Salty wine may sound wrong, but it tastes great
Biodynamic wine has an intriguing minerality, finds our wine correspondent
Waiter, there’s salt in my wine! No-one, I wager, has ever heard that complaint in a restaurant. But as I listened to some of France’s most committed vignerons, the S word appeared more and more in an entirely favourable context.
The subject of the animated discussion and accompanying tasting was minerality in wine – a quality which means different things to different palates. But, for those members of Biodyvin, it generally came back to a detectable saltiness and, after experiencing a number of the wines they poured, I could taste what they were getting at.
Biodyvin is a grouping of growers who commit to biodynamic practices. If you haven’t studied the theories of Rudolf Steiner and his disciple Maria Thun, the essence is a method of cultivation – way beyond organic principles – which follows the solar and lunar cycles, even the movement of planets, and requires the treatment of the vines with specific preparations, in homeopathic quantities, based on manure and silica. Herbal “teas” are applied to repulse disease or parasites and the soil must be regularly tilled, ideally by horse-drawn plough.
It sounds extreme, even swerving towards the ridiculous, but I’ve seen very sceptical vignerons convinced by the happy condition of their vines and I’ve drunk some very fine biodynamic wines.
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So do they represent, literally, the salt of the earth? It’s a fine line between appealing mineral salinity and green, unripe flavours – though there may well be a direct link between biodynamic cultivation and lower acid levels in wines.
Olivier Humbrecht, president of Biodyvin and the man responsible for the much-lauded wines of Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, had a very simple explanation for taking the biodynamic route: “To make better wines.”
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He doesn’t look the child of the earth or flower power type, more the burly rugby player. He’s eloquent on the science behind identifying minerality in wine (all to do with dry extract and far too complicated to attempt to explain here) and reasonable in what reaction he expects from wine drinkers.
“What is minerality for most people? It’s not fruity or floral. It doesn’t smell. But it will taste and modify wine,” he said. And that’s where salinity came in, as he instanced how salt in caramel or butter emphasised flavour. In wine, too, it could play a flavour-enhancing role – but with restraint.
(A strange co-incidence now, as I write. I’ve just been poured a glass of rather good soave, which seems to have a salty edge. Thought association?)
The result, added Humbrecht, is a wine “you want to drink another glass of – to finish up the bottle”.
That was my reaction to almost every one of the eight wines at the tasting, presented by their enthusiastic yet seemingly sensible growers. There was certainly some salinity but much more as well – some great, fragrant aromas, splendidly pure fruit, concentrated lingering length. When I ran out of reasoned notes, the words wow and yum appeared. Case made.
Too many of the wines poured on that occasion aren’t yet available in the UK. So where to find “salty” wines? Berry Bros & Rudd and The Wine Society both have a good range from Zind-Humbrecht and the fine southern Rhone wines of Montirius are also at BBR.
Otherwise, Les Caves de Pyrene – that extraordinarily rich source of organic, natural and sometimes way-out quirky wines – is one of the best places. You don’t need to go to the shop on the outskirts of Guildford, simply download the list (www.lescaves.co.uk) then phone 01483 554750 for prices and delivery. The choice of wines is huge so here are just three recommended names to look out for: Olivier Pithon (Roussillon), Roches Neuves (Loire) and Saint Nicolas (Vend�e).
After I’d completed this column, BBR issued its summary of sales in 2011. Sadly, and strangely, biodynamic (and organic) wines dived.