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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Biodynamic Wines: Beyond Organic

In the early 1940s the American publisher and sustainable-farming pioneer, J.I. Rodale coined the term “Organic,” but some 20 years earlier, an Austrian anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, had already developed the philosophical, theoretical, and practical underpinnings of yet another holistic approach to sustainable agriculture: Biodynamics.

Biodynamics views farms or vineyards as self-sustaining organisms that thrive within the larger surrounding ecosystem. Moving the concept of organics to the next level, Biodynamics demands the best holistic farming practices, but coupled with a strong focus on the vibrant seasonal rhythms of the earth and cosmos. All synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are prohibited, replaced with homeopathic concoctions that feature cow and horse manure, hay and vegetable compost, and seasonally specific mixtures of medicinal herbs, roots, and tree bark (including yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, valerian, and horsetail, among many others). The idea is that such an approach to agriculture will result in healthy plants and animals while enhancing soil fertility.

While most practitioners of Biodynamics are found on farms and vineyards in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, there is growing interest in this approach in the United States, particularly in the American wine industry. Biodynamic farms and vineyard sites are certified by the Demeter Association, founded in Europe in 1928, and whose domestic outpost is in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Demeter is the name of the Greek goddess of agriculture, derived from “Da Meter,” meaning The Mother. The first Biodynamic farm in the US was certified in 1982. Biodynamic certification standards are stricter than organic certification, especially when it comes to soil additives and treatments. Unique aspects of Demeter certification include:
• maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem on the farm or vineyard site;
• use of Biodynamic preparations to build soil health;
• integration of livestock into the farming system, with a requirement that at least 80% of livestock feed be produced from farm soils;
• prohibition of genetically engineered plant materials and organisms.


THE FATHER OF BIODYNAMIC VITICULTURE in the United States is an energetic, enthusiastic and successful 60 year old wine producer, practicing what he preaches in his vineyards. An indefatigable and true believer, he has written books and articles, lectured to groups large and small, and is considered the authority on theory and practice for the growing number of Biodynamic grape growers and winemakers in California and Oregon. His name is Nicolas Joly, and he is not from the Napa Valley, but from the Loire Valley. That’s in France.

How is it that the man who is so inspiring to eco-conscious winemakers in the US comes from the fabled and recently much-maligned land of Gauloises smokers, foie gras lovers, cheese eaters, and white wine drinkers? Nicolas Joly and his family own one of the truly great white wine vineyards in the entire world, Coulée de Serrant, in the Loire Valley village of Savennières, planted exclusively in Chenin Blanc grapes. First planted by Cistercian monks in 1130, and with the ancient monastery still on the grounds of the estate, Coulée de Serrant is a perfect prototype for biodynamic viticulture.

In the mid 1970s French agricultural agents told Nicolas Joly, who wanted to improve the wines of Coulée de Serrant, that his family’s approach to viticulture was archaic, and that they he should adopt the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Joly, a former banker who felt that his family must join the modern age, embraced this high-tech approach to growing grapes, a decision that he soon regretted.

Joly noticed that the color of the soils changed, and that the birds, animals, and beneficial insects abandoned Coulée de Serrant. The vineyard had lost its life, and Nicolas Joly began his search for alternatives to compacting the soil with chemicals. In 1984, after much research and vineyard trials, he found what he was looking for in Biodynamics. After just five years of growing vines on his 30 acre estate using a Biodynamic regimen of crop rotation, pruning, composting, and preparing site and season-specific soil and photosynthesis-enriching herbal infusions, Joly “began to see nature reborn.”

In 1999 Nicolas Joly published Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine (Acres USA), which describes his personal journey with biodynamic viticulture. It is an inspiring and honest book that has become the bible for the biodynamic wine movement (Joly’s current essays can be found at www.coulee-de-serrant.com).

In the United States the most visible and activist certified Biodynamic winery is the Sonoma-based Benziger Family Winery, whose president, Mike Benziger is a tireless and passionate spokesperson for the Biodynamic movement in the vineyards of California’s North Coast appellations. Other Demeter-certified vineyards in California are the Frey vineyards and the McNab Ranch in Mendocino County, as well as Ceago vineyards in Lake County. The McNab and Ceago properties are owned by members of the Fetzer family, early advocates of organic viticulture. Bonterra, the large wine producer that grows certified organic grapes, acquired an earlier certified Ceago/Fetzer project in Mendocino and plans to continue to grow the grapes biodynamically. The relatively new Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast is a serious biodynamic project, though not yet Demeter-certified. In the Pacific Northwest, Cooper Mountain Vineyards and Winery is leading the way as Oregon’s only certified Biodynamic growers and producers. Several other growers and producers are taking a serious look at Biodynamics and have begun to utilize Biodynamic practices in their vineyards, and some have begun the three year mandatory transition period that precedes Demeter certification.

On June 14th in New York City I attended the first-ever tasting of Biodynamic wines from all over the world. More than 70 wineries were represented, and many of the principals were there, including Nicolas Joly and Mike Benziger. I had been awaiting this tasting with great anticipation, and can report that the tasting exceeded even my highest expectations.
What did I expect from these wines, made from grapes that were grown in balance with Cosmic Forces? Would I see God, or should I bring someone to talk me down from my levitating lotus? Would I experience Syrah Satori, taste Mindbending Merlot, or meet the Shaman of Chardonnay?

Of course not, but I did expect the wines to be delicious. I was not looking for the world’s greatest wine, because I never look for that and probably wouldn’t know it if I tasted it. What I was hoping to discover in a glass of Biodynamic wine is what I always look for in every fine wine: passion.

I found passion aplenty at the Biodynamic tasting; one wine more exquisite than the next. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, as these growers and producers started at a very high level, none of them thinking of wine as a commodity, and all of them wishing to express the fragile sense of place in their wines.

Some of the standouts:

from the United States: Mike Benziger premiered his family’s first Demeter-certified Biodynamic wine: Tribute, Sonoma Mountain Estate, 2001. A Cabernet-based blend, Tribute is a deliciously complex and age-worthy wine, with a deep and earthy soul. Araujo Estate showed two lovely wines from its Eisele Vineyard located in the Napa Valley just east of Calistoga: Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 and Sauvignon Blanc 2002. Cooper Mountain Vineyards offered wines from the North Willamette Valley. I liked the Reserve Pinot Gris 2003 and the Five Elements Series Doctors Reserve Pinot Noir 2000. Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Estate was represented by a fine “Camp Masut” Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 and a juicy, lively “Kathleen’s Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc 2003.

France: With 45 selections at the tasting, France dominated this event, offering some outstanding wines. Some of the gems included:
from Champagne: Fleury Millésime 1996, Rosé Brut NV, and Cuvée Robert Fleury NV; Larmandier Bernier Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru NV and Extra Brut Vielle Vignes Grand Cru Cramant 1999.

from Alsace: Domaine Pierre Frick Pinot Blanc “Cuvée Précieuse” 2000; Domaine Marcel Deiss Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim 2001 and a Riesling/Gewürztraminer/Pinot Gris blend Grand Cru Schoenenbourg 2001; Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Rangen Clos Saint-Urbain 2001 and Pinot Gris Heimbourg 2001; Martin Schaetzel Gewürztraminer Kaefferhopf Cuvée Catherine 2001; Marc Tempé Pinot Blanc Zellenberg 2001 and Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles Grand Cru Mambourg 1998; Domaine Kreydenweiss Pinot Gris Moenchberg 2002; Domaine Ostertag Gewürztraminer Vendange Tardive Fronholz 2001.

from the Loire Valley: Château de Sourande Quarts du Chaume 2001; Château Tour Grise Saumur Blanc Amandiers 2002; La Coulée de Serrant 2002 and Savennieres 2002; Domaine de l’Ecu Bossard Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2003; Domaine Saint Nicholas Fiefs Vendéens Cuvée Les Clous 2002.

from Burgundy: Domaine d’Auvenay et Domaine Leroy Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux-Monts Premier Cru 2001 and Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2001; Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 2001 and Puligny-Montrachet Pucelles Premier Cru 2001; Domaine Pierre Morey Meursault Perriéres Premier Cru 2002; Domaine Trapet Père et Fils Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru 2001 and Chambertin Grand Cru 2001.

from Bordeaux: Château Falfas Le Chevalier Côtes de Bourg 2000; Château Gombaude-Guillot Pomerol 1998; Château Haut-Nouchet Pessac-Léognan Rouge 2000; Château Lagarette Cuvée Renaissance Premières Côtes de Bordeaux 2001; Château La Tour-Figeac Saint Émilion Grand Cru 2000.

from the Rhône Valley: Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2001; Domaine Montirius Gigondas 2001; Domaine Viret Cosmic Côte du Rhone-Village St.Maurice 2000; Maison M. Chapoutier Ermitage Rouge Pavillion 2001 and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Croix de Bois 2001.

Germany and Austria: Exquisite Riesling wines in just about every style from the driest trocken to the sweetest botrytis-laden Trockenbeerenauslese. Notable German producers included: Freiherr, Weingut Wittmann, and Weingut Sander (Rheinhessen), and Weingut Hahnmüle (Nahe), and two Austrian producers from the Wachau district, Weingut Geyerhof and Nikolaihof Wachau.

Spain: The winemaking genius of Alvaro Palacios was represented well by his new Biodynamic project, Descendientes de J. Palacios, in the reawakened Bierzo denominacion (Villa de Corullón 2001, San Martin 2001, Moncerbal 2001). All three wines are made from the Mencia grape. Telmo Rodriguez, who made his reputation as proprietor of Remelluri in Rioja offered two fine wines: Altos de Lanzaga 2001 (Rioja) and Matallana 2001 (Ribera del Duero).

Australia and New Zealand: Castagna Vineyard in Victoria, Australia showed lovely 2001 and 2002 versions of their “Genesis” Syrah; Millton Vineyards from New Zealand’s Gisborne district offered attendees distinctive 2002 “Clos de Ste. Anne” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Chile: Alvaro Espinoza is a great winemaker and grape grower, and has long believed in the Biodynamic and organic movements in viticulture. His family wine, Antiyal 2002 is a terroir-driven blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, made in small amounts. Alvaro, now one of the leading wine consultants in Chile, also represented Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana, whose red blend, Sincerity (2001 and 2002) was delicious, and was also the “best buy” of the Biodynamic tasting at $15/bottle.


Unknown said...

I work for Pierre Morey's U.S. importer. Thank you for your informative column on biodynamic wines. We just released a mini documentary about Pierre you might enjoy. You can watch it at www.wilsondanielsfilms.com. Regards.

Unknown said...

Biodynamics is one of the hottest topics of conversation in the Australian wine community right now. Adding to the confusion, many genuinely organic or biodynamic wines give little clue as to how they're farmed or made. Although environmentally responsible wine making seeks to improve both the health of the vineyard and the quality of the wine, winemakers don't always feel the need to trumpet their methods or submit to the onerous paperwork and inspections required for third-party verification.
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