I had the great pleasure of meeting with André Ostertag at our Guy du Vin offices a few days ago. I have been a follower of his wines for many years, but this was the first time that I had ever met him and had the opportunity to speak with him about his wine and farming practices.
André Ostertag is a cutting edge winemaker. Historically, most Alsatian wines were aged in foudre but today most growers use stainless steel. André felt that the use of small barrels could bring complexity to traditional Alsatian varietals, and over the years he has perfected his technique. The fear is that the wines will be dominated by flavors of new wood, but Ostertag’s wines are always subtle and with profound depth on the palate. Most of his wines are fermented completely dry. They are intense, acidic and precise – like the blade of an Olympic skater cutting across the ice. Best of all, they are remarkably versatile with food.
André practices bio-dynamic farming, and has done so since 1998. He will tell you that this is the primary reason his wines are as delicious as they are.
Bio-dynamic methods are considered a form of organic farming, but they expand on organic’s sustainable and natural approach with a holistic, farm-as-an-organism school of thought. The concept is as the word itself suggests: a combination of biological and dynamic practices, “bio” meaning life and “dyn” meaning force. Like organic farming, bio-dynamic farms stress biological methods in regard to humane treatment of animals, food quality and soil health. However, bio-dynamics takes it a bit further.
In addition to organic biological practices, bio-dynamic practices also incorporate metaphysical aspects of farming. Farmers who practice a bio-dynamic approach consider the life force of the farm. Think of it this way: Conventional farming is to bio-dynamic farming as conventional medicine is to homeopathic. Bio-dynamics differs from organic farming in the use of ‘preparations’ that are applied to the soil and plants and also in the timing of those applications – according to lunar and cosmic rhythms.
Lately, I have been thinking and reading about bio-dynamic agriculture quite a bit, including the works of the founder Dr. Rudolf Steiner. I realized that I had been talking about and commenting on bio-dynamics without having read the material first hand. I needed to change that.
When sitting across from André and tasting his penetratingly delicious wines, he is pretty convincing when in the course of the conversation, he tells you that vines are like sheep: they stick close to their shepherd, and respond to his call. After a few minutes of listening to him speak about what he does, you begin to think you know exactly what he means – and you are pretty sure that if you were one of his grape vines – any rhythms you might have would definitely be of the most cosmic type! “Pick me! Pick me!”
But I am still unconvinced regarding bio-dynamic agriculture, although I remain open to most of the ideas and certainly love the results. It’s the whiff of pseudoscience surrounding it that bothers me. When I read in much of the material on bio-dynamics that science doesn’t understand these relationships yet, it reminds me of bromides like “God works in mysterious ways” and the still popular belief in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” by which a benevolent God administers a universe in which human happiness is maximized. I have a hard time seeing how Jupiter aligning with Mars has much of an effect on how the vines are going to grow, much less how a wine is going to taste. I also realize that an appreciation of bio-dynamics may require a greater degree of subtlety than I am outlining here. On the other hand, I made the decision to stop reading my horoscope 40 years ago.
I love so many wines that are produced bio-dynamically. I am a fan of and promoter of those producers who practice the methods. But, I am not yet convinced that there is a qualitative difference between a vine or a wine that is produced organically and one that is produced using bio-dynamic methods that can solely be attributed to the use of those methods alone.
What is both funny and peculiar is how the idea of bio-dynamics has taken hold in the marketplace among people who really have very little understanding of what it involves or the thought the practices are based upon. It is also interesting to consider the number of producers who have moved to bio-dynamic farming over a relatively short period of time. One has to ask if this change has been brought about by a true belief in bio-dynamics or by an even stronger belief in the power of a good marketing story to generate sales.
That makes me wonder if the wines and vines of a “true believer” in bio-dynamics will be more vital and profound than the wines and plants of a grower that simply follows the methods because they will help business. Maybe in the end it doesn’t really matter – because the effect on our environment and the overall quality of the fruit is a win/win.
But does really believing make a difference? Just how often does the bio-dynamic farmer worship at the alter of Dr. Steiner and his life forces? Is he there daily or does he only show up at Christmas, Easter, lunar eclipses and fruit and flower days?
The bottom line is that bio-dynamics merits further study. Clearly the main tenets are very appealing. What’s not to like? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that bio-dynamics has a very positive effect both on vines and potentially on the wines produced from them. What is unclear is which aspects of the practices are the ones that are causing those effects and in turn should be adapted by producers. And to me that is the whole point of the conversation.
But all of this notwithstanding, the wines of André Ostertag are strikingly delicious – ethereal. When you have the opportunity to taste wines that are as exquisite as those produced by Ostertag; when you talk with him and understand how clear he is in his understanding of what he does to produce those wines – it is easy to be convinced that to be on any other path but his would be like losing your religion.