Naturally sustainable.

On biodynamics, spontaneous fermentation and Authenticity.

By Lynne Sherriff, Master of Wine, Grait Britain

I remember as though it were yesterday, the first time I drove over the Reschen Pass heading for the city of Merano in Alto Adige and then before descending towards the city, stopping to take in the breath-taking scenery of the vineyards and orchards below me, framed by majestic mountains on either side of the valley floor. I was an impoverished oenology student in Weinsberg and I remember exclaiming to my fellow student, himself a Suedtiroler, that most certainly if Paradise had intended to be on earth, it would have to be here. That overwhelming feeling of awe and yet familiarity in the presence of nature quite so spectacular still occurs for me on each new visit to this valley. Thankfully there have been numerous ones.

Sitting on a hillside in the vine-yards around the Lake of Kaltern with a superb picnic and a delicious glass of wine, one absorbs nature and is forced to pose the question – what are we doing to preserve the environment for posterity in these fragile times? The extent to which certain producers and vignerons are asking themselves this question was evident in an international conference held on climate change relevant to the global wine industry, in Barcelona in 2008. Indeed organic and bio-dynamic production and the carbon footprint of wine were the central themes of the conference, issues growing in importance to the aware consumer.

Authenticity. One can scarcely open a newspaper or watch a television broadcast today without some reference to food, wine, environment and health issues. There is a tangible groundswell created by wine lovers and consumers globally asking the multi-million dollar questions around authenticity, the age-old terroir concept and indeed – how do we preserve the planet and get back to nature? In order to begin answering these questions, one looks at the producers who have turned their backs on modern wine-growing techniques and have adopted an age-old philosophy of growing and producing their wines to reflect a sense of place. This is not the easiest philosophy to follow, as it involves many challenges, a steadfast degree of patience and clearly, achieving the sustainable path involves a long term vision and commitment. The visionaries committed to these methods of production seek to create conditions in which the vine and the wine are brought back into balance.

The path to long-term sustainability can probably only be achieved rhrough organic and biodynamic viticulture. Michael Count Goëss-Enzenberg and his wife Countess Sophie at Manincor on the Lake of Kaltern, have been committed to biodynamics since 2006, following a complete re-establishment of their estate in 1996. Their philosophy is based on a dedication to the forces of nature and also a belief that Manincor wines show more character and self-reflection when respect for the soil and the environment are the corner-stones of vineyard and wine-making practices.

Historically, producers utilizing these methods were proclaimed crazy, but today winegrowers from around the world study and practise biodynamics, which in layman’s terms is in effect a supercharged system of organic farming. So much of it makes common sense. Examples include:
– Re-cycling of organic waste for compost.
– Banning the use of agro-chemicals.
– Manual plowing of the soil to break up superficial roots and encourage the vines to sink their roots deeper.
– Installation of renewable energy systems eg geothermic energy and the use of estate grown wood for heating purposes for the winery.
– Creating catchment areas for rain water to be used in the cellar.
– Recycling used-water units to reintroduce clean water in the soil.

Spontaneous fermentation. Another controversial aspect involved in creating wines with a sense of place is the question of spontaneous fermentation versus added yeast application. A recent visit to New Zealand permitted me to witness a heated debate between several Sauvignon Blanc producers with diametrically opposed views. Proponents of spontaneous ferments maintained that the mouthfeel of the wines was far superior to those of inoculation and used descriptive terms such as softer creamier and more complex. It is possible that the added complexity might be ascribed to the heterogeneous character of the natural yeast flora on the grape. Opponents maintained that there was more choice and varying characters amongst inoculated yeasts and indeed more consistency. One possible solution to this debate might be to ferment grapes from the same site, in the same cellar temperature and conditions and then conduct a blind tasting to evaluate the results.

In the spirit of pursuing its ideal of a sense of place, Manincor has been practising spontaneous fermentation since 1999. In addition to this, they also use barriques produced from oak grown on the estate. Michael and Sophie’s wine vocabulary is peppered with descriptions such as pure, authentic, fine, natural and true to identity. Not surprising that they have chosen this route for their wine production.

A very old and wise philosopher once said: “Take from the past all that is wise and meaningful and build your future on it”. Manincor has recognised and adopted this piece of wisdom and tries faithfully to implement it on a daily basis.

As a Master of Wine, Lynne Sherriff belongs to an elite circle of wine experts. She has been Vice Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine since September 2008. Originally from South Africa she now lives in London and is in demand all over the world as a wine consultant.