18 March 2016

Wine tasting by the lunar calendar


Today is a root day. In the biodynamic wine tasting calendar this means that the moon is going through the ‘earth signs’ such as Capricorn and Taurus. Root days are not good days to enjoy wine. On a practical level a root day means the tannins in wine, the bitter tasting compounds that derive from the skin and pips, are accentuated and the fruit notes tends to disappear. My biodynamic calendar informs me they are bad days for tasting, which is O.K. as today I am writing. The only liquid that will pass my lips is water and a few cups of powerful, dark coffee.

Good days are flower days. This is when the moon is present in the ‘air signs’ like Gemini and Libra. On flower days wines taste more fragrant and delicate. These, says the biodynamic calendar, are better days to taste and enjoy aromatic wines. Best of all are fruit days when the moon is settled in any of the ‘fire signs’ such as Aries and Leo. These are the best days for wine tasting as they promote harmony and reinforce the fruity notes of wine. Fruit, particularly sweet fruit, is always an attractive characteristic in wine. Leaf days are perhaps best avoided; these are when the moon is under the influence of any of the ‘water signs’ like Cancer. On these days the plant is focused on producing chlorophyll and therefore they highlight the vegetal hint of wines. My calendar advises me that these are not good days for tasting except for maybe white wines.

If this all sounds ludicrous and faintly superstitious I should point out that some major retail chains have opted to hold their press tastings on fruit days. Fruit, root, flower and leaf. How many wine professionals follow the principles of the biodynamic calendar is anybody’s guess. But mention biodynamics to anyone that works in the wine industry and they will certainly know what you are talking about. The lunar calendar I was referring to is only part of it. The wider biodynamic philosophy draws on the work of the Austrian scholar Rudolf Steiner. His ideas were carefully laid out in a series of lectures delivered in 1924 entitled “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture”.

The central belief is that the Earth is a living organism which is receptive and in many ways dependent on cosmic cycles. In the case of the tasting calendar the philosophy is that both humans and wine react to the lunar cycles, which in turn change the way wine tastes. And it sort of makes sense; we all have good days and bad days and I have lost count of the number of times a wine I seriously enjoyed didn’t taste quite as good the second time and vice a versa. Christopher Ehrhart at Josmeyer once told me that he believed the vines had their own rhythm and mood, rather like humans. When you understand this you can prune and plant at the optimum time he told me.

In the last twenty years the principles of biodynamic winemaking have gained more traction, and today they are taken very seriously indeed. Off the top my head I can name number of prominent wine estates which are now 100% biodynamic. These include Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair in Burgundy, Le Soula in the south of France, Josmeyer in Alsace and Chapoutier in the Rhône. Another is Gérard Bertrand, the former French international rugby player turned vigneron who now runs one of the biggest biodynamic wine estates in France.

Bertrand is not your stereotypical ex-rugby player. Courteous, attentive with a natural presence (accentuated by his tall rugby playing frame) when we meet in London he studiously guides me through several different vintages of his wine. This is not the story of a rich ex-sportsman who is playing at making wine and it feels more than just a second career.

“After rugby I turned my passion only for wine,” he says.

This weekend he will host a lunch at le Fouquet on the Champs Élysées before heading to the France v England game at the Stade de France. A natural synergy of both his appreciation of wine and rugby.

It was drinking wine which led him to biodynamics. When he was a young man he had a slight problem with his liver, a meeting with homeopathic doctor Francis Mazel cured him of his ailment and that is when the germ of an idea to use the same principles in farming was sown.

He says he is convinced that the biodynamic process is the best way for wines to show their true character.

So is he right and what effect does biodynamic winemaking have on the taste and flavour of the wine? During the course of the last ten years I have tasted many biodynamic and non biodynamic wines. In very general terms I would say that biodynamic wines have more freshness, purity and are texturally lighter. In short, they feel more alive, there is more vitality and they have a more pronounced fruit character. The flip side is that, in some cases, during a difficult growing season I have observed the wines can throw up some unusual characteristics. But this is a small quibble.

Bertrand’s wines are a revelation.  I kept noting down descriptions such as reserved, ethereal, fresh and pure.

He later confided in me that he works with Jean-Claude Berrouet who for decades fine tuned Petrus in Bordeaux.

“Every year I do a blending session with him. He delivers to me the purity of wine and the sense of detail, the ability to go deep into detail,” says Bertrand.

“He has the methodology of a scientist and the romance of a writer. I like when the wine is silky and velvet and when the fruit is coming first. I don’t want to have wine with too much oak.” Music to this wine critics ears. Of course, as well as biodymanics, it helps to have a master blender like Berrouet on board too.

Three to buy

2015 Chardonnay, Prima Nature, Gérard Bertrand, Languedoc – Roussillon, France

Ignore anyone who says that Chardonnay is passé. This is an example that is brimming with clean, crisp, citrus notes. Fresh with a well-rounded and smooth mouth feel it has a light touch which means it slips down very easily.

2011 Le Viala Minervois La Lavinière, Gérard Bertrand, Languedoc – Roussillon, France

No sooner have you lowered your nose into the glass than a wave of unctuous sweet dark fruit hits you, there is a nice violet character too. Very smooth with an after taste that seems to go on and on. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan this is a serious wine that will benefit from cellar ageing.

2012 Clos d’Ora Minervois Liviniere, Gérard Bertrand, Languedoc – Roussillon, France

Dark and brooding this sits in the glass throwing up notes of spice, truffles, herbs and damp earth. Like all of Bertrand’s wines it has a very smooth texture but despite its weight and obvious power finishes off with a very fresh finish. Seriously good.  

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.