The (Bio) Dynamic Nicolas Joly

Damn: it looks like I’ll have to get rid of my entire wine cellar and start again. Nicolas Joly, the father of biodynamic viticulture, says if your wine is stored in an environment with electric current of 50 Hertz or more, it will be dead. “The vibration will kill your wine.”

That’s it, end of story. You can’t argue with a man who wears certainty like other people wear a shirt.

This is just one of many pronouncements by Joly at a recent Return to Terroirs tasting in Sydney. Joly is the ring-leader of the world’s biodynamic winemakers. He introduced a tasting that included his own Coulee de Serrant wines from the Loire Valley, as well as Josmeyer of Alsace (tastings), Nikolaihof (tastings) from Austria, Foradori (tastings) from Italy’s Trentino and Australia’s Castagna (tastings) from Beechworth. It was a microcosm of a much bigger event staged by Return to Terroirs at Melbourne’s recent Food and Wine Festival, which about 45 biodynamic producers attended. Independently and collectively, they staged various other events in Sydney and Melbourne following the festival.

Vanya Cullen of Margaret River winery Cullen (tastings), said the atmosphere was unlike other wine events, because there was a feeling of a shared spirit and purpose, a respect for nature and the earth. “We need to heal the earth… there is too much greed… it’s about respecting the earth and not harming the soil.”

Each winemaker had their own stories to tell about their life-changing experiences with biodynamics, and as Cullen said, even if those stories didn’t always ring true with everyone, there was mutual respect and a shared gentle attitude to nature which is opposite to arrogant, ‘chemical agriculture’ – the idea that man can dominate nature.

Increasingly, farmers are turning away from modern chemical agriculture which has prevailed since the second world war. After a slow start, Australian consumers and producers are quickly catching up to Europe in the appreciation of organic and biodynamic methods.

David Paxton, who’s been growing grapes for 30 years in McLaren Vale, the last seven biodynamically, told me he wished he’d learnt about BD earlier. “You can’t change the past,” he said. “But now, I’m much more involved in the vineyard because of biodynamics. I used to think the soil was just for walking on. But it’s amazing to think that 90% of the world’s life is in the soil.” Paxton’s 80 hectares of vineyards are still certified as ‘in conversion’, and will be fully certified from January 2012.

Paxton says he believes his wines are starting to show more complexity. Others say biodynamics has given their wines more vitality; more energy. Some onlookers, of course, think this is imaginary, a kind of star-gazing fantasy. But, say Paxton and others, BD definitely results in lower alcoholic strength in wine because phenological ripening happens earlier, resulting in less sugar at full ripeness. Paxton’s latest Quandong Shiraz (tastings) has 13.5%, low for the region. “This is measurable,” he says.

Vanya Cullen’s delicious 2009 Mangan red (tasting – a blend of malbec, petit verdot and merlot) is just 12.5% alcohol, and lacks nothing. Indeed, you could argue it’s all the more delicious for not having the spirity alcohol finish and syrupy mouth-feel of so many modern, ultra-ripe Australian reds. Cullen’s flagship red, Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot, is these days more likely to have 12.5 to 13% alcohol than the 14% it used to.

Regardless of what you think about pruning, picking and racking by lunar phases, there is little argument that BD is good for the soil, and is probably justified for that alone. There is however, at least one study that concluded BD has no advantages over organic, and is much more costly.

Not surprisingly, Joly disagrees with that. He told us the difference between the two is that organic doesn’t hurt the environment, whereas biodynamic goes further: it helps it.

A fundamental belief to biodynamics is that, as Joly said, “Without micro-organisms in the soil, a root cannot feed itself, and if you spray herbicide, you kill all the micro-organisms in the soil within five to seven years.”

He believes soil microbes are an intrinsic part of terroir, and that “Terroir is a fabulous concept which modern agriculture has almost destroyed.” In order to be true to its terroir, a wine must come from an unpolluted, biodynamic environment. He has said it’s more important for a wine to be true, than to be good. And “The concept that wine is true, is 95% destroyed today.”

Adelaide-based wine marketer Brian Miller, a member of Australian Skeptics, once said, “When biodynamics does appear to produce better wine, it may be due to the cow-and-the-moon, or it may be because those who practise it put so much effort into every aspect of their viticulture and winemaking. They apply extraordinary attention to detail.”

Perhaps. Whatever the case, the five Return to Terroirs winemakers poured a superb array of wine. It began with Nikolaihof whites from Austria’s Wachau – magical riesling and gruner veltliner (tasting), including ’08 Elizabeth Tradition (a blend five varieties from a traditional-style mixed planting). Then the great Alsace whites of Josmeyer, climaxing in wonderful ’07 riesling and gewürztraminer from the Hengst grand cru. Even Joly’s wines, which I’d hitherto found underwhelming, were lovely, the big eye-opener being 2002 Coulee de Serrant, which appeared amber-golden and over-the-hill, but was rich, deliciously complex and lively when you immersed yourself in it. Foradori’s elegant reds, Rotaliano and Granato, made from the rare teroldego grape, were the most surprising wines, and for me a real discovery. Castagna’s ’04 Genesis Shiraz (tastings) was extraordinary – concentrated, youthful and succulent.

The audience of sommeliers and wine merchants seemed impressed – and not only by the emotive stories about poisoned vineyard workers, miraculously recovered soils, and other anecdotes which might not stand scientific scrutiny.

Not that science matters much to people like Joly. “If you take all of the modern scientific instruments and try to use them to make a Van Gogh painting, it’s not possible.”

But the wines spoke for themselves.

Joly is persuasive when he speaks of the unnecessary-ness of chemical agriculture. “What did modern farming do? Because herbicides killed the microbial life in the soil, the roots could not feed, so they turned upwards towards the surface. So we got chemical fertilisers. These fertilisers are salts. Salt makes you thirsty, so you drink more. With too much water on the vines, diseases came. The easy ways to treat diseases, which have always existed in a soft form – copper and sulfur – were no longer strong enough (to control such virulent fungal disease). We needed systemic sprays, a way to get the molecule inside the sap within half an hour. But we weren’t told that we were poisoning the sap.”

Joly distributed a list of 350 aromatic yeasts which industry has developed for use with specific grape varieties in order to achieve specific flavours and aromas. His point was that usage of these yeasts is so widespread today that modern wine no longer tastes of the place where the grapes grew. “It has no typicity, and no taste of the appellation,” Joly said.

“Modern chemical farming has destroyed the yeast and the soil.”

Modern winemakers use special cultured yeasts, they filter and fine and add nutrients and enzymes and correct the chemistry of their wine at every turn. But according to Joly, this is not necessary if you follow the old ways, and let nature take its own course.

“Then, you will have nothing to do in your cellar. It all happens naturally. Natural settling (of the juice – with need for enzymes), natural fermentation. You need to do nothing. Truthness (sic) of taste means you do nothing and it will happen by nature.”

As Joly also said, there’s a new generation of wine professionals who look at the agricultural practices of their parents and say: “We don’t want this. We want something else.” Perhaps the answer is biodynamic.

Importer Randall Pollard of Heart and Soil has begun importing, for the first time in Australia, the biodynamic wines of Champagne Fleury (tastings). Based in Bar sur Aube, in the far south of the appellation, near Chablis, Jean-Sebastian Fleury’s wines are not only biodynamic in a region famous for its high use of vineyard chemicals, but his wines are very low in the common wine preservative, sulfur dioxide – 50 to 60 parts per million, he says, while the law allows up to 180. The wines are excellent and well priced: the regular non-vintage is a Blanc de Noirs ($75 tasting) and my favourite is the wonderfully fragrant, pristine 2004 Cepages Blancs (tasting– which contains some pinot blanc as well as chardonnay). It’s $96.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 29 March 2011.

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