by Chelsea Magnusson
When I was a student at Cal Poly, my Advanced Viticulture class spent a few lecture sessions on alternative farming methods. In less than five minutes, we were finished with our lesson on biodynamics - it was clear that the professor was not trying to sell the idea. Most of the class chuckled through his talk on the subject, which seemed to be his aim. It's funny to look back now, only three years later, and see vineyards and wineries everywhere embracing or at least experimenting with the idea of biodynamics.
Back in March, Robert Haas took a trip to Napa with winemakers Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert to tour vineyards and wineries that practiced biodynamic farming. While there, they discussed the merits of biodynamics, the processes employed, and the results experienced. You can read his post containing his thoughts about the experience.
We are currently applying biodynamic farming principles to approximately 20 acres of our vineyard, with a wide selection of affected varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Tannat. We've also hired a biodynamic consultant, Philippe Coderey, to help with timing, preparations, and probably more than anything, being there with explanations when we get confused or skeptical. So far, I've loved our biodynamic experience. And to be perfectly candid, I find it easy to believe that a vineyard would show improvement upon implementation of biodynamic techniques (or any new farming efforts, for that matter). With the increased time we've spent in our 20 acre parcel of biodynamic vines, we are just a touch more attentive and involved. On one of the days we were applying a preparation, a coworker pointed out that we (the cellar crew) seemed to be a bit more animated on our "biodynamic days". Upon reflection, I think she's right. It's something new and different, and it's something we (or at least, I) don't totally understand.
Philippe was explaining to us not too long ago that everything carries with it an energy. When I think of energy, I conjure a mental image of a person who's able to get up early to go to the gym before work, put in a full day at the office, go home to start laundry, take the dog for a brisk walk, etc, etc. But it's much more than that. This type of energy we're talking about is not something you can get from a cup of coffee. We're talking about the energy flow, (or, if you prefer, the vibe, the aura, or the chi) of an object. We've learned that wine, like everything else, possesses this energy. And really, that's something I can believe. Consider how much effort is put into each bottle of wine - from the vine that produces the fruit, to the harvest and the crush, to the fermentation, and every small step in between. And apparently, you can see this distribution of energy by crystallizing a sample of wine and analyzing the picture that it forms.
In order to produce an accurate and consistent energy crystallization, a scientific method must be employed. I was curious about the process, so I sat down with Philippe to ask him how he performed the task and what he looked for in the results.
To process a crystallization, wine is added to a Petri dish along with water and a copper chloride solution. After the sample is prepped, the Petri dish is placed in a dehydrator that's kept at 90°F. After 8-12 hours, the sample is pulled from the dehydrator and photographed. We gave Philippe two samples of wine - 2005 and 2006 vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel. He was asked to run the samples and then allow us to look at the results without knowing which crystallization belonged to each wine (a blind crystallization, so to speak) and try our hand at matching the picture of the crystallization to the vintage. As it turned out, we had no idea what we were looking at or looking for - I think it was Neil who said we would have similar luck trying to read tea leaves.
Left: Photos of the crystallization of the 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel.
Right: Ryan and Neil try their hand at crystallization interpretation... to no avail.
When analyzing a crystallization, the idea is to look at how the "life forces" and "organization forces" are arranged. When I was told this, I couldn't help but to cock my head in confusion. From what I hear, most people are more familiar with the term "energy field". The manner in which the life forces are organized can tell a little bit about the energy and vitality of the wine. As a compliment to the life force composition, the organization forces illustrate the depth and complexity a wine possesses. So, for instance, a really lovely wine with perfect balance will have a very clean and organized crystallization. Philippe told us that a wine crystallization can provide information both about the wine itself as well as the vineyard it came from. Since we were primarily interested in the reading for the wine, I learned what the three most basic elements of the picture represent:
- The Center: The center represents the fruit component of the wine. A tightly organized center will mean that the wine has less of a fruit forward character, while a center that covers more area will come from a wine with massive fruit. Please note that the "center" is not necessarily located in the actual center of the Petri dish. Rather, it's the area where everything meets.
- The Outer Ring: The outer ring represents the mineral component of the wine. Wine with a prevalent mineral character will have a pronounced and strong outer ring. Earthy characteristics in the wine are represented through the outer circumference of the mineral ring. I was told that if one was trying to gather information regarding a vineyard, a strong outer ring would relate to vines with deep, healthy root systems. As such, as vine with deep roots will be more connected to the soils and therefore have a more profound communication of terroir.
- Middle Zone: The middle zone of the Petri dish (the space that falls between the outer ring and the center) represents the vegetal, herbaceous, and/or floral character of the wine.
And there was a consistent character to different samples of the 2006 that was distinct from the character of the different (but internally consistent) samples of the 2005. Could we have told you what this means? Perhaps not. But maybe in six months? While we may not be crystallizing every single barrel in the cellar, it is interesting for us to look at our wines from a new perspective in an effort to evolve and improve. And I wonder; are university lectures on the subject still brushed off so easily?