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Fruit Days? Maybe in the Vineyard

But not in the glass, says a study testing the biodynamic calendar
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 18, 2017 12:32pm ET

Decades ago, when I first started to visit wineries, a Burgundian pointed to the sky on a rainy day and opined that it was a terrible time to taste his wines. Low atmospheric pressure, he assured me, muted the flavors of the wines.

Rain showers darkened the horizon as I sat down to taste through a lineup of recent and older vintages at Cullen Wines in Western Australia last year with Vanya Cullen, a winegrower celebrated for her devotion to biodynamics. Her worry was not about the rain, though. "It's not a fruit day," she shrugged.

Fruit day? One aspect of biodynamics synchronizes viticultural activities with a calendar that uses the lunar cycle to determine the best days for "roots," "leaves," "flowers" and "fruit." Maria Thun, whom many considered the authority on biodynamics, wrote that the calendar also applied to tasting wine. Many biodynamic vintners follow her notion that the best days to taste wine are fruit days, and that root days are the worst.

Scientists from New Zealand, Australia and Burgundy recently put that notion to the test. Led by Dr. Wendy Parr at the Centre of Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University in New Zealand, the study found that the day wine tastings were conducted made no difference in how the wines were perceived by experts in a blind tasting. "Expectation or Sensorial Reality? An Empirical Investigation of the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers," published in early January, outlined the methods and the results.

Reaction has been mixed. Biodynamic skeptics applauded. Biodynamic believers insisted that the study was flawed (Barolos or Bordeauxs would have been more sensitive to the lunar cycle than Pinot Noirs, one said), or that the tasting calendar was not all that important, anyway.

Let's be clear. Generalizing about biodynamics from a study debunking a related "tasting calendar" is akin to passing judgment on a baseball team by analyzing the food sold in its stadium.

A lot about biodynamic agriculture can strike a rigorous mind as hooey. All that burying of cowhorns and extensive dilution of preparations seems like pseudoscience run amok, but you can't argue with the wines. Many of the world's finest come from winegrowers who religiously employ biodynamics, and in many cases their wines got better when they converted. And, in my experience, that seems to hold on whatever day you happen to open a bottle.

My take? Biodynamics' chief value comes from forcing growers to pay extensive and obsessive attention to every vine in every corner of their vineyards. Of course the resulting wines are better.

That was certainly the case at Cullen, where my notes reflect one terrific wine after another, expressive and finely detailed. If that was what they tasted like on a root day, would they have blown my mind on a fruit day? Maybe. But I'm not going to worry about it.

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