WINE: Zodiac vintages

What sceptics find hard to swallow is the apparently astrological mumbo-jumbo that goes with biodynamics
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Biodynamie might as well have been a Gerard Depardieu film, as far as Noel Pinguet was concerned. Until 1986, that is. That year, the Vouvray winemaker attended a conference on biodynamics. "I didn't know a thing about biodynamics; in fact, I hadn't even heard the word before," he says. "But I was fed up with the merry-go-round of supposedly new, better and more expensive chemicals."

"The object", explains Pinguet, of the leading Vouvray estate Huet, "is to recreate a healthy, balanced living soil with animal life and bacteria. When the soil is in balance, the plant will be healthy. In a healthy environment, it has a better natural resistance to pests and diseases."

The notion of respect for the soil and a return to traditional agriculture chimed instantly with Pinguet, who, although born in Vouvray in the Loire valley, only came to wine after marrying the daughter of estate-owner Gaston Huet, the town's mayor, in 1971. He jettisoned the expensive weed- killing equipment he'd just bought and, to the amusement of his work-force, who thought he'd mislaid his marbles, started using plant infusions in one hectare of his vines. He also cut down drastically on the use of copper sulphate and sulphur, the two chemicals permitted in the organic rule book.

Beneficial insect life returned, vineyard drainage improved and irregular bud growth appeared, which suggested to Pinguet that natural rhythms were at work. He liked what he saw, and by 1990 had turned the whole of the estate over to biodynamic viticulture.

So far, so organic. What sceptics find hard to swallow is the apparently astrological mumbo-jumbo that goes with biodynamics. Based on the theories of the Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture wears a headset of cosmos-probing antennae. Steiner's back-to-nature movement links the energy required by plants above ground to the influence of the moon and the movement of the planets. Believing that the fire signs, Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, have the strongest influence on the vine's fruit- bearing potential, adherents use sprays when the moon reflects the right planetary influences. Their high priest is Nicolas Joly, from Savennieres, another wine-producing town in the Loire, who introduced the system to Pinguet.

"There is a rhythm in nature which corresponds to the movement of the planets," says Pinguet. "When we work the soil, we apply specific treatments, like homeopathic remedies, at times which will influence the plant." Infusions of nettle, valerian, camomile, yarrow, oak-bark, dandelion and bracken are used. Silica - crushed quartz crystal - acts as a transmitter of light and heat, and is one of three principal preparations, along with dung compost and dung mixed with cow horn (a potent symbol since prehistoric times), which is mixed in tiny quantities with water to help the vine's immune system combat insects and fungi.

There are plenty of growers who practise traditional viticulture but stop short of going the whole biodynamic hog. According to Rhone producer Marcel Guigal, who is sympathetic, "It's like a religion. You practise it as long as you have the faith." Henri Jayer, Burgundy's genial veteran wine maker, believes that biodynamic practitioners are deluding themselves. "I'm all for the living soil, but biodynamics is for people who think they can control nature. They believe they can influence the vine, but they can't," he says.

"The planetary aspect puts them off - they think it's mad," says Pinguet, who is a persuasive advocate precisely because he does not look or sound like a suitable case for treatment. "I'm not a nut like Nicolas Joly. The Cartesian side of me retains a healthy scepticism."

Equally, he is not convinced that you can necessarily taste the difference - yet. "That's the big question. All I can say is that few of my neighbours managed to produce grapes ripe enough to make a sweet wine in 1993. And La Revue de Vin de France found my wines the best in the appellation in 1994. In 1992, 1993 and 1994, all average vintages, they have done well in blind tastings.

"The scientific world doesn't want to admit to alternative methods," he adds. "There's too much financial power at stake. If everyone went biodynamic tomorrow the agrochemical industry would go bust overnight."

This could be an uncomfortable thought for the industry, given that an increasing number of top French estates are converting (thus far, there has been only a slow spread beyond France). Lalou Bize-Leroy, Anne-Claude Leflaive and Comtes Lafon are adherents in Burgundy. Domaine Marcoux and the influential Chapoutier brothers in the Rhone are converts, as are, among others, Chateau Laroze, Pavie Macquin and Chateau Falfas in Bordeaux. In Provence, Chateau Romanin's cathedral-like cellar has even been constructed on biodynamic principles.

So far as the consumer is concerned, biodynamic wines do not come cheap. This is partly because of the risks involved (part of Lalou Bize-Leroy's 1992 crop was destroyed), but mainly because the growers involved produce hand-crafted wines from low-yielding vines.

In the new edition of his book Burgundy, the Master of Wine Anthony Hanson gives biodynamic viticulture a cautious thumbs up. "It is easy to smile incredulously, but what surely matters is whether these methods work." His own blind tasting of four Burgundies favoured the two biodynamic versions. It may be a while before Noel Pinguet's neighbours start burying cow-horn dung and rising at 4am to spray quartz crystals on their vines, but now that they realise he is no witch doctor, they are keeping a close eye on his island of living soil. Steiner himself, meanwhile, might be doing a half-turn in his grave. He was, after all, fervently against all consumption of alcoholic drink.

RECOMMENDED

1990 Vouvray, 1er Trie, Clos du Bourg, Huet, pounds 21.89, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up; pounds 13.49, half, Bibendum, London NW1 (0171-722 5577). A sweet sensation of a wine from Noel Pinguet, sumptuously rich in exotic, crystallised citrus-fruit flavours.

1989 Vouvray, 1er Trie, Le Haut Lieu, Huet, pounds 32.00, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1 (0171-493 8721). A great sweet wine, lusciously decked with concentrated honeyed botrytis and a streak of fresh acidity to guarantee long life.

Raeburn Fine Wines, Edinburgh (0131-332 5166), is currently offering a number of fabulous older vintages of Huet, including the brilliantly concentrated 1947 and the legendary 1919. Other Huet stockists include: Prestige Vintners, Andover; Gauntleys, Nottingham; D Byrne, Clitheroe; S H Jones, Banbury.

Among the cheaper - non-biodynamic - versions of Vouvray, Sainsbury's rich, sweet, crisp-apple Vouvray, pounds 4.45, is excellent value. The 1990 Vouvray, Chateau Gaudrelle, pounds 6.99, Marks & Spencer, is a classic dry chenin blanc whose honeyed texture and appley fruitiness are beautifully balanced. Bernard Fouquet's distinctive 1992 Vouvray Sec, Cuvee Victor, Domaine des Aubuisieres, pounds 7.95, Adnams, Southwold, is also dry, but nicely rounded with honeyed ripeness, while the more youthful 1993 Vouvray Sec, Domaine des Aubuisieres, pounds 7.49, Oddbins, is rich and complex.

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