Links on biodynamics and wine-ratings

Just wanted to share a few links I came across recently on the UK Wine Forum.  They are not new articles, but I found them interesting.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will probably find them interesting too, as they cover topics I tend to bang on about, and they support my arguments and views.  But if you are not a regular reader, you could find them as irritating as my blog 🙂

Firstly there is a set of three articles about biodynamics, all of which take a pretty sceptical view.  The first is On Fertile Ground? Objections to Biodynamics, which is a 2006 article from The World of Fine Wine, written by  Jesús Barquín and Douglass Smith.  It is a well-argued and balanced piece, very much in the ponderous style of the magazine.  The second is by the same authors: Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle.  Here they take their gloves off, and get more stuck into a critique of Steiner’s ideas.  Neither does Voodoo on the Vine, by Joe Eskenazi, pull any punches.  These articles, particularly the last two, lay themselves open to the criticism that they are using ridicule as an argument.  But I do not think that is fair – the wacky ideas they mention are not at all taken out of context – dip anywhere into Steiner’s work and wackyness is pretty much all you will find.  I particularly liked the concluding paragraphs of Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle, in which the harm of biodymanics is discussed.  The authors write: Apart from being a waste of time money and effort,

The problem resides in the extension of disbelief in empirical technique, and in substituting for it beliefs in unscientific practices like astrology and homeopathy, as well as voodoo-style rituals and even “geo-acupuncture.”  We must confront this problem, not just as wine lovers and wine writers, but also as citizens who do not wish to live in, nor present to our children, a society in which pseudoscience and esoteric fantasies are considered reality.

The final article I’d like to draw your attention to is A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion, by Leonard Mlodinow.  The strong message I am getting here is not to take anyone’s opinions on a wine too seriously, however expert that person is supposed to be, and even if that person is oneself.  But that does not mean that having a views on a wine is a snobbish affectation, which is perhaps a conclusion many would draw.  Let’s just accept that people’s views on wine differ, and are subject to all sorts of influences.

Terroir is utter bollocks

Not my words, but a parting shot from Malcolm Gluck as he recently left The Oldie magazine.  Taken at face value anyone who spares a moment to think about his assertion would have to disagree.  Even using the narrowest of definition of terroir, it is clear that certain soils and vineyard slopes are more auspicious for viticulture than others.  And using the broadest definition, which as far as I can make out encompasses just about everything that influences wine production, it is trivially true that terroir is important.  But I doubt that Mr Gluck was thinking in those terms, and neither are most people who enthusiastically embrace the concept.

I think the real issue is how meaningful all the various usages are.  My observation is that terroir can mean all manner of things to different people and that the meaning subtly shifts depending on what point is being made.  It is often justified in the terms I have given above, and then used in whatever way is most convenient.  In that sense, I think Gluck has a valid point.

It is informative to consider the history of the terroir concept.  According to this article, from the 18th century people wrote about the peculiarities of various Burgundian vineyards, but the T-word was not extensively used in that context.  “In the early 19th century, when experts were beginning to speak of ‘fine wines’, terroir had pejorative connotations. To speak of a terroir wine was to speak of a peasant wine – harsh and earthy – a definition that was to stick until the 20th century”, and “the contemporary idea of terroir – that a wine (or food) acquires a particular quality and character because of where it was produced – is a relatively recent phenomenon”.  And the rest of the article goes on to explain how the 20th century notion of terroir was closely linked to the creation of the AOCs in France.  You have to wonder if the Gallic explanation “c’est le terroir” for a badly made wine refers back to 19th century usage.

Whatever the details of the history, I think we have to accept that the concept has evolved rapidly in the last two centuries.  And even today there is little agreement about what it means.  I think that is why it lends itself so well to misuse and exploitation – bollocks if you like.  Here are some examples of what I see as more bollocky usages:

  1. Several years ago Bordeaux was promoting itself by saying that it was its terroir that made the wines so great.  Terroir is a marketeer’s dream.  With it you have a ready made USP for your wine, especially if you include in your definition of terroir that the wine making methods have to be traditional in the area.  And does Bordeaux really only have one terroir?  If there is one thing that unites the whole of the region, surely it it simply climate.  Of course this is not the only example of marketing using terroir in a questionable way.  One of Gluck’s earlier tirades was directed at WOSA.
  2. Another misuse in my book is to distinguish between terroir-driven and fruit-driven wines.  I can understand fruit-driven – it means fruity I presume.  So are we really talking about fruity and non-fruity wines, with the implication that wines without fruit have some mystical relation with the terroir not available to fruity ones?  I find it very difficult to buy into that idea.
  3. The above distinction also seems to hint at the fact that terroir-driven wines might taste earthy or minerally, which brings me onto another point: the naive assumption that wines taste of the soil the vines were planted in, or indeed that rocks taste of anything at all.  The vast majority of rocks have no flavour, the most common exception being Halite, which is rock salt.  Others are listed here on page 15.
  4. Then there is the idea that winemakers allow the terroir to express itself through minimum intervention.  Putting aside anthropomorphic objections, one wonders why it is the terroir in particular that expresses itself under those circumstances.  Why, for example, do the grape varieties decide to take a back seat.  Besides, how can one isolate the influences of terroir from anything else on the palate, especially if your concept of terroir covers pretty much everything anyway?  In blind tastings people have enough difficulty telling white from red, let alone  identifying terroir influences.

So in principle I think I agree with Gluck.  I just wouldn’t use such extreme language.

The terroir in the picture is from Côte de Py by the way, but of course you knew that.  How could it be mistaken for anything else?


Steak, wine and astringency reduction

As a rule, I am pretty laid back about matching wines with food.  I am normally happy to go with the conventional wisdom in the company I am keeping.  Not because I think that always results in the best matches, but because if people think a wine is appropriate it probably will actually be enjoyed more.  Convention also has the advantage of ruling out some horrendous food-wine clashes, like creamy desserts and dry red wine – a taboo combination I learned the hard way as a student. But I would not be prescriptive – eat and drink whatever you wish!

Having said all that, I do find it interesting to match food and wine.  I can easily imagine combinations of flavours and usually have an opinion on what will and will not work for me, usually in terms of wine structure and basic tastes rather than the details of the aromatics.  As such I was intrigued to learn that Tim Hanni, with his unconventional views, has persuaded the WSET to let him rewrite the food-wine matching chapter of Exploring the World of Wines and Spirits.  I am not going to give a blow-by-blow analysis of the chapter, but rather concentrate on this excerpt:

Many myths have originated from well-intentioned, yet inaccurate, explanations for serving a wine with a certain food. An example of this is the perception that the harsh tannins in red wine is softened when the wine is served with red meat such as beef. Conventional wisdom credits interactions between the wine with protein and fat of the meat for the softening of the tannins. It has now been proven that the bitter-suppressive quality of salt that is put on a steak is responsible for this phenomenon and that without salt, the protein and fat actually increase the intensity of bitterness and the astringent feeling of tannin.

The reason tannic wines are astringent is that the tannins react with proteins in the saliva causing solids to precipitate out.  This decreases the viscosity of the saliva causing more friction between the gums and teeth and gums, which contributes to the sensation we call astringency in wine tasting.   Additional factors could include the disruption by tannins of the production of mucus, and the constriction of blood vessels in the gums. (This is, for example, reported in Ronald S Jackson’s Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, where he refers to original research.)

It is indeed often stated that protein-rich foods tend to soften tannins.  I think the rationale is that the tannins react with the food proteins, leaving your saliva to provide lubrication unhindered.  But, as Hanni says, this could well be myth.  I have personally tested it, using Parmesan cheese, and just about convinced myself.  But for me it was far from conclusive, and anyway Parmesan is also salty.  More importantly, even if I was convinced, it would be at best anecdotal evidence.  I have not found a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific paper that demonstrates the importance of protein rich food in reducing astringency, and Hanni says it has now been proven that salt is the cause.

But hang on a sec… where is this proof?  Hanni refers to no research either, and a quick google reveals nothing.  He is very keen on demonstrating his theories, and will refer to the authority of university researchers, but offers no hard evidence.  For what it is worth (still not peer-reviewed research as fas as I know) it seems that Bruce Zoeklin thinks that salt increases astringency.

I aplaud Tim Hanni for tackling wine myths.  There are plenty around that need to be busted.  But I fear he is replacing them with a new mythology.  Do explore for yourself what foods and wines work together, but if you are going to break with convention do it with a truly open mind – don’t let yourself be prompted as to what might work or not by someone selling ideas.

And please, if you are now torn as to whether to have protein or salt with your tannic red wine, ask yourself first whether you think the astringency needs reducing at all!

The roots of biodynamics

Wine drinkers tend to think of biodynamic wine production as organic with bells and whistles: the bells of  biodynamic preparations, and the whistles of a lunar calendar.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by Demeter’s requirements for biodynamic certification, at least in the sense that they are simlar those for organic agriculture but more demanding.   But that is not enough for me. Who came up with all the ideas behind biodynamics?  I knew Rudolph Steiner and Maria Thun had a lot to do with it, but what were their respective roles, and who else was involved?  And when, why and how?

I was initially driven by the urge to examine the evidence that biodynamic agriculture works, especially in the context of wine.  But very quickly I realised that in order to establish how successful it was, I needed to understand what was being claimed on its behalf.  And I also wanted to know the extent to which the claims were based on theory, and how the theory was derived.  This was not an easy task, and even after as fair amount of work spread out over a few months I feel I still have much to learn, but these are my preliminary conclusions.  Feel free to put me right!

While Steiner did not himself use the term biodynamic, or biological dynamic agriculture, its roots are clearly tracable to a series of lectures he gave in Koberwitz in 1924.  These lectures, now known as The Agriculture Course, were given to a small group of people who had consulted Steiner for advice on how to tackle agricultural problems they perceived as becoming increasingly common.  The Agricultural Course is not easy going, and I do not pretend to have read it all myself, still less understood it.  But I do suggest you at least take a look at a few lectures to get a feel for the content.  Steiner’s advice did not come from his agricultural or viticultural expertise, because frankly he had none.  Rather it stemmed from Anthroposophy, his spritualistic philosophy.  The theoretical validity of his ideas stand or fall solely on this intellectual framework.  He introduced what were to become known as biodynamic preparations, and similar remedies for weed and pest control, which supposedly worked because they helped focus various mystical forces.   See Lecture 4 for example, where he discusses the preparations now known as 500 and 501.  Note however that he was not concerned about the chemical content of the preparations fulfilling nutritional deficits in the soil.  Neither was he concerned about the gravitational force exerted by the moon, which some modern day apologists for biodynamics seem to focus on.  No, the atrological calendar was important to Steiner because various heavenly bodies transmitted astral forces differently at various times.

Steiner died soon after The Agriculture Course, but his ideas were put into practice and tested by some of the attendees of his lectures, and by later followers  These tests were not what we would probably regard as scientific, but at least the people involved were real agriculturalists, and they were making empirical observations.  In fact one of the strengths of biodynamic practice is that it emphasises the need to get out into the fields, experiment, and observe.  A summary of some of this research is given here (click on Plant Rhythms on the left hand side).  You can see that this is where Maria Thun comes into the picture with the research on fruit, flower, leaf and root days that gave rise to her calendar  Again, I recommend that you poke about a bit, on the Maria Thun page for example, to get a feel for what these people were doing.

One thing I thought was worthy of note is that only plants grown from seed were used in this early research, and the criterion for success was the size of yield.  Surely these empirical results, even if they are otherwise trustworthy, could not possibly have anything to do with wine viticulture.   Vines are propagated through cuttings and high quality products are normally associated with low yields.  But Steiner probably would not have been concerned about this issue; his criteria for success were on a more spiritual plane than crop yields or a good glass of wine, and he doubtless saw no reason why his methods were not equally applicable to viticulture.  And here I think we have the first evidence emerging of diverging views of those in the biodynamics community.  Some regard themselves as Anthroposophists and fully buy in to Steiner’s ideas; others see themselves as less spiritual, and practise biodynamics primarily because they think it works.

But the practical group is obviously dependent on the spiritual theorising, and not just that of Steiner.  At some point, someone somewhere must have build on Steiner’s ideas to decide how best biodynamics should be applied to viticulture.  And then winegrowers with no real interest in Anthroposophy must have been convinced enough by the proposed new procedures to try them and evaluate the results.  One of the things I find most difficult to take seriously in biodynamics is the way new proclamations seem to be plucked out of mid-air, and stated as fact even if they are based on the flimsiest of evidence.  But it is definitely the case that the biodynamic cannon is being added to constantly, largely by word of mouth, from practitioner to practitioner and not least from consultant to practitioner.

So that is my attempt at a potted summary of the roots and theoretical basis of biodynamics.  Except that I have said very little about organic agriculture.  That illustrates one of the points that I hoped to bring out.  The origins of biodynamics are largely independent of those of organic farming, but the two are now so intertwined you cannot really be biodynamic without also being organic.

Extrinsic influences on taste

If you saw my previous post, you might well be wondering if I really was saying that knowing about a wine, or thinking that you do, actually affects taste and enjoyment. Or did I really mean that knowledge merely affects what people say about the wine?  I meant the former.

The MIT brew experiment is key in supporting this idea. The key result is that totally blind tasters, and those told what they drank after tasting, had similar preferences.  They liked a beer doctored with balsamic vinegar, or were indifferent to the addition of vinegar.  But a third group were told in advance which beer was doctored, and they preferred the one without vinegar.  If it were merely that the experimental subjects did not wish to be associated with a liking for the doctored beer, you would have predicted that their preferences would not have been affected by when they were told.  It seems that this is evidence for information actually influencing taste and enjoyment.  And various experiments, e.g. Morrot et al, in altering or concealing the colour of wine seem to confirm this.

Note that I am not here claiming that prior knowledge always trumps the senses.  If the sensory input is strong enough, no amount of additional information is going to be able to override it.  In reality, the prior knowledge is processed together with the sensory input to give an overall assessment that is based on both. But it does seems to me that the additional information is a significant component of the overall effect when tasting wine.

Assuming I have managed to convince you of the importance of what I would call extrinsic influences on taste, what are we to make of it?

Are we being duped into thinking wines are better than they really are because they have a prestigious label, or because the wines command a high price?  I wouldn’t put it in precisely those terms, and anyway it begs the question of how good a wine “really is”.  But I certainly think we need to be a lot more aware of the extrinsic influences, and use them to our advantage.

For example, if we are serving a wine with a prestigious label we should make sure all at the table know about it.  Not to boast or impress, but to give our fellow diners the courtesy of enjoying the wine as much as possible.

In the longer term, we could also set about developing an alternative set of positive extrinsic values unrelated to price and conventional prestige.  One that has more to do with appreciating interesting wines from less well known regions.  Or anything else that we can relate to.  We ourselves should decide – and not let others dictate to us.

Also we need to be aware that various wine-related businesses manipulate extrinsic factors to increase sales and profits.  The ways in which it can be done are numerous.  Take another scan down the list in my previous post if you need to be reminded, and decide for yourself how cynical you want to be.  Are they doing it to make us happy, or is it primarily for their own bottom line?

Why wine tastes the way it does

  1. Environment
    Lots of anecdotal evidence for this one.  Supposedly explains, for example, why rosé wines taste better when you are drinking them on holiday in southern France.
  2. Ambient light
    There is experimental evidence that the colour of ambient light affects taste. People like wine when it is served in blue or red light more than if the background lighting is green or white.  Also, according to Emile Peynaud in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine”, odours are perceived better when the lighting is good.
  3. Music and other sounds
    The pitch of a tone being causes you to enjoy different beers to a greater or lesser extent, and playing different pieces of music also affects how wine tastes.  This is discussed by Charles Spence in World of Fine Wine issue 31. You may note that WoFW 31 was published after the date of this post – yes, I snook in this point, and point 6, on 26th March 2011!
  4. Company
    It is easier to enjoy a wine if you are in good company. I also think it is possible for a group to persuade an individual that a wine is good or bad by exerting a form of peer group pressure.  Similarly I am told that someone leading a tasting can easily persuade tasters.
  5. Mood
    Many wine drinkers seem to think their mood is important for enjoyment of wine, and I see absolutely no reason to doubt it.  Perhaps another reason why wine tastes better on holiday in the South of France.  Some apparently think that the wine itself can have moods.
  6. Activities prior to tasting
    Sleep deprivation raises the threshold for perception of sourness, and sensitivity to taste decreases in the period immediately following a meal.  Discussed in World of Fine Wine issue 31, this time by Francis Percival.
  7. Food
    I think this one is pretty uncontroversial.  But there are two aspects to this.  One is the physical effect of the food, for example the iron in red wine making it a poor match for fish. The other is tradition and culture.
  8. Previous wine
    This is easy to demonstrate for oneself when tasting wine.  If for example you had a very acidic wine immediately beforehand, the one you are tasting now will tend to taste less acidic than it would otherwise.  It is not really too surprising, and similar effects are to be found with the other senses.
  9. Serving temperature
    Clearly this is important, but it is less clear to me that there is an ideal temperature for any given wine.  Surely it is a matter of personal taste.  Many wine writers observe that red wines are often served too warm, and whites too cold.  In the glass, and over the course of an evening the temperature of the wine will probably change anyway.
  10. Degree of inebriation
    As with many other senses, taste and smell are dulled by the effects of alcohol.  It is a lot more difficult to appreciate the wines at the end of a “generous tasting” that those at the beginning.
  11. Palate fatigue
    Even if you do not swallow a drop, after several wines it becomes increasingly difficult to taste properly without a break.  It seems to get easier with experience, but even professionals have their limits.
  12. Attention
    Have you ever noticed that if someone else mentions an aroma you are more likely to find it in the wine?  Presumably that is because you stand a better chance of finding aromas if you concentrate on looking for them.
  13. Wine education
    According to The Wine Trials, tasters who have an educated palate tend to prefer more expensive wines; those who do not tend to prefer cheaper ones.
  14. Physiology
    It is well documented that difference people have very different degrees of sensitivity to TCA.  Another example is the rotundone – responsible for the peppery taste in Syrah and black pepper, and undetectable by 20% of the population. I see no particular reason to expect that there is any less variation in sensitivity to many other aromas.  Then there are supertasters, who have many more tastebuds than most people, and who tolerate acidic and bitter flavours less well, and the 30% of Caucasions who totally fail to detect the bitter flavours of PROP.
  15. Personal preferences
    While physiology may account for some difference in personal taste, I think sometimes we simply prefer different things, probably the result of the associations we make with different smells and flavours from childhood on.
  16. Glass
    Undoubtedly the glass is important.  Certainly wine will taste different in a tumbler that it does in a conventionally designed wine glass.  And wine glasses of widely varying size and shape will also produce different results.  But beyond that, I have seen no hard evidence for different shapes being ideal for wines of different grapes or regions.  Of course that does not mean that a wine won’t taste better in what is supposedly the right glass if you believe it will.
  17. Colour
    In a study by Morrot et al, a white wine coloured with red food dye was characterised by tasters in terms of red wine odour descriptors.  Also the colour of rosé wine seems to be important in determining how good it tastes  – something again reported in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine” by Emile Peynaud.
  18. Bottle ageing history
    Temperature is key here.  Wines will age age faster in warmer conditions, and will not follow the same path to maturity.  And if a wine sees temperatures that are too high it will be destroyed.  Exposure to light is also damaging; it causes something called light strike.
  19. Bottle sickness
    I use bottle sickness here to include wine being under par due to having just been bottled, also called bottle shock, and wine that is not so good because it has just arrived somewhere after a long journey.  More people seem to agree about bottle shock than wine needing time to settle down after travelling.
  20. Time after opening
    Many wine lovers will say that the wine changes in bottle after opening, in the decanter, and in the glass.  It is also often claimed by those who do not finish a bottle at one sitting that wines change over a period of days.  I rarely get a chance to put that one to the test.
  21. Bottle variation
    Probably cork variation would be a better term, as a lot of it must be caused by different oxygen permeabilities.  Possibly varying amounts of contaminants such as TCA are also a factor.
  22. Label
    For some the prestige of the name and vintage on the label is more important than the wine itself.  If they know they are drinking a great wine, they will tend to enjoy it more that if they are drinking it blind.
  23. Price
    This is similar to the label in the way it can influence opinion.  There was a well-publicised study around 3 years ago that suggested that wine is perceived to be better if it is believed to be expensive.  By which I mean actually tastes better; not merely that the tasters felt the need to say that it was better.
  24. Bottle design
    Bottles and labels give all sorts of subtle expectations as to what is in the bottle, and expectations affect perception of taste. Unfortunately marketeers are aware of this, and fancy heavy bottles with well designed labels are now used to help sell inferior wine.
  25. Back-story
    OK, this is another one I can offer no evidence for, but I bet if you told someone that the wine they were tasting was grown biodynamically, pressed by the thighs of virgins, and matured in gold plated barriques, they would think the wine tasted better than if you told them the same wine was produced in an environment that looked like a chemical factory.
  26. Moon location
    Yes, some people believe that the position of the moon in the zodiac affects the way a wine tastes.  I believe that there might be an effect if you are told before tasting where the moon is and how that should affect the taste, but not otherwise.
  27. The liquid put into the bottle, and its age
    And some believe that how a wine tastes may depend on the liquid in the bottle, and the period of time between bottling and tasting.  They write tasting notes linked to this information only and publish them.  Other people read them thinking that they contain useful information.

I do realise you might not agree with me that all of the above affect the actual taste of wine.  But stick with my blog, and I hope to return to argue my case.  Here, I just wanted to gather everything together in a list.

Update: I have added points 28 and 29 in another post.

BD or not BD?

But that should not be the question.  It is all to easy to hang the biodynamic tag on a producer or a bottle of wine, and get into discussions about whether adoption of biodynamic winemaking has lead to improvements, or whether biodynamic wines are better than non-biodynamic wines.  It is one of those subjects that has recently hit the consciousness of wine drinkers, and looks like it is here to stay for a while, fuelled it seems by a steady stream of producers converting to biodynamics, and journalists keen to report on the success stories.  There are of course also dissenting voices, often with mumblings of mumbo-jumbo.  And a common standpoint for wine drinkers is that many biodynamic wines are very good, and if biodynamics makes good wine they are all for it.

But no one really seems to be too concerned about exactly what that biodynamic tag means.  Neither is it always clear what criteria they are using for deciding which they prefer.

I hope it is obvious that there is a huge spectrum of non-biodynamic viticultural practice, ranging from the environmental destruction advocated by agrochemical companies in the 1960s, to organic farming.  Less clear maybe is that there is also considerable variation in biodynamic practice.  I have myself heard producers say they are biodynamic, but don’t take any notice of the “astrological nonsense”, or that they do not bother with all the biodynamic preparations. And pretty much all of them seem to take the view that if a procedure urgently needs performing they are not going to hang around for the next leaf day or whatever.  Even Demeter certified producers have a lot of discretion. For example, the Demeter Farm Standard does not require tasks to be performed according to a lunar calendar, and allows mechanical stirring of biodynamic preparations.  On the other hand I have also noticed that some biodynamic winemakers are happy to add to the cannon of biodynamic thought by taking existing theory and extending it to new areas, deciding for example that wine must be matured in wood because a vital energy cannot penetrate steel or concrete.  Another example of a recently invented idea is that the position of the moon affects how wines tastes.

How do you judge the quality of the production method anyway?  Do we need a panel of judges who taste the wines blind and allocate points out of a hundred?  While there are procedural objections you could raise to that approach, I think it is a lot better than having a recently proselytised producer enthusiastically pushing a glass into the hands of a journalist. And what do we compare the wine to?  To other wines of about the same price?  To wines from the same producer and age, but of earlier vintages?  That is always tricky due to vintage variation, and at what age do we make the comparison. Or perhaps it is not the wine that is important.  There is also the quality of the vineyard, and the environment in general.  That is probably even harder to judge, at least if you are comparing with a regime that does not involve chucking chemicals about willy-nilly.  In the biodynamic field trials I can find results for, the criterion for success is a large yield of vegetables – hardly confidence inspiring from a wine point of view!

In truth there are a myriad of different decisions and interventions that are taken in the production of wine, starting with the selection of vineyard, and ending in the release of bottles to the market.  It is those interventions, in conjunction with the weather that nature throws at it, that determines the quality of the wine – not a broad-brush philosophy. My approach would be to judge the interventions one at a time, or in small groups.  We can then design an experiment and start getting somewhere.  An easy one might be to have someone stir one batch of biodynamic preparation in the Steiner-approved manner and another batch that is for example “shaken not stirred”, and to then judge the results by an agreed criterion.

Unfortunately, it is at this point that my incredulity kicks in and I have to ask myself why even bother with the experiment.  Is there any realistic chance of there being a difference between shaking and stirring?  And the same applies to any number of other possible biodynamical interventions you could imagine.  Equally unfortunately, I think I can also hear the voice of biodynamical theorists saying that I have missed the whole point: that biodynamics is about a holistic approach that cannot be judged by science.  Not what most would call conventional science at least.  Steiner based his ideas on Goethean science that emphasises the importance of human consciousness interacting with the world.  So conventional science, by stressing the importance of blind and double-blind trials, seems to run into direct conflict with Goethean science at a very fundamental level.

More on biodynamics later as I find it a fascinating subject.  But for now, I would urge you not to pay too much attention to whether your wine has a biodynamic label, literal or otherwise.  If you really care, you need to be asking questions about the method of production in a lot more detail.

The cult of the natural

For as long as I can remember in the relatively short life of my wine geekdom, the standard temperature advice for long term storage of wine has read something like: ideally around 12 or 14°C, avoid extremes of heat and cold and diurnal temperature variation, but seasonal temperature variation will cause no damage.

So as I was reading Jasper Morris’s “Inside Burgundy” over Christmas, I was rather surprised to see the idea that “Arguably [natural conditions that vary somewhat from Summer to Winter] is to be preferred: it reflects the rhythm of the earth.”  After my standard sceptical harrumph to such notions, I thought little of it.  Until I stumbled across an article by Steven Spurrier for The Wine Society in the Society News January 2011 where I read something similar: “Today (October 24th) my cellar is 10°C and will descend slowly to 6°C by January, rising to 16°C by August. I feel that such variation suits the wines, as a constant temperature cannot be natural.”  What’s going on here?  Since when did seasonal temperature variations not only be harmless, but become desirable?  Did Jasper plant the idea into Steven’s mind, or does the meme originate elsewhere?  Some biodynamical proclamation perhaps?  I bet there is no basis in empirical evidence.

In the absence of that hard evidence, what might science teach us about temperature and the ageing of wine?  Well, many different complex chemical reactions contribute to the maturing of wine.  Each one will progress at a rate that depends on temperature, and as it takes place the products of the reaction become available for other reactions.  Roughly speaking, if you increase the temperature by 10°C the rate of any chemical reaction will increase by a factor of two, so your wine will mature about twice as fast.  But it is not quite as simple as that.  Because the rate of each reaction will respond to the increase in temperature slightly differently, the paths taken by the reactions will never be the same for wine matured at different temperatures, and they will always result in a different wine.  And if you vary the temperature with time, you will get yet another wine.  How big these effects are I wouldn’t like to say.  You will certainly notice a wine maturing faster at a higher temperature, but the difference between a wine cellared at 5°C for 10 years and one matured at 15°C for 5 years is going to be more subtle.

And what is so natural about laying down bottles of wine in a cellar under a domestic house anyway?  Wouldn’t leaving them lying around outside be more natural, and make the wine even more subject to the rhythms of the Earth?  Does that mean the wine would be even better?  In fact maybe we should abandon the nasty industrial glass bottles and revert to goat skins.

OK, maybe I am reacting to a couple of offhand comments with undue sarcasm.  And I certainly don’t really want to single out Messrs Morris and Spurrier for criticism.  It is a trend in wine writing, and also in society in general, to glorify the natural – man-made artifacts and environments are rejected, and natural is treated as being almost synonymous with good.

Meanwhile I am wondering if I need to adjust the temperature of my Liebherrs for the seasons.  I don’t think I’ll bother, but I fear that future models might come with annual temperature programmes as standard.  Until then, 12°C it is.

Beaujolais and the benefits of a good map

There is a myth abroad that the less prestigious straight Beaujolais, as opposed to Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais Crus, originates in the sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region.  In fact I have heard this said so often that I thought it appeared in many introductions to the wines of the region, but when preparing to write this blog post I could only find one textbook, albeit a rather influential one, making the claim in such an extreme way.  The culprit is the WSET Advanced Certificate textbook.  Maybe it has been rewritten now – the most recent version I have is from 2004 – but the damage has already been done.

When I visited Beaujolais, also in 2004, in our hotel and at several producers I noticed a raised-relief map of the region showing the geology and the limits of the various appellations, and after quite a search I managed to buy one – from De La Vigne au Verre, a gift shop in the centre of Fleurie.  There is a picture of it above to show you roughly what I am talking about (be sure to note the invaluable reminder of why there is an “s” at the end of Beaujolais).  The salmon pink areas are for straight Beaujolais, turquoise is used for Beaujolais-Villages, and the other colours for the Crus.  I understand contour lines on maps pretty well, but I must say a raised-relief map makes it so much easier for me to appreciate the landscape.  A quick glance at this map immediately casts doubt on the idea of sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region; it is pretty obvious even in the image above.

The alluvial plains lie by the river as you might expect, to the East of the region only, and there is little or no viticulture of any sort on them.  The largest areas vineyards on low lying hills are actually to the river side of the Beaujolais-Villages area; not in the South.  Most of them are classified as straight Beaujolais, but from the geology and relief alone the reason for the location of the border between Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages is not immediately obvious to me.

Southern Beaujolais is actually quite hilly – not noticeably less so than the North.  Some is calcareous, and thus not so good for Gamay, but around 50% of the area is schist and granite.  One can only assume that the main reason the granitic parts are deemed only to be worthy of the lowest appellation is the orientation of the the slopes.  But even then some slopes do not seem to be much less auspicious than many in the Beaujolais-Villages area.  I suspect there are quite a lot of decent wines produced here being sold for not very much money at all.  A few years ago I enjoyed several bottles of a straight Beaujolais called La Doyenne, Domaine des Pierres Dorées **-***. The domaine is based in Le Breuil, which is in this promising-looking area of Southern Beaujolais, and according to Nick Dobson the grapes were from old vines grown on sunny slopes of granitic outcrops.  I see he does not stock it now, so presumably it was a hard sell.

Having dealt with low-end Beaujolais, let’s turn our attention to the Crus, which are exclusively in granitic and schistous areas. Côte de Brouilly stands out on my map literally and figuratively.  The Cru limits are basically defined by the all the slopes of an extinct volcano – even those that are facing North.  And Brouilly is the area around the volcano, some quite hilly and some flat. These two Crus lie to the South of all the others, and are largely separated from them by a river. The Crus of Saint-Amour, Juliénas and Chénas seem a bit detached to the North.  They have as their focus another river valley, and also have slopes facing in all directions.  Most of the Crus however, including the most prestigious ones of Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, basically lie on one gentle slope that is largely South-Easterly facing.  Looking at the relief map it is easy to jump to the, possibly false, conclusion that it is the angle and direction of the slope that are the key factors in being a top Beaujolais Cru.  That and the granitic soil of course.  Or perhaps there is something more specifically special about the soil and rock on that particular slope.  But if not, it has to be said that other bits of Beaujolais-Villages look hard done by.

While I am in the mood for criticism, I’d like to point out in that WSET textbook from 2004, the map of Beaujolais also leaves a lot to be desired.  The Crus are strung out as a series of dots from North to South like villages on the Côte d’Or.  But they are areas, not villages.  Some don’t even have an obviously associated village, so dots are not particularly helpful.  And even if you can get past that, the dots are not nearly in the correct relative positions, e.g. Fleurie and Chiroubles seem to be inverted.  I am a great believer in the use of maps to illustrate any subject with a geographical element, and that certainly includes any book on wine.  They do not have to be perfect, but should be accurate to extent implied by the map’s scale and level of detail, and to be fair many of the WSET maps are precisely that.  So there we have a good and bad examples of wine maps.  Good ones can be very informative, but beware being mislead by poor ones.

When wine tastes best

For me the answer is… root days!

And isn’t that what you might expect if you subscribe to a rather literal interpretation of the importance of terroir? Or could it just be that the whole idea is a load of bollocks? I am of course talking about the biodynamic theory that lunar cycles affect the taste of wine, fruit days being the most auspicious.

Here’s what I did to test the hypothesis. I analysed all 568 of my tasting note scores from last year. The scores range from 1 to 6, corresponding to the number of stars in my rating system. At the time of tasting I was unaware of the type of day. I used this 2009 biodynamic calendar for the analysis. I presume it is reasonably accurate. I did check a few days against another calendar, and they were in agreement. I have no idea at what time the type of day changes on any particular date, but as I could not find this information and very few people seem to care, I decided to ignore the issue. Most  wines would have been tasted at some time in the evening. If you want to reanalyse my raw data feel free. In the meantime, here is my summary of scores awarded on each type of day .

Mean Std Dev Number tasted
Fruit 3.02 1.209 94
Leaf 3.28 1.057 102
Root 3.30 1.020 184
Flower 3.09 1.125 188

So, if anything, I think wines taste best on root days, and worst on fruit days. But actually there are barely any significant differences at all. A one-way ANOVA test gives a p-value of 0.091 level. Or to put it another way, one would expect to get such a large spread in the means about one time in ten purely from random variation.

As far as I am concerned I got pretty much the results I expected, and I don’t feel any need to research this issue further.  To be frank I think I have already given this nonsense a lot more time than it deserves. However, if you have any more evidence to bring to light I’d be interested in seeing it.  But please – no more anecdotes about tasting wines when you were aware what sort of day it was.  And no half-baked argument along the lines of “if Tesco believe in it, there must be something in it”.  Hard data only.

Or perhaps you could explain from a theoretical point of view why this agricultural calendar has any relevance at all for wine tasting.  Why should fruit days be any better than, say, Fridays – which is when I think wine tastes best.