Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Do fruit and root days really affect how a wine tastes?


It’s taken me a while to get round to posting again as I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of tasting days - more particularly the issue of whether a wine made in the southern hemisphere according to one biodynamic calendar would taste as well as one made to a northern hemisphere calendar tasted on the same day.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept Steiner divides the calendar into four types of days - flower, fruit, root and leaf of which flower and fruit are supposed to be best for tasting. Flower brings out the aromatics, fruit the, er, fruit.

Obviously the timings will differ slightly between northern and southern hemisphere. The bible for the former is When Wine Tastes Best by Maria and Matthias Thun which is available as a booklet (£3.99 Floris Books) and as an iPod and iPad download. (Brian Keats is the Antipodean guru according to Julian Castagna, below)

We tasted a couple of wines over the Christmas holiday and found our impression of them varied from day to day but not specially according to the calendar. One for example, the Insolite I wrote about the other day, had been open for 24 hours in a half empty bottle by the time we tasted it the second day, surely a far more important factor?

Many retailers now try to organise their tastings on fruit and root days but are they right to do so when the wines may have come from different time zones? I asked a number of winemakers, retailers and wine writer Beverley Blanning who has recently written an excellent introduction to biodynamic winemaking Biodynamics in Wine for their views.

The general consensus was that biodynamic calendars are an imprecise science but most agree that wines do indeed taste different on fruit days if for different reasons.

Julian Castagna of Castagna vineyards in Beechworth, Victoria bore out Blanning’s own view that it’s where you, the taster, are that counts not where the wine was made.

"The only thing I know for sure is that I seem less able to make value judgments on some days - it was a revelation when I worked out that these moments always occurred on root days. I suspect that this is probably more the effect of the moon on my body rather than on the wine [an opinion] but understanding that fact has removed much doubt [confusion] from my winemaking. So I guess my opinion is that it is the influence of the moon where you are that makes the difference not where the wine was made."

Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines in Australia's Margaret River actually suggested that it was the ‘live’ quality of biodynamic wines makes them respond better than other wines to changes in environment

“I don’t think it would make any difference where they are tasted as the wines are alive and respond to the energies around them In fact it would be a reason why wines made in this way could look better with travel around the globe.”

Doug Wregg of Caves de Pyrène which has many natural wines in its portfolio reckons on the other hand that the more ‘natural’ wines are the more they are likely to respond to the biodynamic calendar:

"We've been doing quality control assessments after major (and smaller) tastings for several years now and the wines appear to taste better on fruit and flower days. They can also, however, taste fine on other days. I suspect that the wines that will vary most will be the most natural wines as they are the most "living wines" with still-active yeasts. We find these wines blossom or close down dramatically according to the day.

However, there are a whole bunch of factors you have to throw in to the mix: 1. weather 2. the condition of the wines themselves and 3, the palate and mood of the taster. Wines definitely show better when there is high pressure and when the sun is shining. Secondly, bottle variation is a factor when it comes to assessing wines. Finally, our palate is never exactly the same on two days, nor are the conditions of tastings identical no matter how precisely they are copied."

 
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in California holds a similar view:

"I would pour (all things being equal) on a fruit day where the tasting is to take place. I have certainly noted some differences between the way a wine will show on a fruit vs. a leaf day (the two most striking comparisons), but honestly, I think that there are other phenomena that may well have a effect that are more dramatic - certainly rising barometric pressure seems to show most wines off to better advantage."
 
And echoes Wregg’s comments about mood:

"There are also some days when people just seem happier, more satisfied with themselves, the world - I'm not quite sure what this correlates to - and on those days, sure enough, the wine does seem to show better.  My own rather anecdotal, skewed experience is that on a given day, reds will show better than whites and then vice-versa."

Beverley Blanning agrees:

"In my own experience, I have found that the choice of wine will have considerable bearing on the impact of the calendar.  For example, leaf days seem to be less of a problem for whites than for reds.  The day of the launch of the BD monograph [her booklet] was a leaf day.  We had a tasting of four whites and four reds.  I asked the attendees (who didn't know it was a leaf day) what they thought of the wines.  Their views concurred with mine, namely that the whites were all good (especially the 'leafy' Sauvignon Blanc), but that the reds were variable.  

One person noted that the only red that really didn't taste good was the Pinot Noir and others agreed.  On the other hand, the Cabernet Sauvignon was fine. Burgundian biodynamic growers have told me that the worst possible day to taste Pinot is a leaf day - for obvious reasons. Leafiness is highly undesirable in Pinot, but far more acceptable (at least to many of us) in Cabernet Sauvignon and a good number - or even most - white wines."   

All fascinating stuff. I also wonder about the question of expectation. If you know it’s a leaf day do you steel yourself for disappointment - or expect the wines to be show well on a fruit day which could be a self-fulfilling prophecy? How significant is it if the wines have been decanted - rare in a retailer’s tasting? Or, failing that, how long the bottles have been open? And in a domestic situation where you’re drinking rather than tasting, the food you’re eating is obviously going to play a part.

Do tell me what you think.

16 comments:

  1. For me, the type of day in the BD calendar does not make any difference to my enjoyment of wine:
    http://www.winenous.co.uk/wp/archives/114
    Not a perfect test of course, but a lot more impressive than the anecdotal evidence I have seen people quoting when they claim an effect.

    And considering the absence of strong empirical evidence, can anyone please explain why from a theoretical point of view fruit days should be better than any others for the consumption of wine?

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  2. The book is available to buy from Around Wine, W1.

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  3. Very good post, Steve. In fact very good blog (I also enjoyed the Beaujolais post). But I'm not a scientist and comparatively new to the world of biodynamics so I'm going to leave it to someone else to offer you a fuller explanation. The basic theory is that fruit days make the fruit more expressive, but I'm sure you know that. Are these things susceptible of scientific proof and does it matter? I'm not sure they are or if it does.

    Beverley's book is a great primer written from a common sense point of view. (I presume that's the book you're referring to @Winerackd?)

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  4. Hi Fiona, interesting post, I've been musing on the issue of root/fruit days for some time. Unfortunately no one has yet attempted any serious studies into the matter, there have been a few, Imbibe magazine I think had a crack a while ago, but they're all so small as to be statistically negligible. Also given how hard it is to quantify how things taste accurately I don't think it'll be cleared up any time soon.
    On a related theme the American Association of Wine Economists has run a few serious studies on reliability in wine judging and it makes for very sobering reading, apologies as I can only get hold of the abstract, but essentially it shows that even the most qualified of wine judges are still very unreliable at tasting and particularly when re-scoring wines that they have previously tasted.
    Though it might be worth seeing if they'd be prepared to cross reference the dates of the shows who's scores they have access to with a biodynamic calendar for the period to see whether there is any correlation...
    http://www.wine-economics.org/journal/content/Volume5/number1/abstracts/Cao_vol5_1_10_132-142/index.shtml

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  5. Please don't get me started on the subject of wine "scoring," with all of its inherent fallacy, but it is really one of the great myths of the of the wine business that any given wine can be consistently scored by a single individual. Our experience of a wine is really as much about our own physiological/psychological state as it is about the wine itself. (And possibly about the state of the cosmos, as well if biodynamics is to be believed.) For me, it does stand to reason that there is a periodicity to nature, in Mother Nature and in our own natures (which, by the way, are quite fluid). I can't wait till someone begins publishing the Journal of the Phenomenology of Wine. Wine is not "out there," but rather in the very complicated dance that we engage in with it.

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  6. Aha, another big issue Donald and Randall - how reliable are the palates of judges - and wine writers for that matter.

    Of course they must vary - and not only according to the biodynamic calendar. A disturbed night's sleep, feeling under the weather (telling expression) for any reason, a row with a partner, being stressed, having not adjusted to a different time zone. We're all fallible which is why, as you say Randall, it's absurd to set too much score by scores.

    I try to taste every wine I recommend twice on different occasions but haven't yet got to the stage of doing that on different days of the biodynamic calendar. Interesting to try though

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  7. Tasting wines according to the biodynamic calendar - while a valiant and interesting concept reminds me of checking your horoscope mid day and thinking to yourself, "Wow - it's right on!" having already experienced some sort of distant yet relatable situation by Noon of that day to whatever the Yahoo Astrology lady put together for January 5.

    I think how a wine is received (tastes, smells, etc) has more to do with your state of being and less to do with what degree the second star to the 176 degree point is positioned at and how bright it is.

    Would love to see a follow up on how you felt while drinking a wine when your favorite sports team won, your first born son arrives, or Obama is elected to a second term.

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  8. Interesting post - so here's another question about who is doing the tasting. Besides their palate, what's their birth sign or where was the moon when they were born? Aren't fruit and root days linked to where the moon is? I know this is obscure but I thought I'd throw it into discussion. Enjoy wine is the most important.

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  9. Thank you for the kind words, Fiona.

    If the idea that fruit days are most auspicious for tasting is not an appropriate subject for scientific study, what sort of idea is it? Religious?

    Certainly I have long suspected that is the best way to regard BD wine production. It is something you either believe in or do not - there is no way to prove it one way or another. There are no variables that can be controlled, and there is no objective measure of wine quality.

    But when it comes to tasting, it seems to me that claims can easily be subject to scientific scrutiny. And I think they should be. If substantiated, the claims are potentially of great significance, and go far beyond when Tesco holds trade tastings. For example, what sort of days does Mr Parker taste on? It could have huge economic consequences! And most importantly to me, when should I open my prized bottles.

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  10. Whether Parker pays any attention to the biodynamic calendar for his tastings would indeed be interesting to know, Steve. Perhaps I should ask him ;-)

    And when to open your prized bottles? Interesting too. The instinct would be to open them on an important occasion - a birthday, anniversary or that of a close friend. Supposing that's the 'wrong' day? Postpone the occasion till a more propitious one? I don't think most of us would go that far. Drink a lesser wine? Possibly though even that seems a bit extreme. It depends how important wine is to you - and I guess how many bottles of that particular wine you have.

    Interesting point too about the birth sign of the taster, Sondra. Certainly many people would consider that a factor (though I'm not sure I'd be one of them. There are other factors as Thomson Vinyards says, though I have my doubts whether a state of extreme elation makes for a dispassionate tasting note either!)

    Despite the difficulty of measuring these things it would be interesting to hear of more experiments certainly

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  11. My view is that a wine's taste is affected by these factors in a rough descending order of import

    - temperature the wine is served at
    - how it was poured/decanted
    - the type of glass used to drink it from
    - the weather
    - atmospheric pressure
    - the moon - full or new
    - the moon - ascending or descending
    - the moon's position relative to the twelve mian constellations of the sidereal zodiac (teh so-called model upon which Maria Thun's "fruit" day, "root" day thesis is based.

    The following is pasted from my (600-page) book, Monty Waldin's Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011 (www.lulu.com):

    ....Thun’s annual biodynamic sowing and planting calendar which illustrates the sidereal and other celestial cycles was first published in 1963. It is probably a more frequentlythumbed tool amongst contemporary biodynamic wine-growers than Steiner’s Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. However, both the methodology and rele- vance of this aspect of Thun’s work has been questioned. Of those who have tried to replicate Thun’s results the most thorough attempt was made by Hartmut Spiess9 for his doctoral thesis. This was initiated with Thun’s help and advice. It took Spiess six years longer than the two predicted to finish it and his conclusion was the moon did consis- tently influence plant growth, but not through the sidereal moon in the way Thun had claimed. Like Kolisko and Steiner, Spiess saw the full moon as producing crops with higher yields (see Moon and Sun, above). Speiss also found that lunar perigee (see Moon and Earth, above), lunar nodes and planetary occultations (see Eclipses, Nodes & Occul- tations, below) had no negative effects, all of which ran counter to Thun’s claims. Others, like Kollerstrom, who worked from data taken during radish sowings by Colin Bishop on 39 consecutive days in Cardiff in 1978 questioned whether Thun’s initial research merely attempted to discern the basic fourfold phenomenon of the etheric formative forces exerted by the constellations on plant organs rather than actually trying to work out at which point on the ecliptic the moon had to be for each of the four formative forces (earth, water, air, warmth) to become active. Kollerstrom favours the equal (Baby- lonian) division of the constellations along the sidereal zodiac into twelve 30o pieces.
    Finally, Steiner himself was clear about the moon’s role. Steiner said that while we tend to think of the moon as reflecting only sunlight and nothing more, in fact “along with the Moonbeams, the entire reflected cosmos comes toward the Earth. The Moon reflects everything that comes toward it. In a certain sense, the whole starry heavens are reflected by the Moon and stream toward the Earth ... [like] a very powerful cosmic organizing force that radiates down from the Moon into the plants.” The implication is that Steiner saw the moon as blocking forces from whatever celestial body lay behind it, as he had made clear in a lecture11 he gave just before the 1924 Agriculture course. Perhaps this is why concrete proof of the sidereal model advocated by Thun, for whom the moon acts as a transmitter of forces of whichever sidereal constellation lies behind it, remains so apparently elusive.....ends

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  12. Thanks so much for taking the trouble to post that very detailed explanation, Monty. (I've removed the second comment which seemed to duplicate what you have already said)

    I'll be covering the book - along with Beverley's - soon!

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  13. My view is .../ No scientific proof .../ You either believe or just don’t .../ Steiner said ...
    It only takes fools to believe in guru’s. Love many subjects you cover, Fiona, and try to contribute posts with a fair amount of tolerance and a wish to understand the very different points of view, but some of the comments to this very contribution are just an offense to human intelligence. Will 2011 be the year of the Pre-Neanderthal?
    I hope not and wish YOU at least a very prosperous 2011, many surprises in the wine world, a lot of enjoyment, with or without sulphur. May 2011 be full of healthy grapes and sane winemakers, of a solid market and sturdy livers, lots of water where needed, and some additional sunshine for the regions lacking it.

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  14. My post was not meant to be offensive, Luc, and re-reading it I still struggle to understand how it could be interpreted that way. I am also doing my best to read your post positively, and trust that you did not mean to suggest I am Pre-Neanderthal, and that my contribution to this discussion was an offense to human intelligence. That would not be very nice at all, now would it? I am sure you are really a decent bloke.

    Fiona first raised the question of whether scientific proof was relevant, and I was responding to that question in what I consider to be a considered and appropriate manner.

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  15. Luc, I love you but the tone of your comments was out of order. You're perfectly entitled to your opinion that there's no basis for biodynamic tasting days whatever just try and be a bit more tactful about it.

    Sorry Steve if you felt put out. Please don't be discouraged from contributing to other discussions

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  16. How is a root, leaf, flower, or fruit day calculated? By what train of reasoning? Seems like a lot of believers and not much discussion on methodology.

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