Liquids: Biodynamic Wines

With flavor deeply rooted in a vineyard’s terroir, biodynamic wines live up to the hype.


When was the last time you put a glass of wine to your lips and said, “Wow! This is one of the best (fill in region/grape here) I’ve ever had!”? I had one such epiphany recently at a gathering called “Return to Terroir,” sponsored by a group of like-minded producers who practice, at the very least, organic farming, and at the extreme, biodynamic winemaking, which has strict agricultural, even philosophical, standards. The wine that gave me pause was a biodynamic 2002 pinot grigio made by Slovenian producer Movia. It was one of the most unusual and delicious pinot grigios I’ve ever tasted, with aromas and flavors of pineapple, grapefruit, and chalky minerals, and an intense, mouthwatering finish kissed with lemon zest.

As I tasted two other Movia whites, I realized their flavors had everything to do with where they came from. Which of course was the point. The nearly 80 winemakers wanted to persuade skeptics like me that biodynamic methods, which pursue the true expression of a vineyard’s terroir, or place, are more than just marketing. Who knew?

My wine friends laughed: Who knew? Richard Kzirian, of course. The wine buyer and director of Violette Imports in Cambridge, Kzirian is a David in the face of Goliath-size importers and distributors, which too often focus on quantity over quality. No wonder the best sommeliers around town think of Kzirian as the Robert Parker of biodynamic wines.

Kzirian opened his doors in 1984, and from the outset was considered an offbeat palate with an uncanny ability to sniff out emerging regions and trends. But Kzirian didn’t have his own biodynamics epiphany until 2000, during a barrel-tasting binge through France. In Mâcon, Burgundy, he met Alain Guillot, owner of France’s oldest organic winery, Domaine des Vignes du Maynes. Just one taste of their Mâcon Cruzille chardonnay, and thunder struck. There was the usual pear and cinnamon spice, but there was something more, a unique complexity. “Suddenly, I realized that it was because the wine was made without all this stuff in the vineyards,” says Kzirian. He began to import their wines, the first step in developing an entirely organic portfolio. Today, around 70 percent of his wines are organic. Of those, about half are biodynamic.

The “stuff” Kzirian was referring to is synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sulfur dioxide (doused on grapes to stabilize them after being picked—sometimes for weeks!), and commercial yeasts used to jump-start fermentation. While organic wines are made with organic grapes and have no added sulfites, biodynamics goes even further. The method’s roots can be traced to a 1924 course taught by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who argued that a farm is a living organism comprised of tangible and intangible forces. It mandates consideration of a broader ecosystem, including climate, wildlife, and the cosmic rhythms of other planets in the solar system.

If it sounds crunchy, it is. In a nutshell, biodynamics is sort of like feng shui for a farm. Certification, granted by the international group Demeter, can take several years.

But back to Kzirian. Today he represents 16 producers from Italy and 30 from France—where biodynamics is well known, thanks to the unabashed cheerleading of celebrated winemakers including Nicolas Joly and Michel Chapoutier. Finding biodynamic wines made in the United States, though, is tough, says Kzirian, because the concept is relatively new. (Joseph Phelps, producer of the famed Insignia wines, for example, farms biodynamically but doesn’t advertise it on the label since the winery isn’t officially certified.) Still, Kzirian has found several from California and Oregon. “We’re at the early stages of this discovery,” he says. “I am still finding my way.”

And helping others do the same. Kzirian is the force behind some of the top wine lists in the city, working with Cat Silirie at No. 9 Park, Ana Sortun at Oleana, Scott Holliday at Chez Henri, and Tony Maws at Craigie Street Bistrot. Maws, also an organic fanatic, meets with Kzirian as often as three times a week: “Richard is not just a salesman,” says Maws. “He’s like the pied piper.”

Will you be able to taste the difference in a biodynamic wine? Maybe not at first. To experience your own epiphany, Kzirian says, you have to carefully compare a handful of wines made in the same region with the same grape: “Nonbiodynamic wines are flatter. They’re fine. But they’re just not explosive.”

Explosive. That’s probably the best way to describe biodynamic wines. And I bet that 10 years from now, we’ll look back at Kzirian’s influence and characterize it the same way.

>>Biodynamic wines available at Vintages, 53 Commonwealth Ave., West Concord, 978-369-2545, www.vintagesonline.com.