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Sunday, May 21, 2006

WEEK 3

BIODYNAMIC BOOM

Super-natural wine is flying off the shelves


Staff writer

Despite being everywhere -- in every part of our bodies and our daily lives -- chemicals have got a bad rep. Pollution, allergies, additives, colorings, flavorings, you name it, if it's bad for you, then "chemicals" are blamed.

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Many growers believe biodynamic methods improve their vineyards' health, while winemakers cite clearer tastes. But with the "extreme" Japanese passion for BD wine, finding a bottle may be the main obstacle for would-be converts.

It's hardly surprising, then, that many folks are fans of "natural" products. The fervor these days for the "natural" extends to even that sublime chemical concoction, wine.

For those in Japan at the cutting edge of this trend, it's no longer enough just to seek out the word "organic" on a label. Nowadays, for truly green tipplers, the buzzword on the wine store racks is "biodynamic," or "biodynamie" as it's rendered in French and pronounced in Japanese.

Purportedly more natural even than their organic cousins, biodynamic wines are made from grapes grown according to the mystical "anthroposophic" principles outlined in lectures in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher, scientist and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

Derived from the Greek roots anthrop (human) and sophy (wisdom), in practice anthroposophic principles mean that as well as cultivating organic produce without using chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers, biodynamic growers are also mindful of the movements of the stars and moon, of "non-physical beings" in nature, and use a variety of esoteric but entirely natural fertilizers.

More vibrant tastes

These include cow horns filled with cow manure that are buried over winter and quartz powder pastes in cow horns that are buried in summer. After being dug up, both are heavily diluted and sprinkled around the vines at a gravitationally propitious phase of the moon and stars.

According to Kenichi Ohashi, author of "Vin Naturel (Shizenha-wain)," a book about organic and biodynamic wine, the beneficial effect of the manure and quartz is boosted by microorganisms in the horns. "Additionally, vintners may also create fertilizers out of yarrows, chamomile, nettles and other herbs."

Whether it's the cow horns or the stars, many growers claim that BD methods have improved the health of their vineyards, especially in terms of biodiversity, fertility and pest, weed and disease control, and BD winemakers speak of clearer and more vibrant tastes, as well as wines that stay drinkable longer.

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Vines growing on a hillside in the biodynamic vineyard of French producer Marcel Deiss in Alsace. PHOTO COURTESY OF KENICHI OHASHI

Since first taking hold in France, a growing number of wineries worldwide have followed suit. They are finding that a shift in whole or part to biodynamic methods makes business sense at a time when it is increasingly important to distinguish your bottles from thousands of competitors' at retail outlets.

"It's very, very popular in Japan," says Ohashi, who is also an executive director of wine retailer Yamajin Co. and a senior wine adviser to the Japan Sommelier Association. He notes that Japanese wine lovers' passion for biodynamics is more extreme than in many other countries he has visited.

I soon learned first hand just what he meant.

At the Cave de Re-Lax wine specialty shop in Tokyo's Toranomon business district, I was told that all the BD wine was sold out.

"We stock less than a dozen types of biodynamic wine irregularly, and sometimes they all sell out the day they arrive," said shop assistant Yusuke Hitomi. "Biodynamic wine has really grabbed the spotlight over the past year."

As for hard data, though it's hard to come by. Ohashi said he estimated that annual imports of BD wine to Japan were now approaching 1 billion yen. At a ball-park price of 3,000 yen per unit, that would translate to some 300,000 bottles being quaffed or laid down each year -- in addition to the unknown output from the almost 10 domestic wineries in the BD business.

French missionary

At one of those wineries, the over 100-year-old Lumiere in Yamanashi Prefecture, vineyard manager Koki Oyamada explained his move to BD methods. "I want to make 'real' wine. As a person involved in farming, I didn't want to use agricultural chemicals."

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Common BD fertilizer ingredients include cow manure, cow horns and quartz powder. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KENICHI OHASHI
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At first, Oyamada said he did not have sufficient biodynamic know-how because there were no examples in Japan. Then in 2004, when French vintner Nicolas Joly, widely regarded as a missionary for biodynamic farming, visited Yamanashi, Oyamada asked him for a lecture. Now he practices BD farming on 0.3 hectares of his 2.5-hectare vineyards, and plans to increase that to 1 hectare this season. The winery produced 1,200 bottles of BD-blended wine two years ago, with 25 percent of each bottle being BD wine. This year or next, it hopes to reach a total of 3,000 bottles of 100 percent BD wine out of its total production of 40,000 bottles.

To Oyamada, biodynamic farming is nothing mysterious, since traditional Japanese farming is based on the lunar calendar, he said.

"Frankly, I still don't know exactly how it affects the grapes," Oyamada said. "But I find the resulting wine tastes more 'tender.' By that I mean its tannin and acid is not too strong, and the total balance of the taste is good."

Hiroshi Kaneko, a sommelier at Le Cep in Tokyo's Roppongi district, echoes that view. "What impresses me most when drinking biodynamie is the mildness when it runs through my throat," he said. Pointing to the French-style bistro's wine menu of 30 biodynamic wines and some 70 organic ones, Kaneko added that "the biodynamie we have here is mostly from Bourgogne, as it tastes natural" -- in contrast, he noted, to some types that have a scent of animal, soil or and yeast.

The taste of BD wine is not always perfect, though.

"More than 90 percent of bio wine or organic wine may not taste good," Yamajin's Ohashi said. "Since biodynamic wine contains no additives, it is often easier for wine growers to fail in fermentation," he said. "But the remaining 10 percent tastes better and more natural than any kind of wine. It sinks into your body."

Ohashi also said that as the wine does not contain sulfurous acid, it doesn't cause a headache the next morning. "As far as I remember, I feel light the next day even after I drink quite a lot," he said.

But as with all matters of taste, not all specialists are like minded.

"We taste about 100 bottles of new wine a week, but I have not yet encountered a biodynamic wine that comes home to me," said an executive of a leading Japanese importer and retailer, who asked not to be identified. According to him, some vintages with a high reputation practice grape-farming methods close to biodynamic ones, even though they do not play that up.

Soil in the sun

As for this wannabe BD drinker, I finally succeeded in buying, at a small shop, a bottle of BD chardonnay from Bourgogne apparently overlooked by mainstream wine shoppers. Opening it at home, I had a feeling that it had a bouquet of soil in the sun. When I sipped, it tasted fruity, but the wine was light and vanished in the throat.

And in the morning? I woke with no headache . . . and went to work.



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