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How green is your vineyard?

Monty Waldin on biodynamic, organic and sustainable viticulture

How Green is your vineyard?

Anyone who saw the 2008 Channel 4 documentary Château Monty will know what a passionate advocate of biodynamics Monty Waldin is. Not content with being a leading wine writer on the subject, Monty put his money where his mouth is when he made his own wine biodynamically in the Roussillon. Monty's latest book about biodynamic and organic winemaking includes information about more than 1,500 wineries who practise these techniques. Despite an increase in proponents of these methods, there is still a great deal of confusion about what it actually means for wine drinkers – we asked Monty to explain, which he does here in characteristically forthright terms.

Most of us think all wine is organic, isn't it? I certainly assumed this to be the case when I went to work in a Bordeaux vineyard during school summer holidays. I was supposed to be brushing up for French A-level but spent most of my time there reading wine books and examining the vineyards around St Emilion. We always had weeds in our home vegetable garden but I was surprised to find so few weeds growing around the Bordeaux vines, and even more surprised to hear they'd been sprayed off with chemical herbicides.

But it wasn't this alone that shattered my romantic notion of wine, it was the fact that people seemed prepared to pay huge sums for bottles sold on the basis the wine inside spoke of its unique terroir or sense of place. How could you have wines tasting of a sense of place whilst removing a whole eco-system from the vineyard using herbicides labelled as highly hazardous to human health?

When I began selling wine in London a few years later in the early 1990s I listed as many organic wines as possible. It helped that in Europe the first rules legally defining organics had just been enacted. These banned chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides. While welcome, the rules implied that organics was defined as what wine-growers were not allowed to do, rather than what they should be doing.

So I went back to St Emilion and in 1993 met my first biodynamic grower in nearby Fronsac. His vineyard soil smelled as earthy as the forest floor, insects hummed and the vines visibly radiated health. His wines had an inner vibrancy too, one I'd never previously encountered. You can feel a similar vibrancy in Huet's tingly Vouvray, Vacheron's Sancerre, The Society's Exhibition Riesling from Josmeyer in Alsace, and Chile's brilliantly dense yet ethereal Coyam reds.

Biodynamics 'v' organics

If asked to describe the main difference between organics and biodynamics I'd say that while both organic and biodynamic growers are obsessed about what is beneath their feet, namely the soil, biodynamic growers are also obsessed about what is going on above the vines, namely with regard to lunar and other celestial cycles. Timing winter vine pruning to forces exerted by lunar movements may seem weird, but even scientists accept that animals and insects behave differently around full moon (predator insects become more active, those likely to be predated move less and try to hide), so why not vines too?

Biodynamic wine-growers can usually laugh off jibes about being slightly 'lunatic', but remember that biodynamics pre-dates organics, and that biodynamic wine-growers must expressly make their vineyards as selfsufficient as possible which is absolutely not the case with organics. So rather than buying in organic fertilizer, biodynamic growers must make their own, by composting biodynamic manure from their own animals. Cows can be grazed on spare land, or horses can be brought in to replace dieselspewing tractors. If manure produced from vineyard weeds eaten by livestock is then recycled back on to the vineyard as worm-rich compost it is easy to see how the wine can then become a much truer expression of place, or terroir. Wine critics increasingly rave about bio wines showing remarkable 'minerality'. Perhaps it is because bio wine-growers know weeds are full of the kind of minerals soil microbes and vines love, so recycling them rather than annihilating them with herbicides makes sense from a quality perspective as well as from an environmental one.

Chickens running free
Chickens running free.

Biodynamics thus forces a big change in the mind-set of the wine-grower because the vineyard must change from being a vine monoculture – neat rows of vines and nothing else – to something more polycultural and genuinely sustainable. With horses and cows in place, wine-growers may add a few sheep or pigs, plus chickens or geese. Fowl are especially good at pecking away at wireworms in the soil which can damage vines, and the albumin-rich whites from their eggs can even be used as a natural fining agent in red wines.

If this all sounds too good to be true it is fair to say that not all organic or biodynamic vineyards are as sustainable as they might be, but at least they are moving in the right direction. Seresin's Momo Pinot Noir, for instance, comes from vineyards sprayed only with herbal and manure teas by horse and not with tractors or with organically/biodynamically-approved copper and sulphur-based sprays (used to treat vine mildew). Winemakers using only natural sprays say the grapes are much easier to ferment too, with wild, native vineyard yeasts. These can produce wines with more complex flavours than those fermented with purchased vacuumpacked yeasts.

So what about sustainable viticulture?

Wines from officially registered 'sustainable' farming programmes come from vineyards in which herbicides, insecticides and pesticides are still allowed. The laudable aim of 'sustainable' programmes is to get growers to use fewer so-called 'hard' chemical sprays, but such programmes often fail to change mind-sets, and can leave growers in a spray-happy comfort zone.

The rise of natural wines

The recent growth in interest in socalled 'natural wines' is welcome. Natural wines should be hand-picked, unfiltered and bottled neither with additives (like sugar or acid) nor preservatives. The most common preservative used in wine, sulphur dioxide (or E220) is something some drinkers, especially women, say they are allergic to. Natural wines can initially seem baffling, but are more often beguiling. They are an extension, I think, of the biodynamic farming idea of reducing, then eliminating, as many external inputs from both the winegrowing and winemaking processes as possible. My only caveat is that some natural winemakers seem resistant to independent scrutiny.

Green credentials

Monty Waldin
Monty Waldin

Wines sold as, 'from organic' or 'biodynamic' grapes require independent, third-party certification – you can see the official seals from agencies like Demeter (biodynamic), IMO and Ecocert on back labels. The one self-described natural winemaker I worked for was a serious cheat – but the organic and biodynamic ones I worked for were above-board. This is hardly scientific proof of the need for independent certification, but I feel most wine consumers are, like me, reassured when marketing claims can be backed up.

Ultimately though, wines should sell because they taste great, and my own experience as a wine-grower tells me that the best way of getting balanced vines producing small grapes with healthy thick skins and concentrated flavours is to work with Mother Nature, rather than against her.

The view of The Society's buyers

Monty Waldin's closing remark 'Ultimately though, wines should sell because they taste great...' neatly sums up our approach to buying wine. We buy good wine first, and if a wine is produced in a more environmentally and/or more socially responsible way we take that as an added bonus. For example, we fully support growers moving to lighter glass but choose to encourage rather than oblige our suppliers to do so. We welcome all producers' efforts to move towards more sustainable viticulture, but it is inconceivable for all wine production to be certified organic, let alone biodynamic. There is a collective conscience in the wine industry and the vast majority of producers are moving inexorably away from historically unfriendly practices (not just the preserve of the wine world, of course) very much in the right direction, both helped and hindered by the vagaries of climate change. At The Society, ultimately, it will be members who tip the balance on this debate.

Monty Waldin

Guest Writer

Monty Waldin

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