Microbes and manure, and capturing the stars in a barrel

by Tom Fiorina on April 1, 2014

Physicists tell us that the universe is full of mysterious dark matter, bizarre quantum states, and hidden dimensions. Comprehending these theories requires a leap-of-faith, much like religion…and biodynamics.

Starry-barrels_web

Patrick Marsan with Armagnac barrels at the Domaine de Saoubis in Bas-Armagnac. No stars, perhaps, but there certainly is dark matter in them.

Invented by the mid-19th century, Austrian philosopher, scholar, architect, playwright and educator Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics treats a farm as a sort of self-contained, living body that needs to be as self-nourishing as possible. Biodynamics enthusiasts say that the moon and planets affect the plant life-cycle, with optimum crops resulting from compost based on manure and a variety of special, herb- and mineral-based treatments provided at specific moments in the astrological calendar. No synthetic pesticides and no chemical fertilizers can be used in this totally organic farming approach.

Whether you believe in biodynamics is much a question, like in religion, of personal faith. But some of today’s best wines—the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, and several Grand Cru Bordeaux châteaux, are now using biodynamic agriculture.

And even if biodynamics works in the vineyard, can it have an effect on brandy alcohols like Armagnac and Cognac, made from distilled wine? Of the hundreds of Armagnac producers in the Armagnac region in southwestern France, only one, the Domaine de Saoubis in Bas-Armagnac, is using biodynamics.

In Armagnac, like in Cognac, much is made of the skill of the distiller in capturing the aromatic essence of the wine, and on how aging in oak barrels, sometimes over decades, produces spirits of great complexity through a mysterious alchemy.

No one has ever claimed that great Armagnac is made in the vineyard. But anyone who has tasted Armagnac from the sandy-clay soil of the Bas-Armagnac, or from the harder (clay and limestone) Ténarèze soil, or from the limestone soils of the Haut-Armagnac, knows that terroir has a decided impact on the brandy. Increased availability of single-variety Armagnacs shows that the type of grapes used also affects the Armagnac. Bas-Armagnac producers primarily use Bacco, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc grapes, yielding spirits that are round and supple when young. The harder, clay-and-limestone soils in the Ténarèze produce spirits, made mostly from Ugni Blanc and Colombard grapes, that are firmer in their youth, but, generally, have the ability to age longer. And Armagnac produced in the Haut-Armagnac is generally flat and hard, and lacks complexity, which is why so little of it is made there. Soil and grape variety obviously count, perhaps not on the same level as the distillation and aging of the Armagnac, but you obviously need good ingredients to make a good product.

Maurice de Mandelaëre is the fifth-generation of his family to farm on the Domaine de Saoubis property. Mandelaëre spends much of his time in Germany, where he runs his wine and spirit import business, Sélection de Gascogne. Day-to-day operation of the vineyard is left to Patrick Marsan, who has been with the domaine for over 30 years.

His German-based import company brought Mandelaëre in contact with biodynamic wine producers such as Jean-Pierre Fleury in Champagne and Nicolas Joly in the Loire Valley. They started, with the assistance of well-known biodynamic consultant François Bouchet, to convert the eight hectares of vines to biodynamic culture in 1997. Patrick Marsen recalls his skepticism: he attended a training class in Bordeaux given by an Australian consultant, and, he says, with a wry grin, “He spoke about everything but grapevines.”

The tall Gascon is now totally convinced about biodynamic’s role in creating a healthy ecosystem for their vines. “When I compare our vines to those in neighboring vineyards, I can see that they are healthier and better able to withstand drought or fungal disease,” he says.

Biodynamic-stirring-drum_web

Biodynamic stirring drum used to make organic-and-mineral-based treatments.

Whether or not it’s the organic-and-mineral-based treatments, biodynamics, he believes, has made him more attuned to the biodiversity in this vineyard that he has cultivated for so long. An illustrative example, he says, concerns plants that they had sent from Germany to introduce predatory spiders that feed on invasive insects, including the cicadelle (leaf hopper in English), a vector for a serious bacterial disease that can threaten entire vineyards. Chemical insecticides used previously on the vines, he says, had killed the spiders and allowed the cicadelle to flourish. Reintroducing a natural predator has reestablished a natural balance.

Armagnac is normally measured in generations, with Hors d’Age and millesime brandies often kept in barrels for ten or more years. A youthful Domaine de Saoubis Armagnac named Dame Blanche hints at the potential in the property’s biodynamic grapes. This 100% Folle Blanche spirit never sees any oak, having aged in stainless steel tanks. Bottled within two years of the harvest, Dame Blanche has the prune and honey notes typically found in the floral Folle Blanche grape, but it also has hints of smoky cocoa that emerge gently from a soft, smooth brandy that belies its 45% alcohol content.

The Domaine de Soubis also makes a version of the Floc de Gascogne regional aperitif, Bisou (“kiss” in English), made from distilled Folle Blanche and Bacco grapes, aged for six months in oak barrels, and then mixed with unfermented grape juice made from Bacco. Besides being a wonderful aperitif, it’s also perfect with melon or charcuterie, or a strong cheese.

The inventive Mandelaëre has also come out with a range of infused eaux-de-vie (lemon, orange, rose and lavender) that are made by extracting essential oils that are then added to the Dame Blanche spirit. These delicious, refreshing Armagnacs are excellent on their own, poured over ice cream or a cake, or mixed, like a Kir, with Champagne.

The true test, however, on whether the planets and stars, along with the moon, can work their magic within oak barrels, as well as in the vineyard, will only come when the Domaine de Saoubis releases Hors d’Age or millesime Armagnacs that can be compared to its earlier aged Armagnacs.

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Thomas Huber April 9, 2014 at 09:18

Hi Tom!

If you ever look for biodynamic wine from Austria you can choose http://www.nikolaihof.at – they started going biodynamic already in the 70s.

Tom Fiorina April 9, 2014 at 14:15

Hi Thomas, thanks for the comment and a lead on a biodynamic wine from Austria. The thought of visiting a biodynamic vineyard in Rudolf Steiner’s native country is particularly appealing. Speaking of appealing–I’ve had an empty beer bottle sitting beside my deak for three months now. It has the awesome name of “HELL” on it, with another name–König Ludwig Weissbier that makes me think that you gave it to me. There aren’t any other clues, but I’m convinced that it must be of German or Austrian origin. And, I have a vague recollection of you presenting me with a bottle of beer at one time or another. If it was you, I need to thank you for having provided me with the finest beer that I’ve ever tasted. Before I would have said that Belgium or the Czech Republic was the source of my favorite beer, but I might need to change that statement.

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