Demeter and Swiss biodynamic vines
Update: just after I posted this, Jacques Perrin’s latest blog post arrived, about the course I followed last week. It’s in French, but for anyone who reads French, it’s a good review of some of the current thinking about the use of cement eggs, amphores, etc.
Correction: Writer Wink Lorch was good enough to remind me that Rudolf Steiner was not Swiss but Austrian. He died in Switzerland, but that hardly makes him Swiss.
I’ve just returned from 3 days in northern Spain, a wine trip to Ribera del Duero for sommeliers and wine writers from Germany and Switzerland (French- and German-speaking areas). English was used most of the time because it was the most widely shared language, but the variations on terms used for wine language, and people’s levels of English, varied.
A couple of recent conversations with two colleagues in the wine writing business, both of whom reviewed my new book, made me pay closer attention to this, and reminded me of the misunderstandings that can arise.
Pierre Thomas was one of the writers on the trip, a Swiss French language wine writer I’ve known for several years. He published a review 12 October of my newvbook Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, and the trip gave us a chance to discuss it. His review is positive, but he criticized at length what he saw as a mistake about biodynamic wines. I pointed out that it is not an error, but rather that he misinterpreted the sentence. Unfortunately, from his understanding of the text he assumed I don’t know much about biodynamic winemaking, which is not the case: it’s an area I find particularly interesting.
But his comments made me realize that someone else dipping into the book at that page could also interpret the English too literally, so let me clarify:
“Demeter is a Swiss biodynamic label”, appears on page 102 of Vineglorious!. If you’ve read the previous page, with “Vinatura is a quality label for integrated production (IP)” and “Bourgeon’ is a Swiss quality label for organic wines”, you’ll probably have understand that the Swiss, among others, use Demeter as a biodynamic label. It is not a Swiss-only label, which is what Pierre thought I was saying, and it is not the only name used for biodynamic wines in Switzerland, but it is far and away the most widely used label.
Also, Demeter is not limited to wine: the label is used for other food and drink products. And as Pierre Thomas points out, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian who died in Switzerland (a feeble link), is the grandfather of biodynamic practices, and he is in the long list of references for the book, which will soon appear online, after the index, which is going up this morning.
You’ll also realize, when you see the references, that while Jancis Robinson et al’s Wine Grapes was clearly a source for the 52 grape varieties described in the book, it is not the only one. It would be a disservice to José Vouillamoz, one of the authors of that book, to imply this, because he kindly took time to proofread and edit my grape variety references – with a certain amount of discussion between us at times! I believe it’s important to have a specialist for this complex field, where our knowledge has been shifting rapidly thanks to DNA-based research, and Valais-based José is an international expert.
Words: the egg versus the amphora
Robert McIntosh also wrote a review in the past few days, upbeat and positive. He sent me, privately, a list of suggestions to consider if at some point I reprint. The more sharp readers the better, I think, so I was pleased to see this. One point intrigues me, and I’d like to share it with you, for discussion.
“p126-127 – the photo caption says “Amphoras” but these are not amphoras but concrete egg fermenter tanks. I would think of them completely differently. I think you need a different photo here considering the context.”
I replied to Robert that as this alternative to maturing wines in oak becomes more widespread, I am seeing the word “amphoras” (which conjures up an image for most people, whereas concrete eggs is puzzling to a neophyte) used as a generic, broad term. This seems to be happening in conversation and in writing for a general public, rather than for more advanced wine consumers who expect precision. He is technically correct, but usage shifts over time. “A blog post” is now common usage, but it irritated early bloggers, the techies, because it was redundant: you blogged. Maybe we’re both right; maybe he is. In any event, the photos indeed show cement eggs, as he says.
Here are a couple of examples of usage, one by Pierre-Emmanuel Buss, a wine writer at Le Temps, in French, and another from the Drinks Business in 2011, early days, where they are called egg vats. A firm in the US that makes concrete tanks labels them “Amphora”.
During my visit to Spain I heard two German sommeliers talk about amphoras, but when pressed it turned out they were talking about concrete eggs, and they certainly knew the technical difference. At a course I attended last week we looked at square concrete eggs, poor Mother Hen! as well as polymer eggs that remained true to Mother Hen in shape.
Here is a link to a Napa Valley winery that does a good job of explaining and using the terms correctly, and a related question that writer Stephen Tanzer posed, to different wine producers in several countries.