Andrew Jefford Debunks Myths about Biodynamically Grown and Chemically Free Artisanal Products

By | 23 February 2024

Are you prepared to partake? Presented from this perspective, probably not. Yet, all I’ve done is invite you to my humble kitchen table and serve you a £8,905 fill (7.5cl) of 2008 Domaine Leroy Musigny. While I’ve been honest, I may not have been detailed enough. Your suspicion is warranted as my description may have easily been about a harmful substance.

Now, you take a cautious whiff and a gentle sip of theBurgundy – decanted meticulously into an elegant, hand-blown crystal – possibly a magnificent experience, though I can’t personally attest. What a relief! Grown using biodynamic methods, crafted by true artisans, and gloriously devoid of chemicals.

However, that is a misunderstanding. As previously stated, it comprises numerous chemical compounds: Water, ethanol, glycerol, acids, polyphenols, polysaccharides – they all embody chemical compounds or families of compounds. Science of matter, its properties and interactions – chemistry – continually surrounds us. The domain of organic chemistry elucidates life itself. However, the vastness and intricate nomenclature associated with this subject generate fear, compelling us to retreat.

We claim to desire ‘chemical-free wine’, forgetting that wine itself is a combination of chemical compounds. Sodium chloride, otherwise known as salt, is essential and widely trusted to season our meals, yet our alarm bells start ringing hearing its scientific name. We are fascinated by the sharpness in an classy MoselRiesling. However, we look disparagingly at E334 in desserts, jams, jellies, and candies (It’s tartaric acid, the primary and crucial acid in wine). The harmful impact of Carbon Dioxide (or its atmospheric surplus) is well-known, yet, when it’s found effervescing inChampagne, Coke, or Perrier or seeping lowly across a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ stage (all 250kg of it) as dry ice, it is overlooked. Nobody desires vineyards in June stinking of copper sulphate, yet we are thankful for the traditional Bordeaux mixture that enables organic wine-cultivators to resist fungal diseases. (Bordeaux mixture constitutes copper sulphate combined with quicklime.) Should sulfur dioxide, believed to be harmful, be kept out of wine? On the other hand, a handful of dried apricots makes for a healthy, antioxidant-laden snack – eight dried apricots could contain up to double the SO2 found in an average bottle of red wine. Additionally, sulfur dioxide naturally occurs as a fermentation by-product.

‘I don’t mind nature’s chemistry,’ you reply; ‘I just want the chemistry to stop there. I’m going to drink wine, to take it into my body, so I want it to be pure and natural.’ Never been ill, then? Most of the drugs that keep our bodies healthy are synthetic chemical substances. One day, synthetic chemicals in your body are going to save or prolong your life.

The problem is not chemistry, but its misuse. As wine consumers, we would be best placed to assess this misuse by engaging with the subject rationally rather than hysterically.

It may be that (resources allowing) biodynamics is the best way to nurture a high-quality vineyard. If so, there will be sound biochemical reasons for that. Resorting to picturesque explanations sets our thinking back, unless these are expressly couched as poetry (a beautiful truth beyond reason).

The addition of chemical compounds (SO2, say) to a complex mixture of chemical compounds (like wine) strikes me as a neutral act. If they disfigure wine, as misguided additions do, they constitute misuse. If they permit wine’s finest sensual qualities to emerge with maximum clarity, or extend wine’s life (which nature intends to be short and sour), they are used well. The difference is best called calmly, using our noses, mouths and digestive systems.

The deadliest compound in wine is ethanol, a component that humans have been drawn to for around 9,000 years. It’s ethanol that enlivens wine, unites wine drinkers, and allows spectacular wines like Musigny to captivate. Grasping ‘the central science’, the bridge between the physical universe and living organisms, is critical for comprehension. Wine chemistry merits a more positive reputation.

Regrettably, no Leroy Musigny, but there are more fish in the sea. Here’s a wine that is as thrilling in taste as it is in appearance: Australia’s Hugh Hamilton’s Oddball Saperavi 2019. I adore this Georgian grape variety, the best teinturier (a red grape with red juice) in the world, and the Hamilton family’s interpretation from McLaren Vale captures its overflowing black fruit thrill, vitality and exuberance. If Georgia’s Saperavi tannins are too intense for you, give Oddball a shot. Plenty of texture – but engrossed by the shining gloss of fruit.

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