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Open Your Mind If You're Tasting Biodynamic Wine

L-R: Domaine Leflaive's wines are biodynamically produced; Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne's book; horse power at Leflaive
© Domaine Leflaive/Floris Books | L-R: Domaine Leflaive's wines are biodynamically produced; Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne's book; horse power at Leflaive
In this extract from "What's So Special About Biodynamic Wine," Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne, assistant director at Domaine Leflaive, suggests that tasting such wines requires an alternative approach.

"A biodynamic grower seeks to produce the most living wine possible. For me, living expresses the opposite of standardised. Using this hypothesis, each tasting is a unique experience, where a special connection is created between the wine taster and the wine.

In the standardised view, each wine is analysed and described in a structured way. It is the realm of the left side of the brain. It is the view of wine-tasting experts who tell you what you should smell and detect when you taste a wine. It is the style of books that categorise wines as: ‘Meursault tastes like this, Puligny like that ...’ It is the approach of wine critics who allocate rankings in the form of scores out of one hundred. It is a perspective on wine that has developed rapidly since the 1980s, primarily under Anglo-Saxon influence. Since then it has taken on much importance, but has now reached its limits. Indeed, this view can be applied naturally to standardised wines, corrected by modern oenology in order to obtain the best tasting scores (at the risk of mummifying them ...), but not at all to biodynamic wines. You should be aware that standardised tasting has not always been the norm. In the Middle Ages, for example, the gourmets-experts practised a completely different style of tasting that Jacky Rigaux explores in an excellent work: La dégustation géo-sensorielle (Éditions Terres en Vues, not yet available in English).

In contrast, the living view is the right brain’s domain. It places all importance on the relationship, the unique character of the wine, the wine taster and the moment. Far from attachment to general and simplifying norms, the truth is relative, rich yet subjective, as it is based on the feelings of the taster. This point of view teaches us to taste less intellectually and to leave more room for feelings. In this regard, ‘taste and feel the wine’ is the title of a course developed in 2011 at the École du Vin et des Terroirs in Puligny-Montrachet. A few simple experiments are proposed, such as tasting blindfolded which helps to keep one’s intellect quiet. The main idea is to be more conscious of the sensations felt by the entire body, which give a much more profound perception of the wine than a simple sequential description of aromas. However, this kind of less ‘mental’ perception is also more difficult to put into words.

Ideally, of course, everyone would fully use both approaches, the right brain and the left brain. I try to do this. After my engineering studies, solidly structured by huge doses of mathematics, physics and chemistry, I also developed my feelings through tasting, manual labour and the practice of biodynamics.

How can you in practice foster the relationship between a wine and a wine taster? It can be done quite simply by putting both of them in the best possible setting. For the wine, it is essential to create serving conditions that will allow the wine to express itself. Time plays an important role. You must take the time to taste. I am not very keen on decanting which is sometimes too aggressive. Rather, I would advise you to taste the wine after opening the bottle, to leave it for a while at cellar temperature, thirty minutes to three hours, then to come back to it. For the wine taster, it is important to be relaxed and free, without external stress. This most likely seems obvious to you because it is perhaps how you already approach tastings with friends. You should know nonetheless that these conditions are rarely in place during professional whirlwind tastings.

L-R: Checking the progress of a wine at Domaine Leflaive; the estate's premier cru Clavoillon vineyard
© Domaine Leflaive | L-R: Checking the progress of a wine at Domaine Leflaive; the estate's premier cru Clavoillon vineyard

A particularly interesting point involves the role of the wine glass as an intermediary between the wine and the wine taster. Numerous oenologists have become interested in the question regarding glass forms and you will find an abundance of different sizes and shapes on the market, all adapted to each specific type of wine: white or red, sweet wines, Bordeaux or Burgundy, young or mature ... However, very few modern manufacturers have really studied the role of the material itself. Yet, it is the nature of the material which gives the glass its filtering properties or, in contrast, its ability to transmit information from the wine to the taster.

On this subject I remember a tasting which took place in December 2009 with Bruno Quenioux at the École du Vin et des Terroirs. Among other experiments, we tasted a wine served in two different glasses. One was the Expert model from Spiegelau: tall, modern and versatile. The other one was a Baccarat model designed by Bruno Quenioux in the 1990s: small, traditional in form, made of hand blown, very clear crystal. The wine was a red Domaine de Villeneuve 2004, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape produced biodynamically. In the first glass (Spiegelau), the wine seemed powerful, full-bodied, earthy, yet excessively so. It was even a bit heavy and nearly rustic. I did not enjoy it because of its lack of elegance. In the second glass (Baccarat), the aromas were slightly less powerful, and above all, the palate still displayed some earthiness, but the rusticity gave way to a beautiful transparency, pure and crystalline, which I had not noticed at all in the first glass. I much preferred the second glass, where I was able to identify the qualities of a biodynamic wine from a great terroir.

This anecdote is to make you aware that modern glasses, called oenological, have qualities that primarily concern olfactive analysis and often speak to the left brain. However, glasses from past centuries made of clear crystal (or perhaps even tastevins made of precious metals such as silver or gold), despite their rather inappropriate form hardly conducive to the aromas, certainly facilitated this subtle link between human beings and wine.

‘Tasting has an escape value comparable to that of other arts. In this regard it is a source of culture as it teaches discrimination, assures judgment and reconciles us with the natural world’, wrote Max Léglise. Living, biodynamic wine allows us to once again experience such tasting which might otherwise have disappeared with the proliferation of standardised wines.

L-R: Racking chardonnay off its lees; tying down the canes in Domaine Leflaive's Les Pucelles vineyard
© Domaine Leflaive | L-R: Racking chardonnay off its lees; tying down the canes in Domaine Leflaive's Les Pucelles vineyard

I have just told you that in order to better taste a wine, it is important to be more conscious of bodily sensations felt while tasting. What does this mean? We usually learn to taste with our five senses. They provide us with clear, easy to analyse information. Sight, for example, teaches us about colour, touch, about the viscosity or texture of tannins, and taste, about acidity, bitterness, sweetness, and saltiness. The sense of smell alone is sometimes a bit more complex to analyse.

Yet you can go further and feel the effect of wine more generally in other parts of the body. You might feel, for example, the sensation of a wine ‘going to the head’, or, the opposite, ‘going deep down into the stomach’, or even, ‘giving shivers down the spine’. A certain wine can make me feel lighter, more ‘airy’, as if I were flying. Some other wine will give me the feeling of being heavier, more anchored in the ground.

From an even more holistic perspective, some images can come to mind without going through an analysis of particular feelings. For example, ‘a blazing summer afternoon under the sun on a Greek island’, or even, ‘a morning walk through the forest in autumn’. These images illustrate a feeling taken as a whole, which can be very complex although it does not go through the intellectualisation process. For me, it is at this level that Max Léglise’s observations make complete sense. Only then does tasting match up to the other arts..."

* "What's so Special about Biodynamic Wine?: Thirty-Five Questions & Answers for Wine Lovers," by Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne, is published by Floris Books at $19.95 and in eBook editions.

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  • Comments

    Dario de Colinas wrote:
    22-Nov-2013 at 18:36:55 (GMT)

    Wow! What a bunch of BS. I can see nothing in this article that separates tasting a BioD wine from any other wine. They are all good suggestions for being open to the flavors and aromas that come from the glass. Outside of that it is just another example of how to disenfranchise the wine novice from the wine snob. Personally I would suggest that to truely taste the terroir of a place, one should use a goblet made of the clay naturally present in the vineyard. Keep your crystals out of my wine tasting please. DC

  • samse wrote:
    22-Nov-2013 at 16:06:05 (GMT)

    it´s really Interesting to see ... thank you it's well done :) <a title="Takbesiktning" href="">Takbesiktning</a>

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