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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Breaking Biodynamic Ground in Southern Oregon: Cowhorn Wines


Some of the principles upon which Biodynamics are founded can be a bit distracting, the more esoteric and oddball sounding elements taking away from the overall approach. At it's core it's a holistic approach to the care and cultivation of both crops and the surrounding vineyards, farm and beyond. As an agricultural practice it is the essence of sustainability, stewardship of the vineyards, the soils, water and the surroundings.  Taking great care not to manipulate, poison or harm both the crop, in this case the wine grapes, the land, and the workers. Sustainability as a popular movement is fairly modern, but Biodynamics is certainly a precursor, with it's origins in Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy dating from the early 1900s.

There are countless ecological benefits to biodynamic farming practices, in terms of impacts on ground water, vineyard workers, soil, and a greater general bio-diversity. The downsides are small, overall lower crop yields, and you may very well be thought of as eccentric.

In Southern Oregon there is currently one biodynamic farm and vineyard, and one only. Cowhorn Wines of Jacksonville, Oregon. Producing Rhone style wines, with a real emphasis on Syrah Bill and Barbara Steele set about meticulously measuring and analyzing the property they purchased in 2002 after both leaving careers in business and finance. That analysis led them to believe that the property, with two distinctly different soil types was perfect for general agriculture and farming in one area, and for viticulture in the other.

For Bill Steele Cowhorn's contribution to the Southern Oregon wine identity is not necessarily a formula for what everyone should be doing, but rather a result of the land and place that their vineyard occupies. "The beauty of Southern Oregon is the diversity of micro-climates.  So, while our Cowhorn site is definitely a Rhone site, the other vineyards may experience significantly different weather patterns and soil structures." That site diversity has led to a great diversity in the kinds of varietals the Rogue and Applegate Valleys are producing and Bill thinks that other winemakers and wine growers are doing well selecting appropriate sites for appropriate grapes.

That said, there's a special signature to the wines that the Steele's are producing at Cowhorn. "We think Biodynamics lends to a unique expression of place in our wine. Given that we can’t add chemicals in the fields or in the wine and that we use native yeast to ferment, our wines should have some unique properties as there is no native yeast like Cowhorn anywhere else." I should note that the cowhorn holds a special place in biodynamic farming, particularly in what are referred to as "preparations."  From the Sustainable Table: "Otherwise known as Preparation 500 to Biodynamic farmers worldwide, manure–filled cows' horns are buried on the autumnal equinox and carefully unearthed exactly six months later on the spring equinox, the first day of spring. The manure is removed and stirred with water in a process called "dynamization", which creates a vortex that cosmic energy can be funneled into. The homemade brew is then sprayed upon the fields to stimulate the soil, promote root activity and contribute to good bacteria growth." See what I mean by eccentric?

In addition to their wines, Cowhorn's farming operation produces 10,000 lbs of food annually, mostly asparagus, as well as cherries, artichokes, pears and apples. The Syrahs they produce though are top notch, beautiful, with a strong Northern Rhone influence, native yeasts and whole cluster pressing lead to real and authentic tasting wines.

The 2008 Cowhorn Syrah 74 is loaded with dark opulence, flavors of black berries dark cherries and espresso.   Earth, smoke, meaty flavors and dollops of that dark fruit, that matches the dark hue of the wine.  This Syrah is superbly balanced, with great structure, a touch of wood spice and the right amount of acidity to carry us through to the finish. The "74" apparently refers to the seventy four days of frost that the vineyards were exposed to. $30

The 2008 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah is a joy to behold. Elegant blue fruit aromatics, mingle with lots of earthen character and minerality. Stylistically Rhone, bacon fat, black cherry and a general mouthfeel that highlights minerality and depth.  If you're at all skeptical about the ability of Southern Oregon to produce world class Syrah, this wine is your answer, a no holds barred sensory experience. This is a serious Syrah lover's Syrah and one that if you've not tried you should attempt to track down. $45

2 comments:

What a great post!

I had the pleasure of tasting the Cowhorn line-up at the recent wine bloggers conference in Portland. These wines are big stand-outs to me, and I loved loved loved their Grenache.

I agree there are some aspects that make you scratch your head, such as the BD 500, or fruit days based upon constellations to pick or when to bottle etc. I also believe those that do not have a fuller understanding focus on the abstract.

In considering BD aspects such as recycling, compost, owl boxes, there are many pieces that make good sense but these are rarely a focus. I think of it like this: my parents share a lot of advice over the years.....some of it good.....some of it I filtered out. BD had many good practices and BD vineyards seem to produce great fruit.....maybe it's because BD farmers are constantly in the vineyard.

I agree 100% oh wanderer. There's too much upside to biodynamics to be so dismissive of it as a practice. I'm not sure how strict the Demeter credentialing process is in terms of some of those more esoteric practices.

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