An unfortunate opportunity for misdirection, or, lack of evidence to support a biodynamic tasting calendar

A group of New Zealand sensory scientists have just published an article entitled “Expectation or sensorial reality? An empirical investigation of the biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers” with the open-access journal PLoS One. Without any offense whatsoever to the researchers, this is a bad paper, not because of how the research has been done, but because of how easily it’s likely to be misunderstood.

The study’s question was whether tasting wine on a fruit versus a root day, as determined by a biodynamic tasting calendar, affects how the wine tastes. The study’s method was to have 19* wine experts tasteT the same 12 New Zealand pinot noirs on a root day and again on a fruit day (or a fruit day and again on a root day; half of the tasters followed each order), scoring each wine (a few times over, for statistical consistency) as “low” to “intense” on each of twenty factors like “sweetness,” “tannins,” “expressiveness,” and “overall structure.”

The study’s conclusion was that the difference between fruit and root days made no difference to how tasters perceived pinot noirs in any way. That’s unsurprising for two reasons – that the idea of a biodynamic tasting calendar is hogwash, and that biodynamics is a spiritual system that can’t for the most part be relevantly tested by reductionist scientific means – but that’s not my main point.

My main point is that this paper is far too likely to be taken as empirical evidence that biodynamics is a load of nonsense, even though that’s not what the paper says. The paper says that perceptions of what’s in a bottle don’t systematically change between days categorized in a particular way by a calendar devised by Maria and Matthias Thun in 2010. Information about how they devised this calendar is difficult to find online, though I admittedly didn’t try very hard.

The question doesn’t address a core principle or practice of biodynamic agriculture. All the same, it’s far too likely to be inappropriately co-opted to support the “biodynamics doesn’t work when put to the empirical scientific test” argument even though the paper doesn’t support that argument. This danger of inadvertent misapprehension (or deliberate misapplication) is worse because of the relatively few peer-reviewed scientific papers published about biodynamics, which means that this one will get a relatively larger share of attention now and in future reviews than it would otherwise. Moreover, PLoS One is a generalist journal, and so this paper will be read by a lot of people who don’t know enough about biodynamics or wine to clearly distinguish biodynamic-guided tasting from biodynamic agriculture. That’s unfortunate. 

About those two reasons why this article’s findings are unsurprising. The first is that the idea that wine tastes different depending on astral movements just doesn’t cohere with, and indeed is contradicted by, enough other forms of knowledge to give it any credence. Bottled wine changes over time – call it “alive, “if you’d like – but over months and years, not days. And even without attacking biodynamics as a knowledge system, we have a lot of reasons to believe that astral movements don’t affect day-to-day life on earth.**

The second is that biodynamics is a “spiritual” system, which is to say that its efficacy is at least in some ways tied up with belief and personal development. Biodynamics treats the farm as a coherent ecosystem or “single, self-sustaining unit,” of which the farmer is a part. By that biodynamic logic, it makes sense that the caring, positive, trusting farmer is part of the efficacy of biodynamics on a farm, and that removing that person – or, indeed, isolating any one element in the biodynamic system away from the rest for the purposes of a controlled scientific trial – will disrupt the system.

All of that applies to biodynamic agricultural practices which, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think make a good deal of sense for the same reasons that following strange diets often benefits the dieter: in paying caring, positive attention to what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it better. Call it the placebo effect, though thinking about the farm as an ecosystem affected by everything you put into it and a living thing deserving of care is more than just the power of positive thinking; that’s good environmental stewardship. I can’t say the same about the biodynamic tasting calendar.

Of course, the placebo effect usually isn’t a bad thing, either. If opening your favorite bottles on fruit days helps you enjoy your wine more, who am I to say that you shouldn’t enjoy your wine? Just don’t use this new research as a reason why you (or, heaven forbid, someone else) shouldn’t enjoy a biodynamic one.

 

*Which makes you wonder what was wrong with the twentieth person’s data, or whether someone came down with a cold or had to go home to clean up an overflowing toilet.

**Beyond things like the psychological and sociological influence of full versus new moons, for example, which is a different matter and an important point, given how human psychological influences can ramify.

Indigenous yeast in Sauternes, multi-species family wineries, and Casale’s Trebbiano orange wine

A group of French scientists, mostly based in Bordeaux, have recently published evidence* that the same Saccharomyces cerevisiae populations have lived at their winemaking homes in Sauternes for at least 23 years.** Two decades is a brief moment, whether you’re measuring in human-history-of-Sauternes time or in yeast-evolution time, but their work still supports the idea that yeast populations become associated with wineries and stick to them.

A main point the scientists aim to make is that these longstanding, tradition-following Sauternes estates haven’t been badly polluted by modern, commercial winemaking yeasts. Only seven percent of the S. cerevisiae strains they collected could be clearly connected to specific commercially produced strains. This news is excellent for those in the natural wine camp who want to call spontaneous ferments “natural” or “wild.” In this little corner of Sauternes, at least, it seems that wines allowed to ferment spontaneously aren’t just being fermented by commercial yeasts persistent in the environment. Most of the work of fermentation is indeed being done by yeasts which very likely existed in the area prior to Lallemand and the rest introducing their tidy little foil packets of active dried specimens.

A good case can be made, I’d argue, for calling those non-commercial yeast something like “domesticated indigenous” rather than “wild:” human winemakers have selected and bred them up for desirable winemaking characteristics over many generations, just as human dog-keepers have bred up select canine features or orchid aficionados have carefully developed new plants. Domestication can happen even if living things are never bought and sold.

Regardless of what we choose to call these yeast species, though, this sort of research says that those species are part of the traditional winemaking environment, part of the terroir. Terroir is apt because that complex term incorporates human traditions and activities, the way winemakers and the rest of the community have shaped the land and its various characteristics: soil, plant life, microbial life, architecture, machinery, maybe some canines. Terroir doesn’t force us to make a choice between those winery-associated yeasts being wild or cultivated. They’re both, and winemakers and winemaking have evolved with them.

The Casale orange trebbiano*** I opened last night is made by a winery with whose winemaking history in their neck of Chianti can be traced back to 1770. The wine itself is a 2012 vintage and the current release, kept on the skins for 30 days and in stainless steel for two years. The property is biodynamic, the wine spontaneously fermented.

Even if the mid-palate is fairly empty, the nose and the finish are more than enough to rescue that deficiency: savory, nutty, sweetly orange blossomy and honeyed up front all at once, and acidity with great energy and tension (minerality, if you wish) on the tail, with a pleasant light astrigency across the breadth of the middle. This isn’t just a wine for thinking with, and I’d readily pour it for anyone who thinks that all biodynamic orange wines must smell like hair salons and taste like dirt, because it doesn’t. But it’s a beautiful example of a wine good both for drinking and for thinking, that tastes pleasant and nourishing and that provokes pleasant and nourishing trains of thought.

When we care about family wineries – for the purely aesthetic value of tradition as well as the economic value of maintaining local businesses and the winemaking value of passing down knowledge and physical infrastructure – we should care about the extended family, not just the humans but the yeast (and maybe even other species) who have also lived on a winemaking property for generations, who make the wine with their human coworkers. Taking care of the family can’t be just about loving your brothers, or even about supporting the other families who might work with you, but about caring for your non-human brothers and coworkers. Now, that’s a pleasant and nourishing train of thought.

*Full text of the article behind an academic journal’s paywall, unfortunately.

**A bit more detail on that point: the team collected samples from three Sauternes estates over 2012, 2013, and 2014, isolating 653 individual yeast strains, and compared them to commercial strains and to 102 “library” isolates collected from one of the three estates between 4 and 23 years ago. The comparisons to determine which strains are related to which other strains rely on 15 “microsatellites,” or specific, small sections of DNA the sequence of which is highly and characteristically variable amongst strains. Much could be said about how we define what constitutes an individual “strain” on the basis of the tools we have available to do so – appearance (phenotype, in biology jargon) in the past, genetic today – but I’ll forgo that conversation for today.

***Purchased for £15.50 from Wood Winters in Edinburgh.

Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

A six-year comparison of organic, biodynamic, and “low-input” and “high-input” viticulture (three years of conversion, three of maintenance) recently came to fruition in South Australia, courtesy of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The full report is freely available here (and three cheers for research freely shared). It’s 73 pages long, but the conclusions are fairly simple. The most worthwhile among them: in blind trials, experienced wine professionals rated the organic and biodynamic wines more interesting than the conventional versions.

  • Soil health (nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, microbe mass) was most strongly improved by compost, not by any particular management system. All four systems were tested with and without compost.
  • Compost had the single most dramatic positive effect on soil health, no matter the underlying management system.
  • Management system had no consistent effect on vine growth, berry weight, or berry composition.
  • Low-input, organic, and biodynamic alternatives yielded at 91%, 79%, and 70%, respectively, of the high-input condition.
  • Organic and biodynamic wines were more “textural, rich, vibrant, and spicy” than their conventional counterparts. (pH, TA, and color held constant; high-input wines were a bit higher in alcohol.)

Improved soil health with organic/biodynamic management has been demonstrated numerous times over, and so have the benefits of compost. This study was unusual in making compost a separate variable, showing that both organics/biodynamics and compost, separately, were beneficial. The upside here is the attitude, across the study, that conventional growers can benefit from organic techniques even without undertaking a full-on organic conversion.

The downside is that the “organic” and “biodynamic” management used in the comparison are weak compared with what many committed non-conventional growers undertake. How can you practice biodynamics without compost? “Biodynamic” here seems to have meant nothing more than adding the core preparations 500 and 501, a far, far cry from anything Demeter would certify as honest biodynamics. Even the organic system is pretty bare bones: weed control with mowing and cultivation instead of herbicides; no insecticides or pesticides other than copper. (The low-input condition pulled back on the insecticides and some of the pesticides.)

Talking about those lower yields, the researchers make an important point. Very little research has been done on organic or biodynamic cultivation methods. We could develop better techniques within those systems and preserve environment and fruit quality while improving yields. Many organic/biodynamic growers have surely worked out such techniques on a local scale, which leaves a role for scientists to listen to what they’re doing, identify why it works and how/whether it can be generalized more broadly. Some environmentally conscious wine people are happy to pour their big pharma money (or whatever it might be) into projects they believe in with no thought for financial return, but most are trying to support their families as well as their values. Sharing successful organic/biodynamic techniques — say, for weed management, which was the biggest issue in this study — developing them scientifically, and stamping them with a scientific seal of approval so that they’re not dismissed as just those quacky organic people, will help conventional growers improve their weed management tactics, too. Likely, too, with economic benefits you can appreciate even if you honestly don’t care about trashing the environment for short-term gains.

The researchers should have made another point about those yields. Are the high-input yields a reasonable benchmark? Should we buy short-term gains with long-term environmental and social damage? If your business isn’t “sustainable” without using chemical warfare to eke every last grape out of the earth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your business practices in other areas. It comes back to the old resurrecting dinosaurs argument. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean we should. The wine might even be more interesting.