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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

The Who

I’m Newfoundland & Labrador author Kevin Major. I’ve written fifteen books, including “No Man’s Land”, “As Near to Heaven by Sea”, and “Hold Fast.” And plays, most recently “Lead Me Home.”  The most recent novel, titled “New Under the Sun”, was released in 2010.

Nothing about wine, however.

For a good part of my life my wine purchases were based on: a. the price ($10-$15, depending on the decade) and/or b. the label (whether it was eye-catching, preferably with a gold sticker from some competition).It was Hemingway who wrote, “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world.” Somehow that line had escaped me.

For years I skirted the world of exceptional wine, intimidated, ambivalent. But now, though late to the oasis, I’ve plunged feet first into it, reading as much as I can, and tasting as much as my pocketbook will allow. I’m feeling more confident.

I’ve taken a particular interest in organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. My original goal was to search out and experience One Brilliant Bottle a week, each week for the first year of the new decade, 2010. That accomplished, I’ve extended the project into 2011. It’s been too much of a treat to stop!

The Where

I call it my drinkingterroir. As important for me as the taste of the wine itself is where it is drunk, the physical setting, the immediate wider world. I find it as integral to the experience as the time of day or the conversation that fills the air, as the warmth and spirit of those sharing the wine.

Home for me is the city of St. John’s, capital of the extraordinary Island of Newfoundland. To the north is Labrador, its equal in spectacle and history. Together they form Canada’s easternmost province, the first point of contact between the Old World and the New, the place where the rock of Africa meets the Appalachians, where fossils show evidence of the very beginnings of animal life as we know it today. Needless to say, I can easily feel I’m at the centre of the universe. It is something to celebrate with exceptional bottles of wine.

copyright Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This rock-strewn turf was once called Vinland! Called Vinland by Leif Eiriksson and his wine-guzzling Norse compatriots who came ashore in northern Newfoundland a thousand years ago. What was Leif thinking? No grapes grow in this intemperate corner of the world. What was he thinking…except what a fine place to celebrate wine in all its stark glory. Leif, you inspire me.

The What

Brilliant wines generally come at a price, more than I’ve been inclined to pay in the past. Still, like many pleasures in life, they must fall within a budget.

A yearly budget. I’m thinking the long term, one full year. For this project I’ve decided I can handle an average price of $50 per week. Approximately $2500 for the year, given I can count on a couple of bottles as birthday / Christmas gifts.

My scale is in dollar signs: $ means up to $33,  $$ stretches to $66, and $$$ goes as far as $99.

I refuse to pay more than $99 for a bottle of fermented grape juice, as exceptional as it might be. Needless to say, I’m always on the lookout for bargains. Clearance bins quicken my heart.

The Why

Why organic, biodynamic, and what are being called natural wines?

By organic I mean growing grapes without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. It addresses basic environmental concerns.

Biodynamic viniculture takes things a step further — following the principals of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who in 1924 expounded his agricultural theories in a series of lectures, ‘Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture.’ It’s a mind-shift away from conventional agriculture. Holistic in nature, it views the vineyard itself as a balanced organism, dependent for harmony (and thus, the utmost growing conditions) on the natural interplay of  micro and macro-organisms, as well as being attuned to the cycles of the cosmos, especially the moon. Particular attention is paid to the soil, involving the use of a series of specific natural preparations, administered at precise times. Both organic and biodynamic practices bring a return to manual labour, avoiding the use of machinery and its detrimental effects on both vines and soil.

Natural winemaking (from the French ‘vin naturel’) takes the holistic approach and follows it into the winery where the wine is actually made. It eschews the practice of adding commercial yeasts, of fining and filtering, of mechanical intervention such as micro-oxygenation (used to soften tannins). It adds very little sulphur, or none at all. It is winemaking at its most…well, natural.

All three approaches have their detractors. The situation is further complicated by the fact that not all proponents embrace the methods in the same way. Some, for example, might be said to be ‘partly biodynamic’ or use ‘some organic practices.’ Many vignerons proclaim their involvement, while others prefer to market their wines, first and foremost, as wines, without notification of their methods on their labels.

So why bother seeking out these wines?

1. Of the wines I have tasted, I have generally found them to be more exciting, more individualistic, stronger reflections of the land from which they come, their terroir.

2. They are healthier. If I prefer organic produce, why not include wine? For the remainder of my life I would prefer not to ingest more unhealthy, unnecessary chemical residue.

3. The winemakers who follow these approaches seem to me to take greater care of their vineyards, invest more of themselves in what they present to the public, are more conscious of the health of the environment. I want to support their efforts.

4. Many, though not all, of the wineries are small, family-based endeavours, rather than large multinationals. I want to endorse these initiatives by choosing their wines.

Of course there are uninspired, half-hearted organic, biodynamic, and natural wines, just as there are such wines on any shelf of any regular wine shop. I’d like to avoid either of these, and look instead for bottles that broaden my wine-drinking experiences.

That doesn’t mean I have sworn off all other wines. Not so…especially when they are purchased by someone else. I’m not so entrenched that I can’t enjoy what other wine-drinkers are enthused about. But, in the end, and working within a budget, I find there are plenty more organic, biodynamic, or natural wines to bring to Vinland, anxious to be uncorked.

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To read more on biodynamics and wine, see the excellent online series by Jamie Goode at  www.wineanorak.com/biodynamic1.htm

To read more on the trend toward natural wine, see this article in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of IMBIBE magazine: http://www.imbibemagazine.com/The-Real-Dirt-on-Natural-Wine

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Author photo credit: Victoria Wells.

Wine and wine bottle photos by KM, most others lured from the web.

Many thanks to the travelling family and friends who help me procure many of these wines: Luke, Duncan, Ruth, Roland, Maxine, Ina, Hatim, Jack and Arlene.

Special thanks to my wife Anne, whose eye-catching, colourful garden provides the backdrop for many of the wine photos, and whose proof-reading skills are a continuous blessing.

For more about Kevin Major, the writer, visit his blog:  www.kevinmajor.wordpress.com

Visit his new blog on whisky and books  THE LITERARY DRAM: www.theliterarydram.wordpress.com

I can be reached at:   kgemajor@gmail.com

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