Biodynamic wine serves community, the environment and health, not just toffs – Frank Armstrong
The motivation for the imposition of a €1 levy on a bottle of wine in the recent budget, in contrast with less exacting tribute from other alcohols, must have been the perception that wine drinkers fall into the social category, toffs. As such this is a broadly progressive taxation measure that falls hardest on those who can afford it.
But intemperate drinking costs the state in medical care, crime and lost productivity that far exceeds any benefit derived from taxation. Wine-drinkers might argue their consumption occurs in measured fashion, typically around meal times.
Notwithstanding the need to balance the books, rather than taxing ‘goods’ like labour we should be taxing ‘bads’ such as pollution and fast food. This government has failed to use this mechanism of judicious taxation to engineer desirable behaviour: nothing has been done to curb the consumption of refined sugars that fuel the obesity epidemic. Big Food lobbyists seem to win every time.
Discouraging excess and inculcating moderation is a legitimate goal for taxation. Wine conduces to that end. A super-levy on vodka might serve society better.
Wine’s place in Western ritual, from the cult of Dionysus to the daily mass, from the romantic dinner to the swilling at Inns of Courts, seems unassailable. Symbolising the blood of the creator, and our interaction with celestial forces, it retains a ceremonial quality in a secular age as a complement to dining with intent. Wine has been drunk in Ireland for at least 2000 years. Travelling in Ireland in the twelfth century the Norman chronicler Gerald of Wales noted that wine was so abundant that you would scarcely notice that the vine was not cultivated here.
Recent times have seen a diminution in the hallowedness, and indeed the quality, of wine through growing yields and homogeneity, fed by noxious chemicals.
The grapevine reaches far into the soil, drawing out mineral elements that lie deep in the substrate to produce a luscious fruit long-recognised for its medicinal properties. Fermentation reduces a grape’s beneficial properties but instils intoxicating and – especially when aged – ethereal, qualities in its place.
What makes a wine great or even good? Cognoscenti direct us to select regions and even estates in France especially Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Loire valleys, Champagne and increasingly Alsace. Italian Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo register approval while Hungarian Tokaj still has its adherents as the favoured tipple of successive Popes. Among elite wine drinkers New World wine is often dismissed as a crass distraction. Unfortunately this assessment has some merit as some of the more egregious practices in intensive viticulture occur there.
The signature of place should be imparted by a wine as the vine draws on a locality’s unique topography, subtly altered by shifting annual climatic conditions. The same grape variety produces quite distinct signatures in different places and should vary from year to year.
In France, particularity of place is given a formal basis by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which regulates the production of wine in each region. Location joins with the human culture that nurtures and guides the vine before the grape is picked and fermented. This engagement, at once primitive and advanced, is best achieved over a long sweep of time. Folk wisdom, handed down in families or intimate companies, is shared with neighbours in the knowledge that the adoption of best practice in a region will ultimately benefit all. This sense of place is known to the French as terroir.
The fragile dynamic was altered after World War II with the vogue for chemicals and the introduction of highly-productive strains. Farmers became increasingly removed from the nature of their vines, hovering above them in mechanical pickers or hiding behind gas masks to spray compounds that arrive in packages marked with skulls and crossbones.
This industrialisation of viticulture has led to chronic over-production across Europe. Prodigious, but weakened, clones demand fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, all derived from fossil fuels, to survive. It is not simply the addition of sulphur which is naturally occurring and has been added to wines for millennia, but of a whole array of preservatives and stabilising agents. The juice is treated to aromatic and extraneous yeasts that make up for a lack of complexity. But our bodies cannot be fooled as violent hangovers and even allergies often result. These practices, analogous to the intensive farming of animals, bring about grapes not dissimilar to Frankenstein foods. The fruit is depleted of nutritional-value. If producers were compelled, as is required for food products under European law, to reveal all the ingredients in a bottle, consumers would have a much clearer picture of the process.
One response to this is the biodynamic movement in viticulture and beyond. The Demeter logo reveals a product to be biodynamic. It is really an old idea that seeks to restore a symbiotic relationship with nature. It draws on peasant wisdom sometimes dismissed as superstition, based on the lectures of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) an Austrian philosopher, educationalist and mystic. Biodynamic standards are more exacting than organic, requiring a diverse ecosystem – antithetical to the large-scale production supermarket-multiples prefer. The requirements which allow a producer to attain a Demeter label for a wine are exacting and include: no irrigation, mechanical harvesting, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers or fungicides, extraneous and aromatic yeast are also prohibited. The widespread practice of adding sugar, called chaptalisation, to unfermented grape is, naturally, outlawed.
Some practices of biodynamism – including the burying of manure inside a cow’s horn for six months – appear bizarre but others, such as acknowledging the importance of the moon in the planting cycle, are easy to comprehend. It has been labelled obscurantist yet many biodynamic wines climb gustatory heights that have critics swooning. The best producers in Burgundy and Alsace are converts. The life force generated by biodynamic agriculture is a profound mystery: in Poland on a biodynamic commune after the Chernobyl disaster scientists measured only one tenth of the radioactivity that was present in neighbouring farms.
The accepted hierarchy of regions and estates may be shattered if we begin to accept that only wine produced using natural methods is worthwhile. The possibility of greatness is open to well-sited viticulturalists beyond established regions. With climate change perhaps parts of Ireland will begin cultivation.
The vine, fertilised with biodynamic compost, is for the most part left to fend for itself, though protective preparations that work with nature such as stinging-nettle spray are applied. Plants that have a symbiotic relationship with the vine are also planted. Grapes must be hand-picked so boosting employment and reducing carbon consumption. They are then allowed to ferment with yeast ‘caught’ in the locality. The pure signature of place is maintained. This may lead to inconsistencies but they are not masked by admixtures in the cellar.
The labour-intensive nature of production engenders farms that become small communities and the insistence on crop diversity generates a measure of self-sufficiency.
Because of this high employment and lower yield biodynamic wine will not compete with supermarket prices. But wine should not be drunk in large volumes. With the addition of one euro on a bottle it makes sense to be more selective and drink less.
Biodynamic agriculture has potential well beyond viticulture. Its methods are less carbon-intensive, foster biodiversity and are more socially progressive; and its product is more nutritious and pleasant. Harmony is the