When we talk about fine winemaking techniques, chances are that horses and cows don’t enter the equation. What many of the most discerning wine connoisseurs don’t realize is that livestock can create a wine more vivid in flavor than any previous vintage on the same estate.
Not only do animals naturally fertilize the vineyard’s soil, they serve a far more important purpose for flavor. When a wine producer grows its grapes, the leaves on the vine need to be meticulously trimmed back every day to keep each grape exposed to the proper amount of sunlight. If a winemaker misses even a few days of trimming during the season, the wine is at risk of tasting thin and immature, even if that producer does everything else right. Traditional, non-biodynamic producers face this problem every year, but more wineries are moving toward a natural approach.
You never need to worry about sun exposure with biodynamic wine producers such as Pontet-Canet. This expansive Bordeaux estate houses five horses, which keep every inch of their vines trimmed early in the growing season. Livestock such as sheep and cows nibble on the new grape leaves that grow near the base of the fruit clusters, allowing even the lower grapes to receive ample sun. Cows and horses reach the weeds growing around the vine’s roots that threaten to damage its budding crop.
Pontet-Canet’s owners allow their horses to trod through the vines, gently agitating the soil with more precision than a traditional tractor. The result is a well-structured wine with grapes that have had enough time in the sun to fully mature in flavor. Take, for example, the 2010 Pontet-Canet blend, which both James Sucking and Robert Parker gave a perfect score. The wine has an intense flavor that originates from its fully-grown grapes, and, coupled with a relatively late harvest season and ideal weather conditions, is expected to cellar through 2040.
This estate was the first major producer in Bordeaux to achieve an Agence Bio organic certification for its change in winemaking techniques. Pontet-Canet is still one of the only major biodynamic producers in the region, but it has already influenced dozens of other estates to employ livestock and other organic methods in their productions.
You’ll Never Worry About Additives
A winemaker dumps pounds of fertilizer on his vine roots, the smell of ammonium nitrate filling the air in a thick cloud. A worker sprays the grape leaves with a coating of sticky, pungent pesticide until they are squeaky clean and free of bugs. The grapes get carted to a warehouse, where they are crushed and filled with extra sulfites to keep them fresh.
With all of the modern winemaking techniques most producers have employed over the years, you might step back and wonder if the finest winemakers of 400 years ago did any of this to achieve their incredible vintages. It would be safe to assume that some of these unnatural flavors are making it into the final bottle, ruining the taste.
For winemakers focused on terroir and the natural qualities of the grapes, working without pesticides is a no-brainer. Leading the way in this idea is Domaine Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace. This region has become famous over the past 10 years for using more traditional techniques, but this producer has taken it one step further.
As the top wine producer in the terroir, anything this estate does will certainly be mimicked by its competitors. Right now, its wines are made using only the most natural process available: the soil. Surprisingly, when this winery decided to improve its soil, it eliminated its need for harsh pesticides. It turns out that the pests responsible for eating grapes and their leaves only swarm around a vineyard if that vineyard’s soil is too high in nitrate. Fix the soil, and you protect your grapes.
What makes this wine more compelling than its pesticide peers goes beyond burying cow horns around its roots, though. Its 2012 Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann Grand Riesling has all of the tropical fruit flavors of a typical Riesling, but it perhaps best represents its natural terroir in its richness.
Alsace Riesling should always be rich, complex and balanced with a puckering citrus flavor. Recent vintages made with modern techniques have lost some of this natural vigor and punchiness. Many Rieslings today have become a watered-down version of what made them great 100 years ago.
As these winemakers get back to their roots, tossing aside modern pesticides, you can expect biodynamic Riesling to grow in popularity. On Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, winemakers select only the best, limited bunches of grapes from the old vines, harvesting each one by hand. This produces a wine that is not only free of additives, but that is more expensively-crafted than any of its more modern peers.
Natural Yeast Ages to Perfection
If you’ve ever sipped on a cheaply-made wine, you might have noticed that acrid, heavy sulfur finish that destroys your palate. The sure sign of a mass-produced wine comes from the sulfites it adds to the fermentation process in an attempt to keep the wine fresh longer.
Sulfites definitely extend the shelf life of a wine, but at what cost? Fine biodynamic winemakers refuse to sacrifice taste for an extended vintage date, and wine collectors should follow their lead. After all, what good is a 20-year-old wine that tastes like liquid sulfur?
The best-tasting wine uses a hands-off approach in its maturation. The most expensive wines in the world cost a fortune because their winemakers carefully handle them allowing their grapes to mature on their own. Chateau de Beaucastel is one of these fine producers.
Their handpicked grapes spend hardly any time in oak barrels, making this wine unusual for Rhone-style red blends. The Chateau does not want its wine to taste like every other varietal today, focusing instead on what makes its soil and terroir unique.
What you get from their 2010 Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Rouge is a seductive nose of cherries, and a hint of Kirsch with spices and chocolate. Despite its lack of oak aging techniques, this is a wine that will easily keep until 2030, proving that not all biodynamic wines need to be drunk while young. When you allow the added yeast to ferment the grapes naturally, you create a longer finish on the wine, with more complex flavors.
Generally, the longer you allow a wine to steep in its own flavors, the better the wine will age and taste. Pumping excessive sulfites into a batch of wine might technically let it keep for decades, but it will by no means have the richness and ethereal beauty of this wine, which showcases the true nature of the grapes within.
France Becoming a Biodynamic Leader
When you choose your own biodynamic wine for your collection, look to French winemakers first. This might seem unexpected, until you consider that France has some of the most recognizable terroirs in the world. As more winemakers move to natural winemaking techniques, French producers will want to highlight what makes their terrain special.
Look to wines from Rhone Valley for mineral-heavy vintages that have full-bodied flavors. This region is one of the best for up-and-coming biodynamic wines, since it has warm, sun-filled summers and dense granite soil. The sunlight allows the grapes in Rhone Valley to slowly mature, which will only be more fully expressed through wineries that use sheep to trim down leaves.
Right now, the best biodynamic wine from Rhone Valley is the Chapoutier 2010 Ermitage Le Meal, which has had 25 years to perfect its all-natural technique. In Robert Parker’s words, the winery’s objective has been to “produce the purest and most natural expressions of terroir possible,” and we can all agree that Michel Chapoutier has succeeded at the task. Like most biodynamic wines, this vintage has one of the longest finishes you will ever experience (a full minute or more). You will want to collect this vintage not only to taste the minerals and cocoa of this estate, but to keep this wine for another half a century.
In Burgundy, tradition is the master of all of its finest estates, so it is no wonder that producers are turning more to natural techniques. Being from a Burgundy terroir automatically garners respect from wine experts due to the region’s ideal growing conditions. It should be no wonder, then, why this region is producing more biodynamic wines than nearly any other terroir.
Estates like the Domaine Leflaive charge hundreds of dollars for the privilege of tasting its vintages. When you consider that these wines last for decades, and that this winery goes as far as tending its grapes based on moon phases, its price is comparatively cheap. This is a winery that spends every waking moment considering grape and fermentation quality, yielding some of the most selective harvests in the region.
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