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Holistic vineyards
Biodynamic wine is greener

You've spent the afternoon nestling tiny green seedlings into soil and pulling weeds, your fingernails are brown with dirt, your back aches from spreading compost, and your mind is abuzz with gardening plans: where to squeeze in that extra rosebush you sprang for at the nursery; whether to plant black opal, Thai or lemon basil next to the tomatoes.

Your green thumb pulses with energy, and the intoxicating scent of rich black dirt surrounds you, when suddenly you realize that you are badly in need of a shower and a large glass of wine, preferably in that order. Why not keep the mood going and open a bottle of "green" - or biodynamic - wine?

If you just shuddered, remembering the "organic" wine you bought at a health food store a decade ago, then perhaps you'd be surprised to know that today, some of the top wine producers in Europe and the U.S. - winemakers considered by many to be among the best of their generation - are practicing biodynamic agriculture. There are more than 65 biodynamic wineries in this country, more than 200 in France, and their names read like a who's who in contemporary winemaking.

This is not crunchy granola grape juice anymore. It's great wine, worth seeking out for its quality alone. That it also carries a spiritual and philosophical punch is an added benefit.

What is biodynamic agriculture, anyway? Critics call it "vineyard voodoo"; others refer to it as "supercharged organic." In fact, it dates back to 1924, when Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of a school of spiritual philosophy called anthroposophy, gave a series of lectures in which he argued that modern farming had lost its spiritual connection to nature. Steiner exhorted followers to consider a farm a living ecosystem, rather than a food factory.

In practice, biodynamic wine producers don't just eschew chemical pesticides and fertilizers - they treat their plants with holistic and herbal remedies to boost their immune systems. They set aside portions of their acreage as natural habitat for insects and wildlife. They let cows and sheep roam their vineyards, depositing natural fertilizer (hence the other frequent epithet for biodynamic farming: "doo-doo voodoo").

Then there are the wackier practices - burying manure-filled cow horns and deer bladders stuffed with yarrow blossoms, then digging them up and brewing the now-unspeakable contents into a mystical tea which is then sprinkled about the vineyard. And tending the vines by the phases of the moon. This last actually makes perfectly good sense to me: If the moon can govern ocean tides and menstrual cycles, why can't it also affect when the sap in grapevines rises and falls?

Of course, anything that receives this much care and attention is likely to benefit - especially wine. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the three biodynamic white wines I tried recently seemed to me to share a remarkably clean, pure profile - despite being very different in nature.

Michel Chapoutier's 2006 "Les Meysonniers" Crozes-Hermitage ($30) is a pale yellow, lean mouthful of minerals and tart apples. Chapoutier is one of France's most acclaimed young winemakers. He took over his father's vineyard in 1990 at the age of 26, rebelled against traditional ways of making wine, and became one of the first European crusaders for biodynamic techniques.

Chapoutier's wines are deeply expressive of local soil - you can practically taste the gravel in "Les Meysonniers" - and have won more than one perfect "100" score from the notoriously cranky wine critic Robert Parker. Drink this by itself first, then with food, and watch it change and develop.

From Rudolf Steiner's native Austria, Nikolaihof's 1999 Jungfernwein Riesling is a delectable wine from a historic winery - and also, right now, an excellent bargain. A $60 bottle, it's currently on sale at Steve's Liquors for $30.

A Jungfernwein, or "virgin wine," is a celebratory wine, made from the very first harvest from newly planted vines. Nikolaihof's version is a lovely thing to sip slowly for an hour or two, opening with velvety pineapple and just a breath of rosemary, staying gloriously round and full in the mouth, and ending with a tart little snap of green apple. It's a beautiful deep gold in the glass, full of warm flavors and yet bright and clear at the same time.

Winemaker Christine Saahs and her family claim Nikolaihof is not only the oldest winery in Austria - wine has been made there since the time of the ancient Romans - it was also the first wine estate in Europe to adopt biodynamic techniques. A clear case of practice yielding perfection.

For something lighter and a little simpler, Tad Seestedt's 2006 Junehog ($16) is a blend of organically and biodynamically farmed Müller Thurgau, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from Oregon's Willamette Valley. It has lots of pretty floral and citrus notes, a tart, flowery finish, and would make a happy summer party wine, light and easy to drink.

There's even a great conversation-starter of a story attached: Junehog is named for a legendary Columbia River salmon that went extinct when the Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1941. The bottle comes emblazoned with a big picture of the long-lost salmon on the label, along with a note that portions of the profits will fund wild salmon recovery efforts.

Going green has never tasted better.

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