals to fight disease and insects. International wine writer Monty Waldin claims that the result of this practice leaves a residue of about five ounces of synthetic chemicals in every bottle of wine—that’s close to 20% by volume.
~With a growing list of wine producers claiming to be organic, it was inevitable the ante would be upped. Organic producers wanting to differentiate themselves in the future are considering something today called biodynamics.
Waldin explains that in the 1920s, the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner claimed that certain spiritual or mystical forces were necessary to all life. He prescribed farming methods based on the belief that not just animals but also soil and plants are cognizant living beings and that the complete universe plays a role in their health and growth.
~Whatever one thinks of Steiner's theoretical ideas, his practical farming methods have taken root in some 21st-century vineyards, under the name "biodynamics."
~To be biodynamic, you must first be organic. But biodynamic growing adds nine preparations required to enhance soil quality and stimulate plant life. Various combinations of mineral, plant or animal manure extracts are fermented, diluted, stirred and applied in homeopathic-like proportions to compost, soil, or directly onto plants. Before application, biodynamic preparations are buried in the earth usually for six months at a time to ferment.
Biodynamic theory also claims that the ultraviolet light of the sun, in a certain position in the sky, helps the leaves of plants to accept and assimilate a spray application.
~Okay, so organic and biodynamic viticulture is good for the earth, and since it leaves no synthetic residue in the wine we drink, it is likely good for our bodies. But has the wine gotten any better? Can we taste the difference?
~A lot of factors affect wine taste. But if synthetic chemicals poison the land then to what extent do they affect the health of plants. It takes healthy plants to produce healthy grapes to produce great wine.
~Which of course means that great wine starts in the vineyard.
Recently, the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), in conjunction with two insurance companies, developed a Wine Industry Property & Liability insurance package that rewards growers with reduced premiums if they practice sustainable viticulture. CAWG’s mantra includes words like “managing risks proactively” and “implementing sound environmental practices.”
~If I were a betting man, I would lay a few dollars down on big changes for the future of viticulture. And I might even be inclined to up the ante, to bet on biodynamics. As for betting that the new direction will produce great wine. I don’t know. But it will be fun to find out.
April, 2007. All Rights Reserved.