As discerning drinkers develop a taste for wines that are free from pesticides, supermarkets are finding more room for organic bottles on their shelves. Anthony Rose reports on the boom in biodynamic viticulture
When David Paxton tried his hand at growing biodynamic veg, he discovered a whole new world of flavours. Paxton, who owns 200 acres of vineyard in Australia's McLaren Vale, subsequently decided to roll out the biodynamic model across his vines. Until recently, it's the French who've spearheaded the drive towards biodynamic viticulture. And they include some of the great names of French wine: the Leroy, Leflaive and Lafon domaines in Burgundy, Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach and Ostertag in Alsace, Jacques Selosse in Champagne, Chapoutier in the Rhône and Huet in Vouvray. Now, it's the turn of the New World, as increasing numbers of growers have set in motion their own gradual conversion from conventional to sustainable farming and beyond.
According to David Paxton, "the transmission of nutrients stops with herbicides and the interconnection with the fungi and bacteria is broken. Since converting to biodynamic viticulture in 2004, I've found that the quality and health of the grapes has improved dramatically and we're getting better prices for them." There was scepticism at the time, but there's now considerable interest in his vineyard model from other Australian growers. Paxton's conversion was neither a marketing opportunity nor about staking out the moral high ground but was "the difference between bringing a child up on Big Macs or healthy food".
As in the case of organic viticulture, the aim is to produce healthy grapes naturally, by using locally created compost, not spraying with harmful pesticides or growing with an excess of phosphates and sulfites, etc. But since biodynamic farming invokes the rhythms of the planet and embraces practices that might seem plain wacky some suggest that you can get rid of weeds by burning the seeds of those same weeds and scattering the ashes on infected areas it requires more of a leap of faith than simple organics. The idea was developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) who taught that working the soil requires a reconnection with nature to allow it to produce nutritious food, using preparations such as cow horn dung and yarrow flower.
In fact the scepticism is healthy because it questions the practices and the effects without swallowing them hook, line and sinker even some practitioners will admit they don't always know how it works. As David Paxton himself says, "We see scepticism among consumers, so letting the consumer know we're biodynamic is something we're approaching carefully as we don't want them to think we're a bunch of wankers cashing in on the green movement." There's the rub. A legacy of poor organic wine and the "keen-to-be-seen-to-be-green" lobby using green ends for marketing purposes are factors that have fed consumer scepticism.
Master of Wine and ex-Waitrose wine buyer Susan McCraith, who recently went solo with ethicalwine.com, is a strong supporter of biodynamic wines. She feels public acceptance is slow "because supermarkets can only talk about organic wine if it's certified, but for me there's a wider story to tell, including that of the many winemakers who are all but organic but not doing it in order to gain certification. What I'm trying to do is support people making a genuine environmental effort to reduce sprays, use organic fertilisers and experiment with biodynamics". Lance Piggott, of organic wine merchants Vintage Roots, feels that organic wines are poorly represented in the high street because "most organic growers are small and the majority of producers are looking at the quality and not the volume market".
He agrees with McCraith that there's more choice, especially with the arrival on the scene of bigger players like California's Fetzer and Chile's Emiliana. Despite recent figures that show that only 26 per cent of regular wine drinkers bought organic wines in the past year, Sainsbury's claims to have doubled its organic wine sales recently. According to organic wine buyer Michelle Smith, when they had a separate organic section, people walked past, as they didn't like to be pigeonholed but "we found that if we offer organic wine as an alternative among the other bottles, customers are happy to trade up for the wider environmental benefits." It's a step in the right direction, but specialists like Vintage Roots, Whole Foods Market and Planet Organic are still best for the widest organic ranges.
10 GREEN BOTTLES
1. 2007 KT & The Falcon Single Vineyard Watervale Riesling, Clare Valley
The KT here is the talented ex-Leasingham winemaker Kerri Thompson using grapes farmed organically from the Peglidis vineyard in the township of Watervale to create this stylish dry Australian white. £19, Berry Bros & Rudd (0870 900 4300; bbr.com)
2. 2006 L'Insolite, Saumur, Domaine des Roches Neuves
Best known for making some of the most accomplished cabernet francs in the clay-limestone, sandstone and flint soils of Saumur Champigny, Thierry Germain also makes this stunning dry white from pure, organic chenin blanc grapes, producing a wine of pristine fresh fruitiness. Around £14.15, Les Caves De Pyrène, Guildford (01483 554750), Wimbledon Wine Cellar (020-8540 9979)
3. 2005 Coyam, Emiliana
Made by top Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinoza from a blend of syrah and Bordeaux varieties on Emiliana's organic estate at Los Robles in Colchagua, this is a youthful, vibrant, richly fruited red whose berryish aromas and sweetly ripe concentrated blackberry fruit are offset by succulent, bittersweet-chocolatey tannins. Around £12.50, Vintage Roots (0800 980 4992), Whole Foods Market (020-7486 8065)
4. 2006 Cederberg Sustainable Shiraz
Made by David Nieuwoudt from pure shiraz vines in the Cederberg, this is the modern face of Cape shiraz: a powerful shiraz whose black cherry fruit is neatly rounded out with a touch of oak. £7.50, Waitrose
5. 2007 Fairtrade Tilimuqui Single Vineyard Torrontés
Torrontés is one of Argentina's most distinctive white varieties. The lychee-like character and juicy freshness of this version made from organic grapes in Argentina's Famatina Valley make it a joy to drink. £5.99, Waitrose
6. 2005 Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Cullen
A firm believer in the link between sustainability and quality, Vanya Cullen, one of Australia's leading winemakers, has converted all her family's vineyards in Western Australia's Margaret River to biodynamic production with startling results: like this intense Bordeaux-style blend whose rich cassis fruit and veneer of oak offers long-term satisfaction in the Pauillac mould. Around £35.49, Noel Young Wines, Cambridge (01223 844744), Fortnum & Mason
7. Fleury Père et Fils Brut Champagne
Ploughing a lonely biodynamic furrow in Champagne's cool conditions is no picnic but this quality blend of the 2004 and 2005 vintages made in the Aube region by Jean-Pierre Fleury from pure pinot noir doesn't rely on its biodynamic certification to sell itself but rather the quality of what's in the bottle: a fine baked apples-and-cream fizz. £21.99, Vintage Roots
8. 2007 Domaine du Grand Milord Rosé, Vin de Pays du Gard
Southern French Rosé made by the Amphoux family from a blend of organic caladoc grapes (a crossing of grenache and malbec) judiciously topped up with syrah offers a mouthful of juicy berry fruitiness and an elegant dry finish that makes it the choice for salad Niçoise. £5.99, M&S
9. 2007 Château Sainte Marguerite Cru Classé, Côtes de Provence
Terrific white from the Fayard family's 50 hectares of vineyards at La Londe-les-Maures on the French Riviera. The acidity in the vermentino grape makes it a speciality of the Mediterranean especially southern France, where it's also known as rolle. £9.99, Majestic
10. 2006 Bonterra Viognier
From organic viognier grapes grown in California's Mendocino and Lake counties with the addition of 15 per cent marsanne and roussane for added zip, this powerful Rhône-style dry white displays honeysuckle undertones and peachy fruit flavours tempered by refreshing acidity with a hint of vanilla. £9.99-£10.50, Booths, ethicalwines.com, Majestic (buy 2 get £4 off)