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Andrew Jefford: ‘Biodynamically grown, artisanally crafted – and free of chemicals, of course. Not so’

Well? Are you going to do it? Put like that, maybe not. Yet all I’ve done is to welcome you to my kitchen table, and poured you a £8,905 serve (7.5cl) of the 2008 Domaine Leroy Musigny. I told you the truth – but was insufficiently precise. You were wary. Rightly so, since my description might also have described a poison.

You sniff and sip the Burgundy, now decanted into hand-blown crystal; doubtless it’s wonderful (I’ve never tried). What a relief! Biodynamically grown, artisanally crafted – and free of chemicals, of course.

Not so. As I said, it’s a complex mixture of chemical compounds. Water, ethanol, glycerol, acids, polyphenols, polysaccharides: all these are chemical compounds or families of compounds. Chemistry is all around us. It’s the study of matter, its properties and its interactions. Organic chemistry anatomises life itself. Yet this vast subject and its necessarily complex nomenclature terrify – so we run.

We ‘don’t want chemicals in our wine’, even though wine itself is a mixture of chemical compounds. We need and trust salt, and season our food to excess – yet ‘sodium chloride’ rings alarm bells. We rhapsodise the acidity in a fine Mosel Riesling, but frown at E334 in desserts, jams, jellies and sweets. (It’s tartaric acid, the most distinctive and significant acid in wine.) Carbon dioxide (or an atmospheric excess of it) has come to be seen as toxic – unless it’s beading Champagne, Coke or Perrier, or creeping across the stage as dry ice (all 250kg of it) in Phantom of the Opera. No one wants stinking June vineyards laden in copper sulphate. Thank goodness, though, for traditional Bordeaux mixture, which helps organic wine-growers keep fungal diseases at bay. (Bordeaux mixture is copper sulphate mixed with quicklime.) Harmful sulphur dioxide should be kept out of wine if possible, no? A handful of dried apricots, by contrast, makes a healthy, antioxidant-packed snack. Eight dried apricots may carry up to twice the SO2 of an average bottle of red wine; sulphur dioxide, moreover, is a natural by-product of fermentation.

‘I don’t mind nature’s chemistry,’ you reply; ‘I just want the chemistry to stop there. I’m going to drink wine, to take it into my body, so I want it to be pure and natural.’ Never been ill, then? Most of the drugs that keep our bodies healthy are synthetic chemical substances. One day, synthetic chemicals in your body are going to save or prolong your life.

The problem is not chemistry, but its misuse. As wine consumers, we would be best placed to assess this misuse by engaging with the subject rationally rather than hysterically.

It may be that (resources allowing) biodynamics is the best way to nurture a high-quality vineyard. If so, there will be sound biochemical reasons for that. Resorting to picturesque explanations sets our thinking back, unless these are expressly couched as poetry (a beautiful truth beyond reason).

The addition of chemical compounds (SO2, say) to a complex mixture of chemical compounds (like wine) strikes me as a neutral act. If they disfigure wine, as misguided additions do, they constitute misuse. If they permit wine’s finest sensual qualities to emerge with maximum clarity, or extend wine’s life (which nature intends to be short and sour), they are used well. The difference is best called calmly, using our noses, mouths and digestive systems.

The most lethal chemical compound in wine is ethanol – but it’s that which, for at least 9,000 years, humans have craved. Ethanol illuminates wines from within, brings drinkers together, ensures that wines like Musigny (whose singular beauty must certainly possess a biochemical profile) inspire. Embracing ‘the central science’ – the link between the physical world and living things – is essential to understanding. Chemistry deserves a better wine rap.

In my glass this month

No Leroy Musigny, alas – but there are other fish in the sea. Here’s a wine that looks as exciting as it tastes: The Oddball Saperavi 2019 from Australia’s Hugh Hamilton. I love this Georgian grape variety, the world’s finest teinturier (a red grape with red juice), and the Hamilton family’s McLaren Vale reading captures all its cascading black-fruit excitement, vigour and exuberance. If you find the tannins of Georgia’s Saperavis intimidating, try Oddball. Ample texture – but absorbed by the gleaming lacquer of fruit.

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