Does wine taste better in certain phases of the moon? Catherine Nixey ventures to North London to find out ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
It is a hedonistic epistemological dilemma: when one believes something tastes different, does that mean it actually tastes different? I suspect Hume would say yes, Descartes would say no. But at a wine tasting at the Winery, a beautiful North London wine shop, neither philosopher could weigh in. I take the glass offered by the shop's owner, David Motion. "How does it taste?" he asks. "Different?" I sip. I pause. "Um..." I don't know.
I rarely mix wine with philosophy (a favoured pastime for some). But I am not often in the position of sipping the same wine twice in an afternoon, in order to observe the effect of the moon's passage on its flavour. The Winery specialises in wines produced according to biodynamic principles, which hold that a wine's taste is altered dramatically by the phases of the moon. I am here to sample such changes myself.
The theory has its origins in the biodynamic movement, which Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, began in the early 20th century. The ideas are simple, albeit eccentric. Biodynamic wine is created from grapes grown in harmony with nature. This means that the wine is not only organic, but also crafted with a heightened awareness of stars and planets—that is, the forces of cosmic energy. Because such wine growers view the vineyard as a living organism, they presume the grapes are affected by the moon, like other living things. Similarly, consumers should be mindful of when they drink such wine, as the phases of the moon affect the taste of the vintage.
Motion admits this belief "does sound a bit mung-bean". Nevertheless, faith in the biodynamic powers of wine is fast gaining adherents. There are more than 520 natural and biodynamic wine producers, according to Fork & Bottle, and this number continues to grow. Last year Tesco, a British supermarket behemoth not famed for its credulity, announced that it was scheduling tastings in accordance with the lunar calendar. Marks & Spencer, another British retailer, already does so. Intrigued, I set out to the Winery in a spirit of empiricism to taste five wines, first in a "root" phase of the moon, then a "fruit" phase, to put this theory to the test.
Situated in Maida Vale, a smart area of North London, the Winery's handsome Edwardian architecture speaks more of tradition than innovation. It is the sort of wine shop one expects would do a roaring trade in "good claret". But Motion says his customer's have been "extremely enthusiastic" about biodynamism, adding, "You'd be surprised how many BBC Radio 4 listeners buy biodynamic calendars." Unimpeachable proof of respectability.
Inside the shop's cool gloom, oak shelves tower from floor to ceiling. They hold bottles and bottles of wine packed as tightly as the jars of dreams in Roald Dahl's BFG's cave. Like those jars, each of these biodynamic bottles seems to contain less a drink than a character. "This is Thibault," says Motion, introducing me to one bottle, "his vineyard is in Volnay." I nod in acknowledgement. After Thibault, I meet Michel, Pascal (who makes his wine in his grandmother's garage) and another Pascal, who stirs a bucket of water in his garden to "create a vortex and draw in the energy of the cosmos."
Such declarations test the faith of an embryonic believer. Though many biodynamic principles (which include avoidance of pesticides and an emphasis on natural composting) seem thoroughly sensible, others, like the cosmos bucket, are a little more recherche. Even Motion would admit that "some of it sounds like gobbledeygook." Still, he says, biodynamic farmers "cut down on chemicals and are very in tune with their vines. Which can't be wrong."
It is not only the wines and the growers who have character. Grapes, too, also have a pronounced personality—and a rather highly wrought one at that. Motion talks about them as if he was describing the anti-hero of an Austen novel. Grapes do not like to travel, I learn, so movement results in a wine of impaired flavour. They also chafe at excessive heat, excessive cold, additives and chemicals. The delicate question of whether the fruit likes to be crushed and then drunk, however, is never broached.
Then the tour is over. It is time for the second tasting—an event that I realise I have been dreading. Given my enthusiastic but uneducated palate, I worry that I am not up to the oenological nuances of this task. My nerves are not helped by the sudden appearance of a Master of Wine beside me, exuding confidence and exclaiming words like "liquoricey".
Our glasses are filled and the moment feels charged. There is a pause as we swill, smell, sip. Then, judgment. "Wow," says Motion. "There is no doubt about it. It is definitely different." "Much fresher," agrees another taster. "More expressive," says a third. My turn. I carefully sip. It might taste "zingier," I say; more acidic. Motion looks pleased.
But then again, if I am honest, it might not. I ask Motion how on earth I can be sure that I am not just imagining this difference. He looks thoughtful. "I think that the best way would probably be to try the whole experiment again," he replies. I find it hard to argue. I take another sip of the wine. Different or not, it is definitely delicious. In vino, as they say, veritas.
Picture credit: paulaloe (via Flickr)