Massachusetts Beverage Business


Garden of Robert Eden

Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD

Robert Eden paid us a visit, bearing his tasty wines and his biodynamic viticultural beliefs. The wines are produced at Eden's garden, Chateau Maris, in the Minervois La Liviniere appellation of ancient Languedoc in Mediterranean southwestern France. This is beautiful country, once known for prolific production of bulk wines, now beginning to make its mark in the fine-wine arena.

Eden grew up steeped in husbandry in Yorkshire, where his father was a serious gardener. He worked in the wine trade in Australia, Italy and Burgundy before purchasing the estate in the village of La Liviniere in 1994, and setting to work to revivify a soil that had been exhausted and overfertilized with inorganic chemicals. He has, using the biodynamic system, returned nitrogen and microscopic life to the soil, enabling his first commercial release with the 1998 vintage.

Of the 6425 approved acres in Minervois La Liviniere, 5OO have thus far been planted. The region is dry, with cool nights influenced by the Black Mountains. The vineyards lie between 45O and 82O feet of elevation. The soils are mostly limestone and clay. Almost all the wines are red, 6O percent of which are composed of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, with varying additions of Carignan, Cinsault, Terret, Piquepoul, and Aspiran. The wines must remain in cask until at least November 1 of the year after the harvest.

The Chateau Maris estate of 21O acres had its planted acreage reduced from 198 to 99 under the Eden regime. The grapes are harvested by hand. Natural yeasts are used. Production is about 2OO,OOO bottles of the three wines described in the tasting notes. The wines are neither fined nor filtered.

Robert is an apostle of biodynamics, called by some "a supercharged system of organic farming". Some term it a science, but that's asking for trouble, for there's virtually no scientifically derived evidence in support. It is rather a belief system codified by Rudolf Steiner (1861 to 1925), an Austrian philosopher of many interests. Biodynamics might be described as organic agriculture blended with astrology, spiritualism, mysticism - at best empirically based, at worst pagan atavism. Manures and composts are revered.

To give the flavor, here is Steiner (as cited in biodynamic wines, by Monty Waldin, Mitchell Beazley, 2OO4, page 19) on the role of oak bark: " . . . creating order when the etheric body is working too strongly, so that the astrality cannot influence whatever organic entity is involved. Calcium in any form will kill off or dampen the etheric body and thereby free up the influence of the astral body, but when we want a rampant etheric development to contract in a beautiful and regular manner, without any shocks, then we need to use calcium in the particular form in which it is found in oak bark."

Another pungent example is the use of manure, which is stuffed into the horn of a cow that had borne calves. The horn is buried for six months, then the manure sprayed on the vines under the moon at a specified position.

A spat about the validity of biodynamics has arisen in the pages of decanter, largely ignited by Joe Fattorini's bluntly worded piece in the January 2OO7 issue. He begins, "Organic winemaking is a con . . . and biodynamic wine simply a pottier variation." He goes on: "The biodynamic narrative is straight out of fantasy fiction," and advises, "If you buy wine because it's organic, you're a dupe." As you imagine, some heated letters followed, but none expressed a counterargument with factual backing.

La Touge Syrah 2OO4 From younger vines, but you wouldn't know it. Fragrant, with good depth of plummy fruit. Long. Has stuffing. $25

Old Vine Syrah 2OO4 From 35- to 5O-year-old vines. Less fruity, more oaky than either of the other two wines. All open with food, especially this one. Some tarry notes. More restrained, needing more bottle aging than the others. $36

Old Vine Grenache 2OO4 Some vines up to 8O-years-old. Fragrance and flavor of berries. Good structure and length. All three wines are dark and well saturated. $46

So it seems that biodynamics may be based upon wishful thinking and a flawed concocted scheme rather than upon science, but other ideas based upon folk wisdom have turned out to have substance. Its attitude of eschewing the scientific method must be ultimately damaging. The healthiest attitude now may be open-minded agnosticism, hoping to sift out the chaff and rationalize what's of value.

There are some points in favor of biodynamics. Some of the world's best wines are produced by the method, but, with their advantages of great terroir and great talent, wouldn't they be just as great by any reasonable system? Practitioners take meticulous care of their vines and of their pieces of earth, which can't help but be good. These same producers made great wines before organic or biodynamic rebirth. The Nazis banned biodynamics, another endorsement.

It is questionable whether vines raised by the orthodox biodynamic system are healthier than those just as well attended, but by conventional methods, despite the strong belief of the converted. Certainly, incompetent viticulture is bad for vines, leading to grapes, and thus wines, of less than optimal quality. Imbalances are also damaging.

Overnourishing leads to excessive foliage; overwatering to obese, dilute, flabby grapes, giving wines of like character. Malnourished or desiccated vines, obviously, must be avoided, yet it has long been preached, quite rightly, that vines must be stressed to produce the best possible grapes. Stressed vines also increase their production of polyphenols, including resveratrol, healthful for those drinking the resultant wine.

Interestingly, the physiological stress of strict calorie restriction in many organisms, from yeast to mammal, results in increased fitness and lengthening of life span, and, more to the point, resveratrol from grape skins reproduces these benefits. Advocates of biodynamics maintain that wines produced by their system are healthier than other wines, but I have encountered not a shred of evidence supporting this contention. In fairness, other than the extra effort, which likely has collateral viticultural benefits, I know of no adverse effect of the biodynamic system upon the resultant wine or the health of the consumer.

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