The earth is filled with mysteries of the unexplained. The purpose of Stonehenge, the seemingly impossible construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the spontaneous formation of elaborate crop circles, the legendary power of the thirteen crystal skulls, the massive statues on Easter Island… These are but a very few of the paranormal and metaphysical mysteries that have yet to be adequately explained. But does that mean they have no meaning? Simply because something isn’t understood doesn’t make it invalid or untrue, although certain things do stretch the limits of imagination. This past week I came across what is admittedly the most extreme form of winemaking that I’ve ever encountered in my career: cosmoculture.
Cosmoculture is a method of grape growing and winemaking born in the early 1990s out of the philosophical and metaphysical ruminations of the father and son team of Alain and Philippe Viret. The Virets are proprietors of a small wine estate in the southern RhÃ´ne Valley, in the picturesque village of St. Maurice. After the estate became certified organic in 1990, the Virets began experimenting with, and applying, “ancient agricultural and energy principles” to their farming and wine production. It was more than organics, more than biodynamics; they dubbed it, and subsequently trademarked it, cosmoculture Â®.
Imagine hardcore organic farming, with no chemicals, fungicides, herbicides or systemics of any kind. Then, take it a step further to incorporate the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which considers celestials cycles (sun, moon, planets, stars) in all operations from pruning to harvesting, while seeking to heal and strengthen soil and crops through natural composts, medicinal-herbal teas and dynamized solutions of homeopathic concentrations. But then you have to take yet another step further, as one observer described, into the ultraviolet spectrum of light that you can no longer see, and the high and low frequency sound waves that you can no longer hear. You have stepped off the edge of what science can describe and entered the world of cosmoculture.
But how wild is cosmoculture? If you believe in feng shui, acupuncture, the power of crystals, cosmic energy fields, the “memory” capacity of water and other things that modern science has yet to confirm, or even understand, then it’s a safe bet that you’d be a believer in cosmoculture, too. The Virets believe that telluric and cosmic energy fields can be linked, and that man, animals and plants can benefit from them. Just as feng shui (and vaastu) practitioners seek to enhance positive energy fields (the earth’s chi energy) through directional alignment and with proper placement of potent symbols, the Virets seek to harness telluric energy (magnetic fields) to make vines more naturally disease resistant, and hence require fewer treatments. “The objective is to rebalance, re-energize and preserve the living balance and ecosystems”, according to the Domaine Viret website [author's translation].
One of the methods employed to achieve this is akin to acupuncture. Precisely scattered throughout the Viret’s domaine you’ll find menhirs, large upright standing stones. Menhirs have been found throughout Western Europe, though the purpose of these stone megaliths is hotly debated. The Virets claim that the stones are used like acupuncture needles on the earth, inserted at specific points where fault lines, underground water currents and telluric currents intersect in order to re-balance these vital life forces. If improperly channeled, these forces can have devastatingly nefarious effects on living things, including grapevines and people. Their positive effects, however, are beyond measure.
Water, too, is a critical element. It’s the fundamental support of cellular life. The Virets believe that water has the capacity to absorb and transmit the “information” of biodynamic preparations (exactly like homeopathy), and that it can be used to help regenerate soils, optimize the plant’s natural immune system and promote the health, nutritional and energy value of the fruit. All water is cherished on preserved on the estate.
But does “energy value” of fruit seem a little too much for you? Consider how the earth’s energy is constantly changing, transforming and shifting. Some changes are obvious: the flow of rivers, wind, weather patterns and tides, for example. But many are invisible to us, such as magnetic fields, the massive energy influx from solar flares, radiation, and so on. So perhaps the Virets are on to something after all by harnessing both the visible and invisible forms of energy. As highly respected agricultural consultant and soil specialist Claude Bourguignon was recently quoted as saying in a Decanter article by Andrew Jefford, “The problem is that pure science is not good as embracing the complexity of living things. In wine, you don’t just have science. You have art, culture, many other things. The rational or scientific dimension doesn’t explain everything. We have measured the biological activity in biodynamic horn compost [one of the fundamental preparations used in biodynamics], and found an enormous amount there. For us, that’s not absurd. But if you ask why it’s there, and you read Steiner [the inventor of biodynamics], it gives you a fright, at least if you have a scientific mentality.”
Beyond the energy vibration of grapes, there are some more down to earth principles on the production side followed under the charter of cosmoculture, things no nobody would rationally argue against. Their point of departure is that wine is a living product that follows and is influenced by natural cycles. As with the natural wine movement, nothing is added and nothing is taken away. Forbidden are all of the additives commonly used in industrial winemaking, such as acid of any kind, selected yeasts, fining agents of any kind, sugar, enzymes, powdered tannins, gum Arabica, potassium bicarbonate and bitartrate, ammonium sulfate and others. Additionally, sulfur dioxide, another contentious but ubiquitous wine additive, is reduced to near zero. The Virets claim that since 2002 none of their reds have contained more than 10mg/l of total SO2 (the legal limit is 100 mg/l, and up to 30g/l in Ontario still qualifies as “organic”).
All of the winemaking takes place in what the Virets describe as their winery “cathedral”, built out of stones from the Pont du Gard according “to the principles of architecture of the great builders”. In the central chamber stands a pillar about chest height on which sits a giant round crystal ball, presumably there to absorb negative energy and emit positive vibes back to the wine. Since 1999, many of the Domaine Viret wines have been vinified and aged in large clay vessels called DolÃa, another nod back to ancient times. This is not your standard, gleaming, stainless steel tank-lined winery experience to be sure.
But what of the wines? Cosmoculture is meaningless to the drinker who sits on the other side of the planet, hoping for a nice glass of wine. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be writing this piece if the wines were mediocre, or even decent commercial. But they’re much more than that: the wines are extraordinary. When I brought the first glass up to my nose, the “entry level” Renaissance cuvee, a typical southern RhÃ´ne blend of Grenache, syrah and mourvÃ¨dre, I was struck immediately by how fresh, how pure, how vital this 2009 vintage wine smelled. It was an essence of fresh, crushed black fruit, black licorice, violets, lavender and savoury herbs. And what was even more amazing was how 15 per cent alcohol went completely unnoticed — long time readers of my reviews know how much I dislike over ripe, raisined wines. But not here, the acidity (all natural, naturally) was incredibly vibrant and fresh. Astonishing. The two amphora-aged wines, DolÃa 1 and DolÃa 2, red and white respectively, were even more staggering. The white in particular, or rather more correctly the ambré, an orange coloured wine made by macerating muscat, bourboulenc, clairette and grenache blanc for three and a half months on the skins in clay vessels, was among the most interesting wines I’ve tasted in long term memory. I can only describe it as a vinous equivalent to Chartreuse: amazingly herbal, firm, even tannic, with tremendous length and depth of flavour.
These are wine not to be missed, especially if you’re feeling a little low energy. Read more detailed reviews on Domaine Viret’s range in this weekend’s Toronto Standard wine picks. Wines are available through Tannin Fine Wines; contact Nicholas Pearce firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
More recommendations by John Szabo at www.johnswines.com