Load of old bull – does biodynamics need to explain itself?

seresin cows horns“When I taste this wine, I imagine I’m walking up the dry river bed next to the Tatou vineyard, just after the rain. The smell of the wet stones is utterly distinctive.”

This is the way that Colin Ross, vineyard manager at Seresin, likes to describe wine – no fruit descriptors, no talk of tannins, structure or pH. During a leisurely tasting at Michael Seresin’s house, Ross positively exuded his passion for the land, soil and vines. The wines were a rare delight.

Seresin needs little introduction in the UK, where it has built a strong brand. Apart from consistently individual and high-achieving wines, the estate’s also famous as one of New Zealand’s first to convert fully to organic farming. Experiments with biodynamic farming techniques began in 2000, with full conversion reached in 2007. Certification followed in 2010.

Esoteric

Many find the detail of biodynamic farming methods a little esoteric or hard to pin down. The headline summary (from the Demeter international site) is not so difficult to get to grips with:

“Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture in which vitality has the highest priority… Biodynamic farmers return more to the soil than they remove in the process of cultivating crops and animals; the farm is considered as an organism in which plants, animals and human beings are integrated together.”

however here is the stuff which ignites sceptics into a blazing furore:

“…the Biodynamic method attempts to work with the dynamic energies in nature and not solely with its material needs. One aspect of this is the use of cosmic rhythms, for instance cultivation, sowing and harvesting are scheduled if possible on favourable days.”

Ross’s one day workshop in London left Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl feeling frustrated about “another missed opportunity” for biodynamics to explain itself. I attended a later tasting and discussion, so content and expectations may have been different,  but I personally felt that Ross conveyed a strong message about biodynamic philosophy.

seresin reserve sauvignon 2010 - bottle shotDogma

The challenge with “bio-d” (to adopt the hip vernacular) is that attempts to analyse or rationalise it according to modern scientific methodologies are liable to failure. Krebiehl suggests “biodynamic methods must be examined closely so that they can be fully fathomed and understood”, but I disagree. I’m more aligned with her when she later states “Biodynamics, as every other cause, should be judged by its outcome, not by its good intentions”.

The human experience is littered with the unexplainable, the mysterious and the illogical. Call it mind over matter, call it religion or trance. I don’t believe that every human system has to justify itself according to the narrow parameters dictated by modern science.

Consider the well-documented placebo effect, or homoeopathy – both phenomenons that have been shown to have remarkable efficacy in certain situations, both hard to fathom in pure scientific terms.

michael seresin and colin ross in LondonHolism

But back to Colin and Seresin: What was communicated to me was an intense connection to land and terroir. This is the very heart of biodynamics – the farm (and Seresin truly is a farm, producing olive oil, honey and vegetables as well as wine), animals and employees all functioning in harmony, not in opposition.

Ross stressed the importance of Seresin’s staff many times over. Michael Seresin made the telling comment “if we ever wavered and thought about abandoning biodynamics, I know most of our staff would leave. And the richness of what they bring is extraordinary”.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Ross is not some fey pseud trying to dress everything up in romantic ideals. Rather, a robust Aussie hailing from Margaret River, with years of winemaking experience for both conventional and organic estates.

Many have suggested that the devotion and single-mindedness required for biodynamics is what produces such good results – and who would argue with Romanée-Conti, Chapoutier, Weinbach or Nikolaihof, to name only a few great estates. I’m not sure it matters whether it’s really all down to preparation 501, or just the obsessional care and detail shown by most biodynamic producers.

To me there is nothing worrisome about a system which helps people make or rediscover a fundamental connection with craft and land. We happily accept such systems in other avenues – neuro-linguistic programming, yoga, meditation. Why shouldn’t they be equally valid in the sphere of agriculture?

seresin bottles

The Wines

Some high spots from the tasting – hard to choose only a few!

Marama 2010 (100% Sauvignon Blanc)

This wine has wowed me in every vintage I’ve tasted (the first was a decade ago). It’s exciting, rich, long and gloriously vibrant. Even if you thought barrel fermented Sauvignon wasn’t for you, give this a try. Just stunning.

Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010

A beautiful fruit core, delicate and taut. Almost reserved, compared to the other whites. Long finish.

Home Pinot Noir 2011

Exotic spices, chewy dark fruit, smoky and leathery. None of the overbearing opulence that I associate with new world Pinot.

Rachel Pinot Noir 2011

Superbly elegant, really justifies the term “burgundian” on this basis alone.

Sun and Moon Pinot Noir 2010

Dark and leathery on the nose, but super refined, and the most delicate of all the Pinots.

Seresin wines are widely available in the UK, and distributed by John Armit wines (who also sell direct).

Oh Balls! (Or how customer service saved the day)

That Gruner won't bite, Pete!

That Gruner won’t bite, Pete!

Picture the scene – four old friends, and we’ve just passed a convivial evening in a restaurant. It’s Thursday night, 9.30pm, no-one’s ready to go home but at the same time a change of scenery is called for. Oh yes, and we’d like good wine please.

The trouble is, we’re in Victoria. A quick look on Google maps reveals only two viable choices: The Ebury  wine bar or a branch of Balls Brothers. The Ebury is ruled out – too far from mainline transport options (yes, we have out-of-towners with us) – so Balls Brothers it is. I’d never visited any of this small chain’s bars before, but had an image in my head that they were well established and reputable with a solid wine list and comfortable surroundings.

Seemingly not. We arrived to find a half-deserted bar, with deafening music and disinterested staff. A cursory glance at the wine list revealed a typical selection – typical of about 25 years ago, that is. Half a dozen clarets, Burgundy, Rioja – tick, Chianti – tick, token new world offerings – tick. Interest, excitement, adventure – fail.

Never mind, I’m very partial to good claret, so Chateau Peyrabon 2004 (A Medoc Cru Bourgeois from a small producer) sounded good – but it was out of stock. Alternative recommendations weren’t forthcoming, so we hastily decided on the good value sounding Cahors Chateau de Caillou 2010.  Sadly it felt like a dumbed down version of what should be a gutsy, herbal drink – bland, with simple fruit and little interest.

Following protocol for any self-respecting 21st century social mediatiste, I fired off a gnarly tweet on the bus home:

“Disappointed with the experience at  @ballsbrothers victoria.
Surly staff, indifferent wines.”

A few days later, Balls Brother’s PR operation kicked into action, contacted me and asked if they could try to convince me they were better than this. Impressed, I provided further detailed feedback, and we agreed a date when I could come and taste more wines from the list and give them another chance.

Simon Alderton opens up some bottles

Simon Alderton opens up some bottles

Balls Brothers Victoria put in a much stronger showing on the return visit, particularly from a customer care point of view. I hadn’t realised that by sitting at the high table nearest the door, we’d totally bypassed the attentive table service – and following closer examination, there were potential pockets of interest  on the wine list.

Reds were more successful than whites – Of the whites, I loved the lively, unpretentious La Cote Flamenc Picpoul de Pinet 2011, but little else. Pete, my tasting companion for the evening, enjoyed the Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011, although I found it a bit blowsy.

The highlight for us both was the Medoc Cru Bourgeois we’d tried to order on our first visit, Chateau Peybarnon 2004 - fully mature, supple and sexy. Honourable mentions went to the easy-going yet multifaceted Castillo de Clavijo Rioja Crianza 2008, a leathery but restrained D’Arenberg Shiraz (“The Love Grass” 2009) and a perfumed, smoky Mendoza Malbec (Argento Malbec Seleccion 2011).

These wines were genuinely enjoyable, but the evening confirmed my feeling that there’s a slight mismatch between the clientele of this branch (which is leading the charge away from fusty cellars, to a more modern wine bar experience) and the list. Balls Brothers is part of a portfolio that also includes six Lewis and Clark bars, with the latter having more adventurous and varied wine selections (I haven’t been, but I’d be honing in on the Torrontes, some of the Rhone offerings or the Rieslings).

The Balls Brothers city bars have longer but more traditional lists. Victoria seems to be the poor relation, with neither the range nor the variety. Bizarrely, it does however offer Louis Roderer Cristal 2002 at £225 a pop!

BB Victoria’s manager Simon Alderton is disarmingly honest and  understands his customer-base – mostly well-heeled after-work commuters, with the occasional high rollers who will flash a few hundred pounds on wine over lunch. It’s a largely youthful crowd, and was buzzing on this visit, so Simon’s mission to update the bar’s image seems to be working – so why the old-fashioned wine list?

London’s new-breed of wine-orientated bars and restaurants (Vinoteca, Terroirs, 28:50, Brawn, Soif, Bar Battu, Green and Blue) and the painfully hip Duck Soup have shown that younger consumers will happily venture into uncharted pastures if they are encouraged by enthusiastic staff and given a “story” that supports the choice of wines.

I’m not expecting that Balls Brothers is suddenly going to rebrand itself as a natural wine bar – although I think Simon might quite like the challenge (He told me he would dearly love to wean customers off Pinot Grigio). But surely there is room for some innovation, which might get customers drinking more adventurously – and spending more into the bargain (this doesn’t strike me as a price-conscious establishment).

In that spirit, here are three accessible yet lesser known wines/styles that I think would add variety and interest to Balls Brother’s list:

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1. An aromatic Northern Spanish or Portuguese white (Albarino/Alvarinho or Verdejo) – like the wonderfully mineral Auratus 2011, Quinta Do Feital (Les Caves de Pyrene, Roberson, various retailers), 0r perhaps Cuatro Rayas Verdejo Vinedos Centenarios Rueda 2011 (Bibendum)

2. Smoky, characterful Negroamaro from Puglia, Italy – like the amazing value I Satiri, Salice Salentino Riserva 2007 Candido (Majestic) or La Casada, Negroamaro del Salento 2010 (also from Les Caves)

3. Medium bodied, fruity yet serious, age-worthy gamay from Morgon (or another Beaujolais Cru), ideally from Jean Foillard (Roberson, Slurp, Bancroft), but failing that maybe Morgon Les Griottes Mommessin 2009 (Bibendum)

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For the completists, here is the full list of wines we tasted (favourites are asterisked):

Laurenz V Friendly Gruner-Veltliner 2011 (Austria)

Elegant, but rather neutral for a Gruner (lacking the attractive green pepper pungency that I associate with good examples).

* La Cote Flamanc Picpoul de Pinet 2011 (Languedoc, France)

Very perky, with an attractive grassy aroma, and pineapple fruit flavours. A wine that puts a smile on your face (especially as it’s one of the cheaper offerings on the list @£23.50 a bottle)

Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Marlborough, New Zealand)

If you like Marlborough Sauv Blanc, this is a benchmark example – complete with a whiff of cats pee/ammonia. I find it a bit too eager to please, the ripe gooseberry and stone fruit is in your face and there’s something slightly monothematic about the whole thing.

Riva Leone Gavi 2011 (Piemonte, Italy)

Rather sweaty, vegetal aroma – but leads to a fresh, mineral palate – wet stone on the finish. Not the world’s best Gavi but refreshing and well balanced.

Balls Brothers House Claret (Chateau L’Eglise 2011, Bordeaux)

I felt a bit like Jimmy Saville, drinking this. It says “eleve en futs de chene” on the label – can’t have been bottled for more than a month or two then! The youthful, fruity aroma was pleasant. A bit hollow in the middle, but still  a refreshing drink.

* Chateau Lugagnac Bordeaux Superiore 2009

This is only £5 a bottle more than the house claret, but felt like a considerable upgrade. Elegant blueberry and blackcurrant fruit, soft texture and a hint of oak, with enough structure to hold it together. Ever so slightly unbalanced/rustic on the finish.

** Chateau Peyrabon Cru Bourgeois 2004, Haut Medoc

For a moment it seemed as if we were doomed never to enjoy the wine that had been M.I.A. on our first visit. Balls Brothers serve this by the glass, and should have ditched the first bottle that we were poured days ago (it was heavily oxidised). Luckily, once we had a fresh bottle, the wine revealed itself to be a beauty. A mature, supple and rather sexy claret, with enticing cigarbox, spice and coffee overtones. Further proof that the Medoc’s cool years often provide the most typical and satisfying wines. Great value for the quality (£36.50 a bottle)

* La Croix Bonis de Chateau Phelan Segur 2006, St Estephe

Rather closed and reticent to begin with, quite austere blackcurrant fruit. Very elegant, once it got into its stride, but doesn’t have the generosity of the Peyrabon ’04. Perhaps we should have tried the 2008 (the 2006 is now out of stock). Seems poor value compared to Ch. Peyrabon.

* Castillo de Clavijo Rioja Crianza 2008 (Rioja, Spain)

Juicy strawberry fruit, with complex coffee and christmas cake hints, well rounded and very satisfying.

* d’Arenberg Love Grass Shiraz 2009 (McLaren Vale, Australia)

I was prepared to hate this. Aussie Shiraz is rarely my thing, but this shows restraint and the all important acidity/freshesss to balance its rich, leathery fruit.

Valdivieso Reserva Merlot 2009 (Valle Central, Chile)

Unpleasant “hot” character (high alchohol), which seemed very out of balance with the spiced plum fruit. Clumsy, international style. The sort of wine that could come from anywhere.

* Argento Malbec Seleccion 2011 (Mendoza, Argentina)

Perfumed, spicy fruit (cooked plums), a smoky hint and attractive lemon freshness on the finish. Enjoyable.

Loredona Pinot Noir 2010 (Monterey, U.S.A.)

This is Simon Alderton’s favourite wine on the list. Pete liked the generous spicy red fruit, I found it slightly confected and even syrupy. The oak is well integrated though. “Chacun a son gout” I guess?

 

Disclosure: I was the guest of Balls Brothers Victoria, who supplied all the wines and very generous cheese and charcuterie platters. Many thanks to Pete, and to Simon A. for being a generous host.