Europe's biodynamic wine-makers swim against the tide

BORDEAUX Tue Jul 5, 2011 6:02am EDT

BORDEAUX (Reuters Life!) - In the shadow of the big Vinexpo wine and spirits industry fair here last month, a group of international wine-makers gathered to promote wines that go against the mega-commercial trend to sell ever larger uniform quantities to big markets such as the United States or the growing markets of China and Russia.

Under the banner "Return to Terroir" several vintners presented their wines, made according to biodynamic growth rules and in small quantities, in the Bordeaux theater as a fringe event to the Vinexpo in big halls outside of the city.

Biodynamic wine was once the preserve of alternative lifestyle types, but increased consumer concern about genetically modified food and the use of chemicals in agriculture has made organic farming and its more specific cousin biodynamic agriculture a mainstream pre-occupation for consumers in Europe and elsewhere.

Consequently, a long queue of people waited in the hot Bordeaux sun to sample the wines and attend films and lectures.

"It is about abandoning the Malthusian race toward overproduction and going back to the roots. It is about respectful wine-making, about ethical wine-making, about linking man closer to nature again," said Jean-Michel Deiss of the Alsace region in an explanation of biodynamic wine-making.

But how does a biodynamic wine-maker survive financially with a smaller production.

"It is clear we provide wine to a certain elite," Deiss said.

Not that these wines need to be extremely expensive. Loire valley vintner Thierry Michon said he made wines for 40 to 50 euros ($57-$71) a bottle as well as wines for less than 10 euros. "It is like gastronomy, there are several levels."

Return to Terroir was created in 2001 by Loire winemaker, and book writer Nicolas Joly of Coulee de Serant and now counts 175 wine growers from 13 countries. It aims to guarantee what it calls "the full expression of the appellations" and wine of a high quality and great originality.

To become a member, a vintner must provide a guarantee of good agriculture, which in practice means an organic or biodynamic certificate from a recognized body on the whole vineyard for at least three years, fertile soil without chemicals, and a cellar in which nothing is done to change the full expression of the wine's AOC (territorial charter).

It also means no use of chemicals, no wood chips added to the wine to change the taste, no reverse osmosis or other manipulation, and only local yeasts are allowed to be used.

"When agriculture is right, the cellar is a maternity and not a factory," Joly wrote.

That is a far cry from the processes used in big wineries to guarantee a stable taste that does not change much from year to year. It also goes against a consumer trend for easily identifiable wines instead of a myriad of names and tastes.

But it does create interesting and good wines.

"It all starts with a good wine that you try to lift to a biodynamic level," said Michon.

It is hard work - chemical treatment makes it easier for wine growers to fight diseases - and the output can be small.

Gabriele da Prato makes wine in the Tuscan hills near Lucca.

"It is a difficult area for wine," he said.

He produced only 15,000 bottles last year. Yet he is profoundly happy making wine in a way that respects nature.

The same applies to Jacques and Marion Granges-Faiss who make wine in the Swiss Rhone valley. They are biodynamic producers who follow the rules of the Bio Suisse and Demeter organizations.

"The aim is to make wine that helps you stay healthy. No chemical traces that can make you ill. What we make is pure happiness," Jacques said.

(Edited by Paul Casciato)