Wine Love for My Servers:
The Biodynamic Wines on Taberna de Haro’s List
As you know, I gave a presentation and wine tasting a few weeks ago at the Microbial Sciences Initiative at Harvard University, on biodynamic wines. The research involved was illuminating indeed, and renewed my appreciation for the work of biodynamic wine makers. It also pushed me to a new level of indignation over the harm that the proliferation of chemicals is doing to our earth and our bodies!
Here’s a brief history before we get specific with the wines on Taberna de Haro’s list:
Biodynamic farming was developed by scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner back in the 1920’s. After WW1, the companies that had created the stuff of chemical warfare needed new markets for their goods. They convinced farmers that higher yields and an eradication of pests could be easily attained with chemical sprays and fertilizers. The resulting rapid decline in the health of produce and livestock, as well as their custodians, was something that troubled Steiner greatly. He concluded that Western Civilization would destroy itself if it did not create an objective way to understand the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world. Steiner developed anthroposophy as a way to bridge and unite these worlds, seemingly so opposing in our recently adopted scientific age. In the field of medicine, he developed homeopathy as a way to heal the human body; in agriculture, he developed biodynamics as a way to heal the earth.
He wrote and lectured prolifically, defining the ideal farm as a self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity. Crops and livestock should be integrated, and the only fertilizer should be compost made on the farm with its very own manure and green waste. Also, and here is where he invited debate, cosmic and earthly influences are to be considered not only relevant, but powerful. As the planets and moon shift, they exert influence over the bodies of water as well as the water within each plant, and agricultural activities must follow a lunar calendar not only to optimize their efficacy, but to nurture the farm as well. For example, why would one prune a grapevine when her sap is running high?
Steiner developed a set of homeopathic treatments using common herbs to nurture the compost, treat the soil, and feed the plants with the aim of building up the immune system inherent in the farm. By encouraging a farm’s innate vital forces you alleviate the need to eradicate anything undesirable, for eradication is violent and invites imbalance. You labor to create strength rather than applying poison to the results of weakness, for the poison only causes further weakness.
Let’s focus on viticulture now. There are four ways to farm. ‘Conventional’ viticulture aims to control vineyard life through a series of chemical sprays and fertilizers. The next step up is ‘Lutte raisonnée’, which can be considered semi-organic, and a pledge to employ fewer chemicals. Next we have ‘Organic’ viticulture which aims to create healthy soil and a balanced, diverse ecosystem without the use of petrochemicals. Copper and sulphur products are usually admitted. Finally, there is ‘Biodynamic’ viticulture which nurtures all the life forces on the farm, unites it with the cosmos, and encourages a vast proliferation of microbial life through compost and herbal treatments.
I’m often asked how exactly biodynamic viticulture differs from organic. The two marked distinctions in biodynamics are the use of a complex system of herbal sprays and composting known as “Preparations” which are numbered from 500 to 508 (See appendix 1 for the list); and, the timing of the farming operations, which is strictly regulated by the movement of the celestial spheres - the lunar calendar. For a wine to have the highly-regarded Demeter certification, the practices in both the vineyard and the winery must be biodynamic. Demeter means Harvest Goddess in Greek, and is the standard seal for biodynamic products. Many winemakers practice biodynamics but don’t apply for Demeter certification.
Both an understanding and a reverence for microbial life is necessary for farmers who aspire to biodynamics. While conventional viticulture completely destroys the microbial population, biodynamic viticulture views microbes as the very basis of vitality. You see, microbial activity fixes nitrogen in the soil for the plants’ nutrition. If you destroy these energetic little nitrogen fixers, the vine is unable to feed itself, so soluble fertilizers must be sprayed directly onto the hungry plant. Microbial life takes year to regenerate after a chemical assault, so conventional farmers quickly become dependent on the petrochemical companies that supply the cycle of poisonous treatments. The companies have no interest in solving the problem long term, only in fostering the dependence. Each hiccup of nature is beaten back with carefully targeted chemicals, further weakening the vine, the soil, the water, even the air. The vine does indeed have many predators, and these enemies learn to adapt to their chemical rain, coming back altered, stronger, and evolved in just a few generations. It is the microcosm of an arms race and it is a threat.
Simply put, biodynamic practices aim to heal the planet through conscious agriculture. Biodynamics harnesses the life forces in a way that allows them to act as catalysts to enhance the health and balance of a farm. I’ve always considered wine in moderation a healthy part of the human diet, and I have to believe that biodynamic wines are inherently healthier. Does this mean I will limit myself to only Demeter or organic certified wines? Of course not, but I’ll always be drawn to them - if they taste good. Imagine if we treated our bodies as Steiner farms, with reverence for nature and trust in the processes that we cannot understand within the natural world. I love this quote by Wali Via, a biodynamic farmer in Oregon:
“The premise behind biodynamics is that life processes cannot be simply reduced to chemical and physical reactions, but that within what is scientifically observable, there are non-material forces at work.”
My research involved speaking and writing to Spanish winemakers to hear their direct experience. They all spoke of this trust in nature’s balance and the need to work comfortably with the abstract (unseen energy) to achieve a material outcome (delicious wine). All told of increased life forms on their vineyards, better grapes, more resilience to drought, and more charming wines. Joan Asens of Orto Vins (founded in 2008) sent me a treatise on biodynamics that he himself wrote. In it he explains and extolls each element of his farm from the various fungi and bacteria, to the worms and the snails, right on up to the gofers, rats, and guinea pigs. They all have their function and contribute to the balance of his farm. The rodents dig and chew incessantly which breaks down leaves so that the worms have an easier task breaking the stuff down into tiny particulate matter, thus facilitating the work of the microorganisms, whose job it is to fix the nitrogen. If you poison your vineyard, all this activity grinds to a halt.
I have visited Joan’s beautiful vineyard and makeshift winery in Monsant. (The great irony of all this researching and writing has been that every time I type ’Monsant’ it gets autocorrected to ‘Monsanto’). Why makeshift? Because it is a tiny borrowed space, illustrating perfectly how the vast majority of Joan’s and his three partners’ energy goes into understanding and mothering the vineyard, while the winery work is simply the little terrarium where the harmony of the vineyard comes together to be wine.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting his land and listening to passionate discourse on his wines and the power of biodynamics. He is infinitely knowledgeable and I can’t take notes fast enough! It is like listening to poetry that is at once earthy, cosmic, didactic. We offer several Orto Vins wines:
Les argiles 2013 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). Pristine pear aromas peek out from the sterling minerals. Brilliant lemon and fresh apricot are spherical and magical, much like the tenets of these biodynamic farmers who coax wonders from their land! Soft but meaningful in the mouth, with a balance that calms the lucky drinker. Beautiful. $40
Blanc d’orto flor 2011 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). Plump and rosy-cheeked as a baby, this garnatxa blanca has evolved into something more chiseled and fine, the infant features having given way to a more mature loveliness. More perfumed and floral now, the wine is full-bodied, dry, and broad with minerality. Detailed and dynamic. $70
Blanc d’Orto 2013 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). All the best smells an orchard has to offer - apricot, pear, apple, and wet stones. Round and citric, with lemon thyme and fennel. Bright like Joan’s sun-drenched vineyard, juicy with the acidity that only the most skilled vintners can coax from such a warm place. There’s a pretty tannic presence from one day of skin contact prior to fermentation as well as the inclusion of stems. Eight months of lees contact (in stainless) add texture, but nothing detracts from the purity of starting with free-run juice! $60
Pedra Roja 2013 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). Graceful garnatxa (90%) and charismatic cariñena (10%) are a match made in clay. Bright and shimmering with energy, this complex wine offers Mediterranean underbrush and sunny red cherries. The tannins are an earthly underscore to this ethereal, perfectly ripened fruit. Truly great with everything! $40
les comes d’orto 2012 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). The rosy aromas are both fresh and mineral, with ripe red currant and raspberry. Deeply appealing, with big shoulders and a broad smile of Mediterranean warmth and spice. Full-bodied and layered with black cherry, ume plum, and limestone, like the most profound of parfaits! $85
la Carrerada 2012 (Orto Vins, D.O. Montsant, El Masroig). 100% samsó grapes grown in limestone. Ready for cherry in it’s purest orchard form? The riveting texture of this wine confirms it’s biodynamic upbringing and probably the 28 days of skin contact, too! The oldest vines in this single-vineyard are from 1936 and the youngest from 1970. Sip the violet, graphite, menthol-scented juice and be serenely amazed at Joan Asens love and mastery. $115
I had a wonderful conversation with Josep d’Anguera, also of Monsant, where he and his brother Joan phased in biodynamic viti-viniculture back in 2008. I asked him what differences he perceives in his wines now. He replied that the texture is more profound and there is a sensation of luminosity; and the wines simply taste better and have a longer life. When I asked him if the biodynamic routines were more work, he told me only the first year, because it was challenging to un-learn his conventional schooling and think anew. He explained how is vineyard’s health is audible now, as there are more bug sounds, more birds chirping, and more small animals scurrying about. Josep also talked at length about trusting the immune system of the vineyard once you have fortified it. For example, when he looks at his vineyard he sees a few random plants that are ill, but he knows that his earth is sound and the other vines will fight off the illness. He trusts the isolated imperfections will never becomes a plague, and he can focus on nurturing, not poisoning. His tone was fatherly.
I have loved watching the evolution of the d’Anguera wines over the past decade. I remember the feisty Planella, and I welcome the graceful yet sturdy character that Altaroses and Finca L’Argata bring. We’ll get more Altaroses as soon as we can.
Finca L’Argata 2012 (Joan d’ Anguera,D.O. Montsant, Darmos, Falset). Rose and hibiscus hint at the floral artwork within this ruby-red juice. Complex and broad, this hopelessly fragrant blend of garnatxa and syrah is a series of blossoms on the tongue with shiny red fruits singing with glee. Joan and Josep assure me THIS is the voice of Montsant. “Primavera en la copa” - springtime in the glass. More elegance and less dark concentration is their mantra, and L’Argata proves it. $46
You know our 3 Recaredo cavas are outstanding. Did you also know they are biodynamic cavas? A decade ago they made the transition from organic to biodynamic, and they’re thrilled with the results. Not only are the wines better, but they experienced last vintage how a vineyard that is healthy on an energetic level can thrive even in times of adversity. The summer of 2015 saw record-breaking high temperatures and a complete lack of rainfall. Harvest started on the unprecedentedly early date of August 12, yet the grapes were full of life with perfectly balanced acids and sugars, and complete phenolic ripeness. Normally such an early harvest would spell disaster: immature grapes with high sugar levels and low acid. They attribute the success to the ‘partnership between the winegrower and nature.’
Recaredo Brut nature gran reserve 2008 (Cava Recaredo, D.O. Cava, San Sadurni d’Anoia). Profoundly alluring – lemon, vanilla, wet sand, nutmeg, fine cordial. Care and tradition define this biodynamically-farmed, family estate. The bubbles are a lovely mousse of straw, toast, and white raspberries. Twenty nine months on the lees lend this wine an enviable depth of character! $65
Recaredo Gran Reserva 2006 (Cava Recaredo, D.O. Cava, San Sadurni d’Anoia). Lush aromas of fresh figs and lemons brushed with a note of caramel. The texture is creamy yet bright with infinite minute bubbles that burst into the most supple, giving cava imaginable. Minerals alight and the earth is a celebration in this complex, sublime cava. $95
Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva 2005 (Cava Recaredo, D.O. Cava, San Sadurni d’Anoia). Tears of elegance and stars of chalk dust waft in this ethereal expression of xarel-lo & macabeu. Lemon oil, macadamia, a whiff of tarte tatin with a crumbly buttery crust. Light and feathery, with taut edges and a lay-me-down soft fruit center, full of almond, seashell, and kefir lime. Evolved, mature, and confident - like an elder statesman. $110
Ester Nin has been an idol of mine since I opened Taberna de Haro. Her angelic calm and grace in the vineyard, which I’ve witnessed first hand, makes her seem at one with the vines, a part of the vineyard. I was moved almost to tears during a visit to Porrera back in 2008 as I watched her showing a young boy how to carefully examine the leaves of a grapevine to not only to identify but to understand it. She has been a farmer for one hundred generations. She collaborates with Daphne Glorian to make the great Clos Erasmus and Laurel wines, and as well as creating beautiful wines of her own, such as Nit del Nin, Nun Vinya dels Taus, as well as collaborating on projects such as and Corelium and Triumvirat in Priorat and Huella de Adarás in Almansa, La Mancha.
Nit del nin 2012 (Mas d’en Cacador, D.O.Q. Priorat, Porrera). Inky, sexy, racy black and blue fruits with a szechuan pepper zing. Rich & exotic. Spicy black raspberry with high notes of daring acidity - your mouth waters for more. The layering of ripe fruit is artful and profound – currant, cherry, boysenberry. A wealth of concentration with richness, length, and edge. $150
planetes 2010 (Familia Nin Ortiz, D.O.Q Priorat, Porrera). It’s so Ester Nin - biodynamic, fascinating, complex. Elegant with lavender and wild with Concord grape, this garnatxa-cariñena blend, grown in Porrera’s highest vineyards, is lean and exotic in the mouth. Hyacinth and violet tangle with white pepper and bergamot, and the sensual note of sandalwood wafts through all the layers of slate. The perfect weight and texture for the human tongue - a beauty. $98
NUN Vinya dels taus 2006 (Cal Raspallet, D.O. Penedes).The bad news is that only 6 barrels were made of this incredible wine. And there is only one hectare so increases are impossible. The good news is it that I’ve been hoarding a few bottles because I thought they needed age. Ester Nin’s sublime 100% xarel-lo is as good as white Burgundy that costs five times the price. Nun is fragrant with clover, buttermilk, birch, and yeast. A rich, silken expression of Xarel-lo. $150
Clos Erasmus 2012 (Clos i Terrasses España, D.O.Q. Priorat, Gratallops). This is Dafne’s most elegant work of art yet, a smooth and seamless swath of dark velvet, alight with glints of tart black currant and juicy black raspberry. The classic spice profile is what the Christmas goddesses put in their fruitcakes, I’m sure of it. Gossamer layers of sassafras, smoked apple wood, and dried cherries are just part of the complexity that make this wine an icon in Priorat. Tiny but glorious vintage. $250
Two more women from the D.O. Priorat need to be lauded for their lovely wines and ecological reverence. Sara Perez of Mas Martinet is a legend and a pioneer, brave enough to forge into biodynamic territory before it was well-established in Spain. Whereas biodynamic agriculture was developed in Austria, a climate considerably cooler and wetter than Catalunya’s, many thought it was a foolish practice to adopt in Gratallops, the hottest part of hot Priorat. Sara applied what she found helpful from the biodynamic teachings, and she always insisted on natural, spontaneous fermentations with her grapes’ own yeast. And she has the patience to wait out the slow-downs that can ensue with the unpredictability of wild yeast! She is a compelling woman that I adore listening to - wise, confident, and animated. Clos Martinet is a marvel of texture and a kaleidoscope of nuances, as complex as the woman who makes it. She also makes stunning single-vineyard wines such as Els Escurçons and Cami Pesseroles.
Clos martinet 2010 (Mas Martinet, D.O.Q. Priorat, Gratallops). Simply stunning, this wine offers a life experience in a bottle. Spicy nutmeg, sensual cherry, rich cassis. Vanilla, star anise, port, coffee roasting, candied almonds... And then there’s the rose perfume, plum preserves, and house-cured braesola. In the mouth the wine still levitates with complexity and modern fruit-concentration, but pulls gravity from the Old-World yeast, funk, and oak. The plush black fruits are ripe but not overblown, the minerals are sterling, and Sarah Perez’ winemaking is superlative. $130
I don’t know much about Meritxell Pallejá, but I do know her wine Nita is a beloved staple on our Priorat list, Gratallops to be exact. Her project has been committed to biodynamics since its inception in 2004, making her one of the pioneers. Nita is as affordable as it is delicious, with bouncy, vivid fruit that I always associated with female winemakers until I realized it had more to do with biodynamic winemaking than girl winemaking! It just so happens there are a lot of women believing in the power of that lunar calendar and the majesty of biodynamic grape-growing.
NITA 2013 (Embotellat a per Maritxell Palleja, D.O.Q.Priorat). Oh, these woman winemakers and their biodynamic beauty! This un-oaked (for real!) gem smacks of fresh berries – black, blue, & red. It is pure and arresting in the mouth as well, the very essence of wine. There is a hint of animal funk, a note of tar, & a ripe, wild strawberry glow in this well-knit together wine. Deep & lively. $45
I recently attended a tasting with Domenich Huber, winemaker and owner of Terroir al Limit wines. He has also transitioned to biodynamics for most of his vineyards, and I tasted how the elegant subtleties are now discernible in wines that just a few vintages ago were rich and ripe in that traditional Priorat way. We’ve offered his Torroja for several years now, and I immediately added his white called Terra de Cuques - Land of Fireflies- once I tasted its sublime fruits and felt its sensual texture. Domenich loves the way his wines are brighter and more food-friendly as he moved into the biodynamic camp. He treats each of his plots as individuals with distinct personalities, much as they do in Burgundy, and aims to make wines that are infused rather than extracted. Ironically enough he cited a study that bore out how years of pesticide and fertilizer use in that great appellation had indeed taken their toil on the earth, for a soil sample from the Sahara desert showed more microbial activity than one taken from Burgundy! (I love Burgundy wines, don’t get me wrong…) Here are the two very-much-alive wines from Domenich Huber:
Terra de Cuques 2013 (Terroir al Limit, D.O.Q. Priorat, Torroja). A sublime and sybarite white from Prioarat, lush with fresh fig, raw honey, pear, and metallic mineral aromas. It is round. Polished. Deep. Made like a red - infused, not extracted - Cuques is a firefly flash of un-oaked silk, with an interminable finish rich with blood orange, honeysuckle, lemon peel, and raw fascination. Made in cement with whole grape clusters and wild indigenous yeasts. $85
torroja Terroir al Limit 2013 (Terroir Al Limit, D.O.Q. Priorat, Torroja). Made from just the indigenous varietals of cariyena and garnatxa, this wine has the prototypical wealth of black raspberry and black cherry, but the elegance born of Domenich Huber’s evolution is palpable. Biodynamic practices have brought his wines to higher levels of grace, and the wines uplift one’s palate with their bright raspberry, dark apple, allspice, and graphite. Expressive and complex. $85
No discussion of biodynamics would be complete without mentioning Pares Balta in Penedés, dating back to the 1790’s. We often pour their bright and lovely whites and rosés by the glass, such as Blanc de Pacs and Ros de Pacs. At the helm of this progressive winery are two Cusiné brothers who married two enologists, and their commitment to the environment, as well as to outstanding wines in all price categories, is absolute.
Calcari 2014 (Pares Balta, D.O, Penedés, Barcelona). A bristling 100% xarel-lo with a character more mineral than fruit! Lovely notes of pear and white peach are subtle, and the sterling power of calcium, wet rocks, and stone dust are what give the wine meaning. Biodynamic. $35
Hisenda Miret Garnatxa 2007 (Pares Balta, Miret, D.O. Penedés). Made from 80-year old vines from a single, bio-dynamically-farmed vineyard (with sheep and everything!), this jammy vino smells of spiced strawberries, candied cherries, and chambord. In the mouth the berry preserves are infused with firewood and charcoal notes. Balanced acidity and a bit of oak. $65
Finally we leave Catalunya, the undisputed capitol of progressive thought, and arrive high up on Spain’s central plain, where the D.O. Ribera del Duero lies. Here the climate is blistering hot in summer and bitter cold (by Spanish standards!) in winter, the complete opposite of the milder Catalán climate. A progressive young threesome, Miguel Hornillos, Javier Ballesteros, and Cristina Hornillos, sister of Miguel and wife of Javier, owns and operates Hornillo Ballesteros, an excellent new winery (founded in 2002) committed to biodynamics. They make Mibal, a stellar example of pure Ribera del Duero terroir such as I’ve never tasted. The vivacity and depth of bright fruit flavors sings out the health of this beautiful vineyard. I visited 3 years ago and had my senses regaled. My eyes feasted upon the brilliant green vines dappled with intense crimson poppies and my nose took in, one at a time, the herbal preparations used to optimize the microbial life in their vineyards. You have no idea how sobering a whiff of horsetail infusion really is!
Mibal Tinto Joven 2013 (Hornillos Ballesteros, D.O. Ribera del Duero, Anguix, Burgos). This is biodynamic, unadulterated, tangy blue-purple juice that will thrill you with its purity. Fresh berries, Concord grape, sandalwood, and lavender breathe easy from your glass - you are in that garage of a winery, high up (850 m) in Ribera del Duero. The wine glows and blooms in the mouth with a uniquely exotic fruit and spice cornucopia, unencumbered by oak. $37
This concludes my Wine Love, dear servers. I hope this helps you to communicate to our guests the passion we have for yet another style of wine coming from Spain’s vastly diverse vineyards. A peek into something new is always an invigorating thing, and I thank you for letting me share this with you.
Next project: How to make my Living Will convey that I want to be treated in my old age as Rudolph Steiner and Ester Nin would treat a grapevine.
Appendix 1 The Biodynamic Preparations
A very brief overview
500 - a cow horn (for its porosity) is filled with manure and is buried in the earth for 10 months to ferment and intensify. This is added to the soil.
Note: This practice invites much mocking and joking, as misunderstood concepts often do. There is nothing magical nor superstitious involved here, rather years of tradition. When manure ferments in a porous vessel that allows for the exchange of microbes, its fertilizing capacities are multiplied exponentially.
501 - silica, to help with photosynthesis
502 - yarrow, an antioxidant to reduce toxic substances produced by some fungi
503 - chamomile, for its sulphur and calcium content, which prevents the development of defective microorganisms, and for its ability to encourage the growth of aerobic bacteria, which in turn stimulate yeasts.
504 - stinging nettle, to regulate iron and help the bacteria fix nitrogen
505 - oak bark, for its calcium and tannins which disinfect as well as stimulate bacterial growth.
506 - dandelion, which regulates light function as it is rich in silica (quartz) which attracts and reflects sunshine. It also multiples bacteria.
507 - valerian, for its wealth of phosphorous. It also nurtures worms and protects against late frosts in the spring.