Organic and Biodynamic

Tue 09 Jul 2013

A Chateau Musar Tasting: 1977–2005

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I was delighted to host a tasting of eight vintages of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar last month, attended by some 50 Society members. It was a great chance to examine what makes this iconic Lebanese wine so special.

Musar tasting

We were fortunate to look at four of the estate’s most reputed years – 2005, 1997, 1995 & 1993. The wines all showed beautifully.

The currently available 2005 (£20 per bottle) continues to impress me: still in its first flush of youth and with plenty of time ahead, it is such a beautifully complete wine. The 2003 (also currently available for £20 per bottle) had a more subdued nose but a lovely, fleshy, sweet-fruited palate that everyone really enjoyed.

The 1998 was the most surprising wine of the tasting: this has come round well and is drinking perfectly now. It was one of the favourite wines amongst those present. It was nice to hear from Musar’s Jane Sowter that our thoughts chimed with those at the estate’s: ‘We didn’t use to feature it much and it was always overshadowed by the 1997 and 1999,’ she told me, ‘but everyone falls in love with it now.’ It is not hard to see why.

The 1997 provided a fascinating and delicious contrast to the elegant 1998: powerful and bold, it is full of flavour with an attractive spicy note that was pure pleasure to taste. The 1995 bowled me over: an amazing and dazzling wine. The 1993 was also superb, in a more mellow yet structured way.

The final wine was the fully mature 1977, and it was interesting to see this complex, cloudy and leathery Musar divide opinion. Some adored it, while others found its more savoury, less fruit-forward style challenging. Even more so than with punchier modern vintages, personal preference does seem to play a part when tasting wines of this age. Personally, I thought it showed the complex tertiary flavours you expect with a fine, high-quality aged wine yet was still incredibly fresh and lively on the palate.

All in all, a fantastic Musar tasting.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer for Lebanon

Tue 11 Sep 2012

Fowl Play in Greece

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What does the organic and biodynamic wine producer do when his vines are invaded by locusts? Locusts even in modest number have a huge appetite for vegetation and like vine leaves.

Give up the struggle and resort to insecticide? Resign himself to losing his harvest? Neither of these things, as I found out when I visited the ingenious Apostolos Thymiopoulos in Naoussa this month.

Apostolos had noticed that a wasp nest close to his neighbours house had been destroyed and eaten by guinea fowl. So he went quickly to a local breeder and bought 50 guinea fowl and a few turkeys and let them loose in his vineyards. All the locusts were gobbled up in three weeks and his vines suffered only local damage.

Several of the guinea fowl were later eaten by a fox and a couple ended up in the pot, but I saw the heroic and quickest moving survivors safely fenced in next to the house and, if the link works, you can see them at work in the vines saving the harvest.

While there I visited and tasted a number of other producers of Naoussa and learnt more about this fascinating region which lies on the south-east facing hill slopes an hour and a bit?s drive due west of Thessaloniki. The city of Thessaloniki had been basking in 35° (Athens was 40°) but while Naoussa was marvellously hot, we were refreshed by a cooling breeze that came down from the mountains behind the town.

The key grape grown is xynomavro which with controlled yields is capable of producing wines of extraordinary finesse and depth of flavour, but which like Piedmont?s nebbiolo can lack charm if over-produced and be over-tannic if over-extracted or if badly handled in barrel. There are lots of different soils here from sandy, to clay and a stony mix of crumbly schist, quartz and sandstone. Thymiopoulos? wines capture wonderful bouquet with lovely rich, rounded fruit balanced by ripe tannins.

His organically cultivated grapes are planted on very stony soil. The Jeunes Vignes, 2011 (six to nine years) is delicious and best drunk cellar cool like Burgundy. We will be listing this wine shortly at £10.50 per bottle.

His ?Earth & Sky? Classic Naoussa, 2009, which we will list next year, from 40 year old vines has wonderful depth but may not reach its peak for three to five years longer. For me they are certainly the finest example of Naoussa I tasted proving yet again that Greece now has some world-class wines worth seeking out.

The school where Aristotle taught the young Alexander the Great is just outside the town and Vergina, where you can see the extraordinary treasure-filled tomb of his father, Philip of Macedon, now turned into a museum, is close by.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Thu 08 Dec 2011

The Great [Green] Grape Debate

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Waldin - an enigmatic spokesperson for organic/biodynamic farming
Last week the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) hosted a debate between Monty Waldin – writer, broadcaster and winemaker and renowned proponent of organic and biodynamic viticulture – and Australian, Dr Richard Smart – one of the world’s best-known viticultural consultants who has worked in more than 30 countries, written several books on viticulture and has four degrees in science.

The motion debated was: ‘The UK wine trade should promote organic and biodynamic wines’ and it seems as though the fight has been a long time coming. Richard Smart now spends half the year here in the UK and has become increasingly frustrated with what he sees as the bias of the British wine trade, and the press in particular, towards organics and biodynamics. He thought the motion should actually read: ‘Should the UK wine trade CONTINUE to promote organic and biodynamic wines’. It seems that he has been asking for some time to have this kind of debate.

His principal complaint was that a lot of the health-giving benefits of wines produced in these ways are over-stated and unsubstantiated: ‘that they are better and better for you is arguable’, he says. He also feels that there is a general ignorance about conventional techniques of farming. He has experienced growers who farm conventionally reluctant to speak out against organic or biodynamic practices for fear of damaging their position in the market place. He says that many conventional farmers are no less environmentally conscious than their green counterparts and that they are being disadvantaged unfairly. He bemoaned the fact that conventional viticulture didn’t have an attractive, articulate advocate like Monty to promote its viewpoint. Smart had gone to some trouble to dress in a smart green shirt and tie and fetching hat to declare his own green credentials!

Waldin (who wrote an article for Societynews last September on the subject of organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture) was as persuasive and compelling as ever. A lot of what organic and biodynamic producers stand for does just seem to sound like common sense. The argument that many of the world’s top producers have converted to biodynamism because it works not because they have to is incontrovertible. Though he pointed out to Smart that actually, the British wine press have up until very recently been rather scathing about organics and biodynamics, often referring to him and his kind as a bunch of ‘loonies’. Waldin didn’t refer too much to some of the more esoteric elements of Steiner’s teaching on biodynamics.

biodynamic preparationsStir it up: making compost tea at Seresin Estate, New Zealand, held up by Waldin as the perfect model of biodynamism in practice

As it is often the stories behind the wines that add to their appeal, those generated by an organic/biodynamic approach in the vineyard are bound to sound more attractive and chime in with our (arguably) misplaced conception of wine as a natural product. Smart doesn’t deny that stories are important in the marketing of wine and is fully in support of the social benefits of organic/biodynamic farming and even some of the practices, such as mulching instead of using weed killers. His problem is that messages about the harmful nature of pesticides and agro-chemicals traditionally used in conventional farming are vastly over-stated and untrue. He argues that the agro-chemical industry is highly regulated and that products are rigorously tested and proven to be harmless both to those applying them and to those ingesting the final product. He also pointed out that carcinogenic pesticides are naturally occurring in lots of plants and fruits and that we should probably be more concerned about these!

He had to draw attention too to ‘the Achilles heel’ (as Waldin called it) of organics/biodynamics, that both copper and sulphur are permitted. Copper in particular is highly toxic. It builds up in the topsoil and can’t be got rid of, to the point of even killing off the vines in one instance that Smart talked of. Waldin countered that because organic and biodynamic growers use natural plant and herb sprays on their vines to counter pests and diseases, they were less reliant on the use of toxic sprays.

Finally, Smart argued that in a few years’ time no-one will be talking about whether a wine is made from grapes grown organically or biodynamically and what is of increasing importance is the notion of sustainability. New Zealand, Australia, Oregon and South Africa have already made great progress in this area. ‘The greatest pollutant for our planet,’ Smart says, ‘is carbon dioxide, and whether you are organic or biodynamic, it has little impact on this.’

If you would like to listen to the debate for yourself, the WSET has posted videos of the event on their Facebook page.

The Wine Society is of the view that in order to produce high-quality wines that speak of the place where they were made, growers, by definition, need to take great care of their vineyards to ensure their long-term health. If they are able to do this by farming organically or biodynamically then this is a bonus, but ultimately the wine has to taste good first and foremost.

Notwithstanding this position, we recognise that some members will want to know more about how the wines we offer are made and for this reason, we group together our selection of wines produced from grapes grown organically and biodynamically on our website. Whether you agree with the motion of the debate or not, we hope that you’ll appreciate the wines. Why not let us know what you think?

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Mon 14 Nov 2011

Biodyvin

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Biodyvin is a wonderful, eccentric, eclectic mix of growers who cultivate their vineyards biodynamically. Its aims are wholly admirable: to produce wines that reflect their origin in the most natural way possible – a concept all Wine Society members should applaud.

Naturally they have mixed success. Nature can be cruel. But at last week’s tasting the fruits of their hard work and passion were a joy. Alsace was well represented particularly by Josmeyer and Zind Humbrecht but I would like to commend particularly three brilliant producers from the Loire and the one and only, but quite outstanding, producer from Germany, Bettina Bürklin Wolf.

Bürklin Wolf have holdings in the heart of the great vineyards of the Palatinate, once the most highly valued white wine in the world. Wachenheimer, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg make lovely, individual wines but their single-vineyard from Forst are among the greatest long-living white wines of the world.

My earliest baptism into the wines of the Loire came from Jean Vacheron in Sancerre and Gaston Huet in Vouvray. Jean Vacheron had a remarkable palate and understanding of the quality that different soils of Sancerre could produce which he passed on to his sons and to his neighbouring producers. On my first visit with Wine Society buyer John McLusky, we went with Jean on a leisurely Sancerre vineyard crawl of all the cellars of growers who might have been considered his competitors to discover the true nature of Sancerre. His childern and now his grandchildren always ploughed back the money they made into buying good vineyards and better cellar equipment. His particular favourite (and mine) is the Sancerre produced on silex (flint).

John McLusky’s predecessor, Christopher Tatham MW, introduced The Wine Society to the Vouvrays of Gaston Huet at the same time as Vacheron. Gaston had an outstanding record of resistance in the war and was mayor of Vouvray from 1947 to 1993. He also alone was able to resist the French government’s plans for the TGV which now not only did not cut through his vineyards (as the government planned) but also do not disturb the subterranean cellars because the tunnels lie deep below on specially cushioned rails. His son-in-law, Noel Pinguet, is an agnostic believer in biodynamism and his wines have a parity and longevity that would make his father-in-law proud.

The new Loire eccentric is Eric Nicolas who cultivates 14 hectares of abandoned vines of Jasnieres and the Côteaux du Loir north of the larger Loire: dry white wines from chenin, quite different from Vouvray, but with amazing personality and length of flavour.

Why don’t you try some of these wines below:

Germany: Forst Pechstein Bürklin Wolf, 2009

Loire: Sancerre La Reine Blanche Vacheron, 2010
Jasnieres Premices Domaine de Belliviere, 2009

Sebastian Payne MW
Chief Buyer

Sat 16 Jul 2011

Picture Blog: Wildlife at Vergelegen

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Further to my note on premium Stellenbosch estate Vergelegen’s work on biodiversity in their vineyards, I thought readers might like a look at a few photos (the majority of which were snapped at night by CCTV), kindly supplied by Andre van Rensburg.

The rare Cape Genet
An endangered Cape Rain Frog (also known as the 'Headless Frog').
Honey Badgers

Arguably the pièce de résistance is the spotting of a number of Cape Leopards. These animals are notoriously shy, despite their uniquely beautiful markings. It’s the latter which allows confident identification by a trained eye. The biggest is known as Sebastian, and I’m assured by Andre that the name doesn’t change with each customer visited. I’ll leave members to decide how apt the name is for such a handsome beast!

Joanna Locke MW
South Africa Buyer

Wed 29 Jun 2011

How Green Is Wine?

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No, not those appetising tints in a perfect glass of riesling, but the now commonly used term for all that is environmentally responsible.

The endangered Cuivré des Marais butterfly found at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Sainte Gemme.
Once something of a bandwagon, the organic and biodynamic movement has shifted up a gear, the world over, and many of those producers who have embraced the philosophy – usually steadily and having made good wine first – are producing wonderful wine. Most wine producers are making enormous efforts in vineyards and cellar (both voluntarily and seeing the likelihood of future legislation if they don’t) to reduce any negative impact on our environment and especially on their unique locations. Some go further and seek accreditation, for example from the Terra Vitis association or by signing up to the IPW in South Africa.

It is reassuring to hear, as I did this morning, from André Van Rensburg, winemaker at Vergelegen, that they are moving to lighter glass for their bottles. Often outspoken and always frank, André is one of the most stimulating of wine industry leaders I am lucky enough to meet. Vergelegen has been at the forefront of work steadily to eradicate virus problems from South Africa’s vineyards (the latest on which is that dogs are now being trained in early detection skills. Having met a surprisingly handsome poodle last weekend who represented the training of dogs to detect dangerously low sugar levels in severely diabetic children, I begin to wonder is there anything our canine friends are not capable of?!). But I digress…

On top of all this, the conservation work undertaken at Vergelegen, which has already earned them BWI (Biodiversity in Wine Initiative) Champion status, has not only boosted their ladybird population but returned no less than four adult male Cape Mountain leopard to the property (more on which to follow!).

Closer to home, on our Bordeaux ‘primeurs’ visit to Château Caronne Sainte Gemme, Sebastian Payne and I saw healthy, lush, green vineyards – with vegetation a good three weeks ahead of the norm after an exceptionally warm, dry early spring – and heard from owner François Nony about the “Cuivré des Marais” butterfly, an endangered native of the Médoc currently found only at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Ste Gemme, where the proximity to water and the pollution-free environment provide just the habitat it needs. The vines looked pretty comfortable too, and François’ impressive 2010 features in our Opening offer which is about to arrive through your door, or is available now on our website.

Joanna Locke MW
Bordeaux & South Africa Buyer

Thu 26 May 2011

What it means to be green….

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CullenCullen in Margaret River: one of The Wine Society's suppliers whose wines were tasted at Monty Waldin's masterclass
This was the title of the masterclass hosted by Wine Australia and presented by Monty Waldin at the London International Wine Trade Fair last week. Monty is not just a leading authority on green issues with several books published on the subject but has also ‘walked the talk’ having made his own wine biodynamically in the Roussillon – the focus of a Channel 4 documentary, Château Monty, broadcast in 2008.

Fresh from his first trip to Australia, Waldin was upbeat about how organic and biodynamic viticulture could be just what Australia needs right now. Australia hasn’t had it easy in the last couple of years with problems of overproduction, challenging vintage conditions and the rising cost of exports.

A greener approach to farming, argues Waldin, could be the way forward for Australian wine. ‘Organic and biodynamics naturally reduce yields increasing quality and giving better flavours in the wine. Producing wines with a better expression of regionality has to be the aim of the Australian wine industry.’

Interestingly, for a nation that otherwise is very aware of environmental issues, Australia has been slow to adopt organic and biodynamic viticulture. Leaders of biodynamism in Oz have, according to Monty, been doctrinal rather than inspirational.

Ironically though, young winemakers are now bringing back knowledge of biodynamics from Europe having seen it in action at many illustrious, blue-chip estates. ‘Australians are great pragmatists,’ says Monty, ‘Once they see that something works, they’ll be convinced that this is the right way to go.’

And what about the wines? We were shown 11 wines, including wines from established Wine Society suppliers Cullen and McHenry-Hohnen in Margaret River and Wirra Wirra in the McLaren Vale – suppliers of our own-label chardonnay. All had an inherent freshness about them, ‘wines to buoy you up not pull you down’, in Monty’s words.

2011 has been yet another challenging year for many in Australia with more rain at vintage time than anyone can remember in south east Australia. There have been issues with rot and mildew. Growers have found that organic grapes have fared better with thicker skins and greater resilience to rot. Paradoxically, a year which might have sounded the death knell to organics could actually be its springboard.

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Wed 13 Apr 2011

Yesterday to Moro

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Telmo Rodriguez

One of the best restaurant atmospheres in London can be found at Moro in Exmouth Market where chef-proprietors Sam and Sam Clark have been cooking their own take on southern Spanish food since 1997. 80 members were privileged to dine at Moro in the company of one of Spain’s most passionate and innovative wine producers Telmo Rodriguez.

Six wines from Galicia, Rioja, Ribeira del Duero and Malaga each had a story that was communicated in a fascinating and entertaining way by Telmo – if you want to know all about the Duke of Wellington, muscat and massaging ladies in Malaga, then Telmo is your man!

The wines are all made from grapes grown on bush vines, rather than trellised vines, with minimum intervention with nature – all are cultivated along biodynamic lines.

We started with Gaba do Xil Godello 2010 from Valdeorras. While Rias Baixas’s albariño is grabbing the headlines in Galicia, we see godello from neighbouring Valdeorras as an exciting alternative to white Burgundy. This wine has just been bottled and will be appearing in our List in July. Elegant, ever so slightly creamy, zesty and with a crisp acidity, it was the perfect match with cuttlefish and baby broad beans in a mint dressing.

Next was Mountain Blanco Moscatel 2009 from Malaga, a dry white muscat whose crispness and grapey fragrance offset the scallops with crispy capers, smoked paprika and shaved fennel very well indeed.

Two wines were selected to accompany the slow-roasted lamb with new season’s garlic and mashed potatoes. Pegaso 2005 is 100% garnacha from the small village of Cebreros in Castilla y Leon. This version is grown in slatey soil (Telmo does a granitic version too from the other side of the village) and the freshness given by the 3,000 ft high vineyards, coupled with the natural rich spiciness of the garnacha grape and the concentration coming from low yields, was a great accompaniment to the softly spicy lamb. (This was my personal wine of the night.)

Lanzaga Rioja 2007 is made in the traditional way in large 1,500 litre foudres rather than the more current barricas maturation. This lets the fruit do the talking rather than the oak,  and it was refreshing to drink a Rioja where the taste buds were not being bombarded by overly-rich vanillins and tannins, but rather being caressed by gentle red and black fruits.

Of the two wines the Lanzaga had the more immediate appeal, but going back to the Pegaso in the glass an hour or so later the tannins had softened to reveal a previously concealed complexity of dark fruits and sweet spices.

Matallana 2005 (the 2004 is currently listed),  a big bruiser of a wine, came alongside the delicious ewes’ cheeses and its broodiness was attenuated by the lifted sweetness of the cheeses. Again, a wine that needed time to even start showing a hint of its true colours, but balanced absolutely perfectly. It’s a wine for the long-term – Telmo says 30, 40 or even 50 years!

The beautiful  yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate was beautifully rounded off by MR 2008 from Malaga – the baby version of Molino Real, Telmo’s sweet, fresh, lemony, grapey and oh-so-not-cloying dessert wine from vineyards over 2,000 feet up.

A memorable evening indeed – it was the third time we have been to Moro, and we would go again to Moro tomorrow if we could .

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Mon 21 Feb 2011

More from Alsace

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Day two and the weather’s not so good: damp and foggy. Up to see the vineyards overlooking Riquewihr: really very steep and difficult to work. Cheerfully told the Moselle is worse.

Extraordinarily, Hugel’s whole operation is in the centre of this pretty and cramped medieval village – underground. Little sign of it in the entrance room until an almost secret door is opened…

Hugel, Trimbach and others don’t use the Grand Cru designation for their best vineyards and wines. Hugel uses ‘Jubilee’ to denote their third level, above ‘Classic’ and ‘Tradition’, and they are good. No fertilisation, sweetening (chaptalisation) or oak (of course). Founded in 1639, making The Society (1874) a recent invention by comparison.

Then onto Trimbach (1626) to taste with the 12th generation and to meet the 13th. We worked our way through the ‘09s. Austere rieslings; again hard for me to imagine how these would emerge eventually. The pinot gris and gewurz are rounder, easier to understand now. Finally a few ‘05s and a 2002 gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, which was remarkable.

Jean Trimbach, Oliver Johnson & Marcel Orford-WilliamsJean Trimbach, Oliver Johnson & Marcel Orford-Williams

Then off to lunch: pig’s knuckle and sauerkraut. Delicious. I was warned that Jean (Trimbach) might have a quick burst of song and was not disappointed!

35 more wines at Beyer, including the 2010 pinot blanc, which was fresh and very pleasant. Again Marcel is focusing on the 2009s for his May/June offer.

Back to Basle for the flight home after not far short of 200 wines tasted in 2 days. Marcel will continue for 3 more days: 500 wines. Last year’s offer contained 35. This careful selection and expertise is at the heart of The Society – does any other merchant taste 500 Alsace wines with their growers? Marcel deserves the Specialist Merchant of the Year award.

Then, as I began, Gatwick, rain, M25, roadworks …

Oliver Johnson
Chief Executive

Fri 18 Feb 2011

Alsace – tasting with Marcel

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Flew out to spend a couple of days with Marcel Orford-Williams, buyer for Alsace. As merchant of the year for the region, good to thank growers for their support, and better to do it before France come to Twickenham.

Not such a glamorous start with the M25 blocked in the rain on Sunday afternoon, but Monday morning was delightfully warm and sunny. First stop Zind-Humbrecht for a very extensive tasting. Marcel is selecting the 2009s now, but we’re also trying some other vintages. Pinot blanc, muscat, riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, at different levels, from different vineyards, and different levels of sweetness, make up easily 50 wines to taste if one wants to be thorough. And Olivier Humbrecht is thorough.

We discussed his organic/biodynamic approach to growing wine, with no chemicals in the vineyards or the cellar (including paint); the deplorable standards of cork manufacture in years gone by, now much improved, to leave natural cork still his only closure; buds bursting two weeks earlier because of climate change, which leaves the vine more susceptible to frost; and more.

On to the Turkheim co-op, complete with storks on the chimney pots and their new solar-panelled receiving area. Good everyday wines here, but told the 2010 volumes are down and some prices must go up as a consequence. A reminder of the risks from the grower’s perspective. If the crop is short, how can income cover the costs already expended? If the vintage is not great, it must nevertheless be sold. Currency charges and recession impact their sales and livelihood severely – a good reason to sell to a wide spread of markets.

75 wines before lunch then on to Schlumberger. Family dispersed in 1870 and one branch built up rather a large engineering company, so no shortage of investment here. The great weather at harvest in 2009 meant there was no rush and grapes could be picked when they were ready over the course of 9 weeks (2006 was picked in 3).

Final stop of the day at a much smaller operation: Dirler-Cadé. A couple of sparkling Crémants to start, with 20 wines to follow. Beginning to tire! But even I can see the difference terroir and winemaker makes; some aiming for more austere, ‘pure’ styles, others rounder. The best won’t be ready for 8-10 years, so difficult (for me) to judge, but pleased that the ones I feel are most interesting more often than not coincide with Marcel’s expert opinion. Tended to think that Alsace was about dry rieslings and realising it’s much more interesting.

Oliver Johnson
Chief Executive