IF SKIPPING around Maypoles swigging wine from acorn cups is your thing, let me recommend as musical accompaniment Jethro Tull’s springtime ditty, Pass the Cup of Crimson Wonder, a celebration of mystical nature, ancient wisdom and wine.
Tull envokes the ‘Green Man’ and it is tempting to see him as one of the growing number of vignerons en Biodynamie (Biodynamic organic winemakers) in France who apply Rudolf Steiner’s occult horticultural tips to viticulture.
Apostles of Steiner’s Anthroposophy religion coordinate agriculture with lunar and planetary cycles. They eschew chemicals, applying plant and manure-based treatments: like organic winemakers with astrolabes. Occasionally, they stuff and inhume animal parts to make compost, or scatter the ashes of pests to avert them.
It’s easy to criticise Steiner’s total lack agricultural credentials. Nevertheless, do Biodynamic wines actually taste better than other wines? I’m agnostic when it comes to paganism, but I attended a Biodynamic wine tasting on a "leaf day" (propitious for aromatic expression, say acolytes). Some wines were terrific, others were having a bad "leaf day".
However, my palate doesn’t descry “cosmic forces” and I can’t judge if a wine’s complexity comes from “the influence of Sagittarius rising”, or if the universe really spirits “enabling information” (or whatever) into vineyard treatments via the silica in cow horns used in their preparation.
Ultimately, Biodynamic farming rituals make more sense as metaphors for Steiner’s spiritual vision than as horticultural precepts. Practicing them is really more about manifesting faith in his vision than winemaking. What’s most important with esoteric practices, like Chinese medicine or palm-reading, is the intuition of the individual practitioner, or winemaker.
The best wines came from talented, independent winemakers. The worst came from large producers cashing in on the premium prices Biodynamic wines command.
This Beltane, my crimson wonder will be Volubile – a "natural" wine from Isabelle Frère’s Le Scarabée winery in Roussillon. "Natural" wines are highly popular in France just because they can’t be made industrially for the mass-market. In the absence of artificial treatments, they require utter dedication.
Curiously, labour-intensive "natural" winemaking is often described as "non-interventionist" yet, as New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says, a truly non-interventionist winemaker would be “a successful producer of bird food”.
"Natural" wines are defined more by what winemakers don’t do, than what they do. They don’t: add sulphites to grapes (which kill ambient yeasts they rely on for fermentation); use industrial yeasts (designed to give specific flavours); use high-tech winemaking tools (to make cookie-cutter wines); add sugar, enzymes or acid (to compensate for what’s lacking); fine or filter; or use new barrels (which compromise a wine’s expression of grape and terroir).
Instead, they farm organically, plough and harvest manually, and select grapes fastidiously. They keep caves spotless to avoid having to add sulphites later on as a preservative. Consequently, their wines have a purity, delicacy and freshness that mass-market bottles can’t match.
Volubile isn’t cheap (10 Euros a bottle for a humble Vin de Table), but it’s the only cuvée Frère makes and it puts many more expensive, appellation wines to shame.
Maddeningly, ‘natural’ wines aren’t highly visible (the bottles aren’t canonized with a higher authority’s logo), but an artisanal label sometimes betrays a producer. If your caviste doesn’t stock any, menace him with your Maypole.
First published in The Connexion (May, 2011)