For my foreign readers, I would like to share the original version of the interview I had the pleasure to do with Monty Waldin, about his concept of wine, the bio certification and the biodynamic wine in Italy. Enjoy! (click here for the Italian version)
What's wine for you?
Wine for me is food. It has always been food. When I am asked ‘what did you have for dinner’ I say “some solid food, and some liquid food meaning some wine.”
I worked in my first vineyard in Bordeaux in 1984, aged 17. I could not understand why so many wine-growers put so many unecessary chemicals on their land. They said “Bordeaux is the best place in the world to make red wine.” My conclusion was either Bordeaux was a really shit place to grow grapes, or the wine-growers were very bad at their job. They were spraying chemicals which damaged their soil, which made the grapes harder to ferment, and which made the wines lose their individuality. They were degrading their USP, the “Bordeauxness’ of their wines.
Some of the Bordeaux wine-growers even had organic vegetable gardens–just like my grandfather and my father did (I used to work in my father’s vegetable garden). These wine-growers did not used chemicals on their vegetables. So why did they use so many chemicals on the vines? It made no sense.
I kept going back to Bordeaux to learn how to make wine and discoverved biodynamics there in 1993 by accident. I tasted a wine with a unique texture, asked how it had been grown, and discovered it was “biodynamic”. I had never heard this word before so I started doing some research.
I started writing about wine, did some TV and radio for BBC, wrote some books and went to work on organic and biodynamic estates in France, Germany and California to learn more. I then did a few more books on biodynamic wine, a book on biodynamic gardening, a TV series called Chateau Monty about me making biodynamic wine in Roussillon in France, and I started consulting too (Germany, Argentina, Chile, England etc).
The hardest part about consulting is changing people’s mind-set. The wine-grower is paying you because they want to change. Your job as consultant is to allow them to see the work in the vineyard as something which will help them grow and develop as people, as farmers, as creatives (which is what wine-making is, you create each year something new) – and not as something which will be a hassle, which will be difficult, which will make them lose money or their pride in their work.
I do not believe you can convert a vineyard containing lots of weedkiller and other residues by spraying just two biodynamic sprays each year, or by “working by the moon”. Wine-growers who take this really lazy track often get poor results: poor grapes, poor wine and they give biodynamics a bad name.
I always start by getting growers to make lots of compost from high quality manure. This is complicated, time-consuming, costly, and logistically challenging and requires a high degree of expertise and commitment to get it right.
The first question anyone should ask a biodynamic wine-grower is “what is your composting regime”?, and not “do you prune by the moon?”. Anyone can prune by the moon, but not everyone has the will or the sensitivity to make good compost.
When I taste a famous “biodynamic” red wine from somewhere on the mediterranean coast which is very high in alcohol and lacks acidity, has over-ripe tannins and has a pH which is out of balance (too high) I am tasting wine from a soil which is too hot, which lacks humus, in which vines are stressing because like the soil they grow in they are out of balance: too many grapes, not enough leaves, weak roots. The sun is too strong, and the soil is too weak. The soil needs boosting with humus, humus being “the soil within the soil.” And humus formation is stimulated by worm-rich compost. And in the case of Biodynamics the compost also brings formative forces or processes to the soil which allows the vines to tune back in to lunar and seasonal cycles.
And when I taste a famous “biodynamic” white wine from a wetter climate further north on the Mediterranean coast which is dilute in flavour and aroma and has high green acidity I am again tasting a wine where the soil is also weak. The soil should be like a sponge which can process (soak up, drink) rainfall whilst also allowing mineralisation (the soil to digest food and give it to vines) and preventing the erosion of the soil and its minerals and worms.
This type of soil has become like a swimming pool.
The vine roots cannot work properly.
The vine produces too many grapes, too many leaves, unripe flavours, unripe acids.
Treat your vineyard like you would treat your vegetable garden. Have a biodiverse mix of plants, top the soil up with high quality biodynamic compost every so often, allow plants the right balance of heat and light and water and earth. Then you will enjoy the food that you grow and eat for dinner: wine as food, and food as wine.
Your definition of Biodynamics?
Easy. Biodynamics is a way of creating food and wine which stimulates both body and spirit by creating as far as possible a farm or vineyard which is a self-sustaining living organism whereby the farmer must try to put more tangible substances (minerals, humus, organic matter, worms) and intangible formative forces or processes into the land and crops than s/he takes out.
What about bio certification?
I see no disadvantages regarding certification, either for wine producers or for wine drinkers.
Wine producers who complain about the costs of certification–fees and extra paperwork–are happy to pay fees and complete extra paperwork when declaring their wines as DOC or DOCG. Even to label wines as IGT or Vino da Tavola requires paperwork and cost.
If you can’t be bothered to get certified organic/biodynamic, don’t bother making wine. When I get in an aeroplane I want the pilot to say “I have a licence to fly the plane and every so often I am checked to make sure my eyesight is OK, that I am a good pilot, and I know the rules of aviation,”. I do not want to get in a plane flown by a pilot who says “look, I don’t have a pilot’s licence but you have to trust me when I say I know how to fly this plane…”.
Also, wine importers and government monopolies (Canada, Scandinavia) want certification, documentation. Do some wine producers cheat with organics/biodynamics by spraying banned products?
Yes, but they eventually get caught via soil or wine analysis.
Organic and biodynamic certification means you have to record everything. It can be a good way of helping wine producers really see what products they are spraying, how much of it they are spraying, when–and whether or not it worked. It’s like doing a business plan: where can I save money (by spraying less) and improve quality (by spraying better)?
For many producers the calculation of changing from “chemical” wine-growing to bio wine-growing will be this: “I need to accept organics/Biodynamics will give me lower yields of grapes/wine. I will also have to pay for certification. But, I will save some money on sprays. However, any savings I make I will have to spend on employing more human labour in the vines because with organics there is no second chance if something goes wrong with the health of the vines or grapes. The idea is always therefore ‘prevention rather than cure’. So I will spend more money but my wines will be easier to ferment because their pH/acid/sugar/alcohol levels will become more balanced. And my wines will age better. And people and bees who live near to or who work in my vineyards will be happier that I am not spraying products like fertilizers and pesticides which were developed as a direct result of bomb-making and nerve gas technologies developed during the First World War.”
How do you see Italian Wine today?
Optimisitic, but I am a natural optimist. In terms of the average quality of biodynamic wine in Italy I have to be honest. There are some very, very good producers–I am not going to name names–but there are too many wines which taste of dirty winemaking, dirty barrels, lacking fruit, interest, typicity and ripeness. If you don’t believe me go to Austria and meet the biodynamic producers there, ask them how they work in the vineyard and in the cellar and taste their wines. Then go to New Zealand, to regions like Marlborough, Martinborough, Gisborne, and Otago and do the same thing. Then go to Alsace in France which is like a mini-Austria: lots of young winemakers who are very connected with their wines and who work in wineries which are clean but not sterile and who use wood, steel, stone tanks, and amphora. Then go to the Loire, Roussillon, southern Burgundy (Maconnais), Jurançon in south west France. In all these places I find wines with inner vitality, ripeness and crystalline clairity. In Italy my impression sometimes is like being in Germany in the mid-1990s, where biodynamics was about “the process”, how biodynamic you were and not about making a high quality food product. The “guru” consultants in France held biodynamics back, and this is sometimes the case in Italy. France had a new generation of consultants who emerged in the early 1990s. In Germany and Austria it took until the late 1990s/early 2000s. In Italy a new wave of consultants has only recently emerged.
Italy has a strong and developing “natural” wine counter-culture (as does France). But Italy is behind France in terms of biodynamics in wine at the highest level. How many Italian estates are 100% biodynamic in Barolo, Barbaresco, Bolgheri, Brunello? How many are biodynamic like Bonterra in California or Cullen in Australia or Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux? OK, these estates are famous, they have lots of money, they can afford to pay for horses to work the wines you will say. They are rich, we are not….etc etc.
Fine, lets go down a price level or two. Which Italian biodynamic estates are making red or dry white wines at the level of say Matassa in Roussillon or dry white wines like Bret Brothers in southern Burgundy or Ganevat in the Jura or from aromatic and semi-aromatic grapes like dozens and dozens of growers in Alsace or from horse ploughed vines like Bellahsen in the Midi or from heritage grape varieties like Comte Abbatucci in Corsica or Sauvignon Blanc like Alexandre Bain in Pouilly Fumé? The key to these wines is their saltiness. They taste ripe, clear, clean and saline. They come from hot climates but are light like ballerinas. They shine, they are brilliant, they make you want to take another sip. That is what you should be aiming for. You have some producers doing this, but you could have so many more. It will be exciting to see how things develop over the next few years.