Updated: Sun, 09 Dec 2012 08:11:50 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

Moon phases and stag's bladders: wacky wine-making

The sun is setting and the slopes of the Cote d'Or are soaking up the last few rays of the day. A waning moon has just appeared to the east.

Moon phases and stag's bladders: wacky wine-making

Moon phases and stag's bladders: wacky wine-making

It is the ideal time for some of Burgundy's celebrated vines to be given a feed of a dung-based compound that has spent most of the last year fermenting in buried cow horns.

On another day on another estate, it could be a herbal tea made with lavender, sage or lemongrass that is applied in the hope of getting a little extra concentration in the grapes the vines will yield a little less than a year from now.

Or maybe some vegetable compost macerated in a stag's bladder might do the trick.

Welcome to the wacky world of biodynamic wine-making, a system that, for all its association with esoteric New Ageism, has been around for the best part of a century and has already been adopted by some of the world's leading producers.

Alone in a valley bedecked in autumnal splendour, Didier Montchovet carefully soaks his cherished 12 hectares with a fine spray of "500" -- the dung/horn cocktail that is one of the emblematic recipes of the biodynamic movement.

Whatever the choice of fertiliser, it's an absolute no-no to splash it on without first having checked the alignment of the stars and consulted a Zodiac chart to establish the most auspicious moment for application.

The roots of this unorthodox approach to agricultural production lie in the theoretical work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher now best known for inspiring the educational system that bears his name.

Steiner did not personally come up with the stag's bladder recipe, but he did advise a group of farmers that they might have success by adopting a holistic approach to their land that involved eliminating the use of pesticides and timing sowing, weeding, and harvesting with reference to perceived lunar and planetary influences on plant growth.

"There are some very esoteric elements to his writing," admits Montchovet. "For example, he suggests considering the influence of Mars on a plant, which I must admit is beyond me."

For winemakers like Montchovet however, what goes in the bottle is more important than what went on to the page in 1920s Austria.

"It is exactly like homeopathy or osteopathy, you either believe or you don't," acknowledges Pierre Vincent, the head winemaker at Domaine de la Vougeraie, a boutique Burgundian estate that shares its enthusiasm for biodynamics with the world famous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

Estates like these are focused on export sales, command top prices and are on good terms with their bank managers. Everything about their operations is planned, objective, rational. Except when it comes to looking after the vines.

"There is no doubt Steiner had an inexplicable gift," adds Vincent. "It is a good thing when people from an outside milieu bring a different vision. When you think about it, it makes sense, particularly when you see how modern agriculture has become dependent on the chemical industry."

Albert Bichot, one of Burgundy's bigger merchant houses, is considering the leap of faith involved in switching its production, to biodynamics.

"We've all had a scientific training, a Cartesian education," says Christophe Chauvel, one of Bichot's winemakers. "Biodynamics don't correspond to anything we learnt in school."

And that is exactly the point, according to Luc Charlier, a doctor turned 'vigneron' in the southern French region of Roussillon.

Like many sceptics, Charlier believes the success of biodynamic estates can be explained by the care and time their owners dedicate to tending their vines.

"As far as wine is concerned, Steiner's theories amount to a collection of platitudes," he said.

Supporters are unlikely to be convinced, but it is perhaps a sign of lingering doubts that few estates actively promote themselves as biodynamic producers.

"In the end, they all want to be judged by the results rather than the method," explains Joelle Brouard, a marketing lecturer at Dijon's business school.

"Fundamentally it is not based on commercial considerations. It is a philosophy: a vision of what wine should be and man's relationship with nature."


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