The mystical wine made with cow horns and a full moon
If biodynamic wine is a bit of a mystery to you, you're not alone. Twelve years ago, Caro and Seán Feely bought a dilapidated farmhouse on a 10-hectare vineyard in the Bergerac region of France, packed up their young family and left Ireland to live the dream. From the outset, they planned to farm organically, but it wasn't until Seán started researching about how to deal with mildew, the bane of winemakers' lives, that he discovered a book by Nicolas Joly, a French winemaker. That was their introduction to biodynamic farming. They embraced the lunar calendar, and according to traditionalists, the winemaking ways of lunatics.
"You hear people talk about the cow horn spray and following the moon, and they think, these people have gone completely mad, but we haven't because it really works," says Caro Feely. I know. If you're anything like me, you're riveted; dying to hear a bit more, but thinking, those traditionalists may just have a point.
"The first and most important point is, to be certified biodynamic, you also have to already be certified organic," she says. "That's quite an important point, because most people understand what organic is. And to make it really simple, any agricultural product can be biodynamic and the idea behind it is that you want to create a better product which has more nutrients and also a better taste."
So now, Caro's got me interested. Organic, that I understand. And even though I'm not a devout follower of all things organic (would be if I had the dough), I feel pretty sure that this has to be a good thing when it comes to wine. Here's the thing - although there's loads of regulation around food labelling, wine lurks quite a bit below that radar. So, sorry to give you a bit of bad news, but that lovely bottle of wine you knocked back with your mates last night, could have a lot more additives than you realise.
So what's the hocus pocus stuff with biodynamic wine? "The three key ingredients are, number one, thinking of your farm as a whole farm system, almost like a self-sufficient entity. You have your own fertiliser, your own animals, and your own plants that can heal your problems," says Caro.
"The second thing is, using plants as well as animal-based things to solve your problem. The way we succeed is by using plants that are still on the farm like stinging nettle and willow to make mild anti-fungals that we can use. The final part is the biodynamic calendar. All farmers follow the seasons, but biodynamic farmers look a little ahead of that. We consider the moon's influence and some of the other cosmic bodies' influence. We all know that the moon moves the entire ocean, so clearly it's a very powerful water force and it has that same influence on the plants and on us. At full moon we behave differently as well, it's not just the plants."
And what about the cow horn thingy? "If you're certified biodynamic, you have to do the cow horn spray, it's one of the obligations," says Caro. "It's cow manure that is packed into a cow horn and left underground for six months, over the winter. When you analyse the cow dung, if you take the exact same cow dung and put it into a clay pot, and compare it to the one in the cow horn, after six months, the one in the cow horn has thousands of times the microbiological activity. The idea behind the cow horn spray is that it's a fertility booster. And we only spray about a handful per hectare."
Fascinating, but a bit wacky at the same time. I'm not sure that I buy the whole mystical process, but I do think that if you're taking that much care with the land, it has to be good for the wine. Worth trying a bottle, don't you think?
Catch Caro Feely in conversation with wine writer Tomás Clancy at the Drinks Theatre at the Ballymaloe LitFest, May 21, tickets €16. See litfest.ie
Domaine De L'Ecu Muscadet Classic 2015
12pc, €17.70, from Fields, Skibbereen, and Manning's Emporium, Bantry, both Co Cork
A zippy, biodynamic white wine made by one of the most respected winemakers in the Pays Nantais, in the Loire valley. Young and fresh on the palate, with flavours of lime and grapefruit and a pinch of salt.
Loimer Langenlois Kamptal Grüner Veltliner 2015
12.5pc, €23.99, from Fresh (Grand Canal Square, Smithfield, Camden St, Stepaside and IFSC, Dublin); Mitchell & Sons (CHQ and Glasthule, Dublin)
From the sunny Kamptal region of Austria, this biodynamic white wine is a good example of the expressive Grüner Veltliner grape. It has the typical peppery note and a generous wash of ripe apples.
Heinrich 'Red' 2014
12.5pc, €19.99, Kelly's Off-Licence, Clontarf, Dublin; wineonline.ie
Gernot Heinrich's vineyard in Austria has been certified biodynamic since 2009. Using indigenous grapes, primarily Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, with a bit of St Laurent, this deliciously light red wine has vibrant cherry and red fruit notes with just a hint of spice.
Terroir Feely La Source 2011
13pc, €22.95, Clontarf Wines, Dublin, and The Little Green Grocer, Parliament Street, Kilkenny
A blend of 80pc Merlot and 20pc Cabernet Sauvignon, this biodynamic red wine from Caro and Seán Feely has an aroma of dark fruit and spice plus concentrated flavours of blackberry and plum, with a gentle touch of mocha.
If you're looking for a top-notch wine-tasting dinner, you can do it in style in the Conrad Dublin's Coburg Brasserie. Larry McKenna, the world-class winemaker who introduced New Zealand to quality Pinot Noir with its enticing, scented, savoury and complex palate, and rich, smoky character, will be selecting Pinot Noir wines to match the five courses on the tasting menu cooked by executive chef Dmitry Stroykov. And to ensure that the experience is truly special, all the wines will be served in Riedel crystal glasses. Guests will have an opportunity to meet Larry to chat about the wines. Date: May 31 at 7pm, €70 per person.