Wine Drinking No. 1: Biodynamic vs. Conventional

A week ago, a bunch of us got together with the intention of opening a load of bottles. I prefer to call it a ‘wine drinking’ rather than a ‘wine tasting’. For obvious reasons. The excuse theme was ‘Biodynamic vs. Conventional wines’. Of the 15 people in the room, the majority were normal drinkers and not experts – only a couple of us were really into wine. And we were the only ones who had even heard of biodynamics. I thought it would be interesting to see if we could spot the difference between the normal wines and their more mysterious counterparts.

I chose five pairs of wines, each pair from the same region, of a similar age and around the same price: one biodynamic, the other conventional. Each pair was served blind and marked out of ten. That way, we could see if we could tell which were biodynamic and which were conventional, and which ones people liked the most. Hardly the most scientific of experiments, but certainly a fun one.

In case you don’t know what it is, there is a good description of what biodynamics is all about here and here. In the briefest of terms, biodynamic practices are based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) and consist of seeing the farm or vineyard as a self-sustaining unit. The only fertiliser comes from reared livestock and there is a commitment to organic practices. What its critics love to ridicule are the more esoteric and scientifically unproven practices of working by the phases of the moon and stars, and other more mystical elements that create ‘balance’ in the vineyard. What cannot be denied is that some of the best vineyards in the world have converted to these methods of production.

I asked a few biodynamic winemakers to describe how these wines taste different to conventional wines, and the same things were stressed time and time again as being more evident in biodynamic wines: freshness, minerality, and gôut de terroir (sense of place/origin). These are the things we tried to look out for when trying each one.

We chose to do the experiment on a ‘fruit day’, the best day to taste wines according to the biodynamic calendar. Additionally, it was a full moon in Aries. The constellations are referred to by biodynamic winemakers when going about their work. When asking one whether he ever checked his horoscopes however, he called astrology a load of nonsense and looked at me like I was an idiot. One of those things is almost certainly true.

Unsurprisingly the results were inconclusive. But it did throw up a few interesting points. After finding out what biodynamics was all about, everybody admitted they wanted to like the biodynamic wines more. This was not always the case however. Of the five pairs, 3 of the winning wines were biodynamic, 2 were conventional. I totted up the scores and in absolute terms, the wines ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 10th were the biodynamic ones. So, although they were either very much liked or not at all, broadly the biodynamic ones were preferred over the conventional.

But what perhaps is more telling, is that aside from the conventionally produced Nelly Marzelleau Muscadet, which was 4th favourite but the cheapest of all, give or take a few pence, the amount the wines were enjoyed was directly proportional with their price. The one thing this experiment did prove is that truism about wine that, for some reason, many people don’t want to believe: you get what you pay for.

I’m going to repeat this wine drinking in Manchester on Friday with a different group of people. I wonder if we will get the same results?

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The Results:

Score /100 Preferred wine Bio or Conv Overall Rank Price
Wine 1 Vouvray Brut, Non Vintage, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, France 73 Winner B 2 £16.99
Wine 2 Vouvray Brut, ‘La Dilettante’, Non Vintage, Catherine et Pierre Breton, France 69 C  =7 £14.99
Wine 3 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, ‘Les Grands Presbytères’, 2009, Nelly Marzelleau, France 71 Winner C 4 £10.99
Wine 4 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, ‘Expression de Gneiss’, 2009, Domaine de l’Ecu, France 70 B 5 £14.99
Wine 5 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2009, Seresin, New Zealand 74 Winner B 1 £16.95
Wine 6 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2009, Kim Crawford, New Zealand 69.5 C 6 £14.95
Wine 7 Bourgueil, ‘Cassiopée’, 2009, Domaine de la Chevalerie, France 64.5 B 10 £11.99
Wine 8 St Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil, ‘Les Mauguerets’, 2009, Domaine de la Cotelleraie, France 69 Winner C  =7 £13.99
Wine 9 Chianti Classico, ‘I Colombi’, 2009, Castello di Querceto, Italy 65 C 9 £13.95
Wine 10 Rosso Toscano, ‘Monteleccio’ 2008, Sesti, Italy 72.5 Winner B 3 £16.95