Monologue: Waterford’s Mark Reynier on Biodynamics & Terroir
The moment of Waterford Distillery’s inaugural release is inching closer—in all likelihood we’ll only have to wait a few more months. In the meantime I’ve been getting my Waterford medicine injected in the form of a visit to the distillery in the fall of 2019. I’ve shared photos on social media (I saved an IG Story for example), but haven’t done an extensive report on the blog.
It would’ve been largely a repeat of what I’ve written previously. If you want to know more about the inner workings of the distillery, check out this blog post on an earlier distillery visit. If you want to read about some of the maturing spirit, I’ve got you covered too. I’ll even throw in a long interview with founder and CEO Mark Reynier, if that’s what you fancy.
And yet there’s much more to tell about Waterford. On the level of transparency alone there’s probably multiple articles to write. Visiting the Ballygarran warehouses with head distiller Ned Gahan, he showed me a level of traceability that is near unbelievable. The sheer amount of information logged for every single grain of barley used and each centiliter of new make distilled is mind-boggling, but it’s basically a necessity in this terroir-driven venture of Reynier.
Indeed, the T word. If there’s one term aptly describing what Waterford is all about, it is terroir. The subject of terroir is endlessly fascinating. Digging even deeper, biodynamic farming is an absolute mindfuck. So what better way to talk about this subject by once again opening up the floor for Mark Reynier. I interviewed him last year for an article on Distiller, but only a few quotes made it into the published text. It just didn’t make sense to get all geeked-out in what basically was supposed to be an introduction to Waterford.
However, we talked for about an hour or so. And when I say talked, I mean I mainly listened to Reynier deliver a monologue. I got a word in every now and again, which was more than enough for me. When it comes to people as knowledgeable and passionate as Reynier, I’d rather ask a few questions and let the waterfall of information wash over me.
So that’s what I’m about to do here. I’m about to pour a whole lot of Reynier on you. I edited the interview into a monologue. There’s no reason to interrupt the flow of it by interjecting a question after each paragraph. Instead, just sit down, take your time and (hopefully) enjoy Reynier’s musings on terroir and biodynamics. And away… we… GO!
“This year [2019, Ed.] marks exactly the halfway point in my career between wine and whisky. Twenty years in wine, and twenty years in whisky. At the beginning of my career I was very much involved in importing wine from Burgundy. In fact, I actually used to own a small vineyard there too. It coincided with a period of regeneration. Not just in Burgundy but in the vineyards of France in general. There was a third post-war generation sort of rediscovering and taking back the vineyards. These are guys that trained in Australia and California—a very different approach to what had gone on in the post-war years.
“Part of that was the exploration of different wood types, which is something I brought to Bruichladdich. And another part was the emergence of the organic and biodynamic movements. I was witnessing these very intriguing developments first-hand. But more importantly, being exposed to this, I could actually see the relevance. Ultimately, I was asked to put my hand in my pocket, to put my money where my mouth was, by investing in stocks of these wines. Which you then have to try and convince your customers that they’re worth buying. There’s obviously a commercial angle to it.
“The first time I came across biodynamics was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine de Marcoux. I think it was a 1989 vintage. I went to see this guy for the first time, and I sat in his waiting room. He stuck his head round the door and he gave me a xeroxed pamphlet—very amateur looking document. He left me alone with it, I flipped through it, and I remember thinking: ‘This is absolutely mad. This guy is basically taking the piss, he’s setting me up as a complete idiot.’
“All this sort of astral stuff, I thought it was a mockery. I was wondering what to do. Do I confront the man? Then he stuck his head rather sheepishly round the door and looked at me. He could see that I was lost. We looked at each other for a while and I suddenly realised that this guy was deadly serious. Rather than storm out in a huff, I decided to listen. He took me around the domaine and the vineyards and explained everything to me. I have to say, it registered with me immediately.
“Through the nineties and the oughts, biodynamic farming become more widespread. In particular Marcel Deiss and various other growers like Zind-Humbrecht, have had a big influence on me. There were growers that were fanatical about it, almost evangelical. And then there were more pragmatic people, like Olivier Humbrecht. But the principle was readily understandable.
“I think when it really came home to me, was a January morning in Burgundy, in Puligny-Montrachet, in the cellars of Domaine Leflaive, one of the greatest producers of white Burgundy in the world. I was going through my usual tasting order when we got to the grand crus, the Bâtard-Montrachet, one of the legendary wines. As usual, I was taking notes and was very impressed. I noticed out of my eye that winemaker Pierre Morey had taken a sample from one particular tank with a little chalk board on it. So I asked him what it was. And he suddenly went very red and shuffled, looking down at his feet, mumbling stuff. Then he asked if I wanted to try it. So he brought out the sample. Exactly the same vineyard, vintage and growth. It just had a little something else, a little extra definition and structure. There was just a little more. That’s when he said that is was produced biodynamically. You can’t equivocate. You’re dealing with the best of the best—the greatest terroir, the greatest winemaker, a great vintage. That’s when I knew there was really something in it.
“It’s important to say that when you have a biodynamic wine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the winemaker is particularly good. It’s about how the grapes are produced. You could have a pretty poor terroir and a crappy winemaker, and he can still be following the biodynamic principles, but that doesn’t suddenly transform a crap wine into a good one. It has to be a good terroir and a good winemaker following biodynamics. In my experience, it has to be said, that someone following that all-encompassing way of life—which is what biodynamics is—tends to be pretty fastidious, and therefore pretty fastidious in the wine cellar, and therefore it is pretty likely that it is going to be a good winemaker.
“When I got Bruichladdich I wanted to apply a lot of the principles I’d been exposed to over the previous twenty years. Biodynamics was one of them. We were unable to find someone in Scotland to grow biodynamic barley, so we found someone in England and I was really impressed by the spirit. At Waterford we’re 200 miles further South. It was going to be easier, I thought, to find a biodynamic grower. But it proved a lot more difficult. I held out the challenge to three or four of our organic growers, as to whether they would make that step up, and thankfully they did. That’s how we were able to distil the first Irish biodynamic barley in 2018.
“Biodynamics is turbocharged organic. To become a biodynamic farmer, you often have to go through that organic phase first. It is often the people that are already interested in organic who want to go further. I think the difference between the two is that organics is a principle of not wanting to use as many chemicals and insecticides. Whereas biodynamics is a way of life. You can’t do a little bit. It’s all or nothing.
“When Freddy Flintstone ran out of fertilizer he couldn’t exactly nip down to the local store and buy more fertilizer. He had to make do with what was around him. Biodynamics is an evolution of farming know-how since the last Ice Age, cumulating over 15,000 years of knowledge. Or you can call it old wives’ tales, if you want. All that Rudolf Steiner did in the 1920s is that he codified it into a book that anybody can follow. I suppose you could argue it wasn’t that startling what he was proposing, it was basically writing down all those stories, a bit like Hans Christian Andersen. This came out of the post First World War era, when there was a lot of chemical fertilizer being used. The volumes that were being used were phenomenal. It led to this massive European wine-lake of the 1960s and 1970s, where the whole concept of terroir was lost in the search for volume. That brings me back to my point of that new generation of winemakers in the 1980s and 1990s, who realised the need to rediscover that terroir, which meant reducing the yields and making better wine.
“Biodynamic is a very fancy word. It has this aura of wacky and craziness about it, which I accept. But I am very pleased to see that all the latest agricultural advice coming out from the ministry of Agriculture is about improving soil quality. You need more worms, compost, fertilizer. Well, that’s biodynamics. If you chemically abuse your soil year after year, it becomes neutral. You need to have a living soil. Any farmer and gardener knows this, they just don’t call it biodynamics.
“A lot of farmers have heard about it and they know it’s wrong to limitlessly whack down chemicals and insecticides. But it is very hard to break that cycle. For farmers it is a commodity. The more you produce, the more you sell. So why on earth would you compromise your livelihood. Many of the naysayers go back to the wine side of it. As if the winemakers can afford to do it because of what they can charge for their wines. Well yes, that’s true. But the reason people pay so much for their wines, is because they’re so good. It is no surprise that many of the greatest winemakers in the world are all practising biodynamics.
“The long and short of it is, when you taste our biodynamic spirit and compare it to organic or traditional, it is exactly as I discovered at Domaine Leflaive. It’s just got more definition, a wine trade term. What definition means to me, is that every element is more defined. Whether it is the acidity, the fruit, the tannin, the richness. Each of those elements is just a little bit higher up on the Richter scale. Just a little bit more, but it is disproportionally relevant. It makes a big difference to those that are looking for it. If I could do everything biodynamically, I would.
“Our Terroir Project is quite a complicated arrangement. They’re doing a proper peer reviewed experiment. The set up and the administration is profound. The initial results from dr. Dustin Herb’s research are all couched in scientific jargon. But the long and short of it is: Yes, terroir does exist. It’s something that everybody in the wine world has known for years. But oddly enough no one has ever bothered to proof that the concept of terroir does exist. Consequently, people that are less interested or want to deliberately cause trouble, are happy to point out that there is no scientific evidence that terroir exists. Up to now, that has been true. This is what led me to set up my own project along with the Irish ministry of Agriculture, Cork University and top Scottish laboratory Tatlock & Thomson. We want to show or proof once and for all that terroir does exist. Because I’m fed up hearing from the Diageo and the likes that it doesn’t.
“Before we publish this, we want to make sure that we have not left any stone unturned. Because we know that the same people that pour scorn over biodynamics, the same people that pour scorn over terroir, are the same people that will try and discredit this study. We want to make sure that there is nothing for them to discredit. We are doing a third and fourth set of sample testing and the results of that will go with what we already have. It will provide us with a complete study. Although I don’t think the results will bring about much change in the whisky industry. It’s for me. It’s as simple as that.
“Once we’ve finished our research you can bet your bottom dollar that the word terroir is going the be used and abused by all the big players like there is no tomorrow. Stand by for gross abuse of the term as they try and nail their colours to this idea. You can see it coming. That will just be a fig leaf. That would be using a term that’s easily made to be confusing that has a lot of kudos attached to it, without actually having to do anything. Of course, for a marketing department, they love that.
“That great industry wide chestnut that 70 or 80 percent of whisky’s flavour comes from the wood bugs me like there’s no tomorrow. That’s absolute nonsense and needs to be nailed once and for all. It’s a complete and utter misleading idea that gets vacuously repeated throughout the industry. It’s basically used as a smokescreen to account for why everybody is finishing their spirit in all sorts of different types of barrel. You could argue that if they’d actually put it into decent barrels in the first place, it wouldn’t need a finish with all these different cask types. Sadly, it’s become a sales and marketing wheeze, a way to sell more spirits. The idea of finishing has really become a sort of branding exercise with very little quality or imagination.
“Instead of saying 70 percent of flavour comes from the wood, what you should say is that 100 percent of whisky’s flavour is influenced by its time in wood. That would be correct. Because you put the new spirit in the barrel and yes, there are extractive activities going on. The alcohol is absolving the flavour compounds from the wood. Lignin, vanillin. It does that very quickly. Then you get the oxidation, the micro-oxygenation through the wood. That happens over years. It’s when the wood becomes a membrane and allows air in but keeps the liquid in there. The extractive capabilities of the alcohol are outweighed by the micro-oxygenation over time, converting the flavour compounds into the ones that we associate with maturity. Otherwise, very simply, no one would bother to age whisky. With a great wine it’s the same thing. A Château Lafite breathes through the cork, and that is the great joy of laying them down so that they take on this style of maturity. Again, we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t happen.
“I’ve had 25-year-old single malt that had been in a barrel that was so tired, that the spirit was almost as clear as the day it went in. And yet it is mature whisky. Of course, for the big distilling groups this inconvenience, the lack of colour, is easily rectified. I think that has been part of the problem, which has led to finishing. At Bruichladdich we were very inventive with wood, but that’s because we were interested in wood and what could be achieved by introduction of different types of oak from different forests. Not from different wines or from sticking chateau names all over labels, but actually from the quality of the oak, the style of the cooperage, the origin of the forest. That was intriguing. But of course, I think like any good idea in this industry, which is a magpie industry, these concepts get hijacked by marketing departments and it gets twisted and corrupted. I think that’s where we are at the moment.
“How do you create the most profound whisky that’s ever seen? It’s a question of the component parts. I’ve noticed increasingly that commentators are saying that single malts are blended whiskies too. I think this is not as innocent a remark as it looks. I feel it is to de-power some of the credibility of single malt whisky in favour of blended whisky. Blended whisky is predominantly made from corn or cheaper grains. Single malt is only made from malted barley, which provides this extraordinary flavour complexity. If you bottle single malt whisky, it is made up of a vatting of various casks from the same distillery. Generally speaking, the barley from those whiskies comes from wherever it is available. The majority of barley for Scottish whiskies comes from outside of Scotland. It’s a commodity, for a commodity price, brought to the distillery, distilled, and brought back to the mainland to a central warehouse.
“What we’re trying to do, something we started at Bruichladdich, is grow barley on individual farms. Then bring it to the distillery, so that we can then distil it farm by farm. The barley grown on each farm will have an individuality, a terroir, whose expression we hope to be able to extract using our facilitator distillery. Those variances will appear in the spirit after fermentation and distillation. We are laying down annually forty mini single malt whiskies. About 8,000 cases worth of each one. When we play with them, which is what we’re doing now by assembling them in different proportions from different farm, each farm has its own identity, which is demonstrable from gas chromatography analysis. If you stack those, you are adding layers of complexity, one on top of the other, like a mille-feuille gateaux. When you come to enjoy a spirit that has been assembled this way, what you should see is that the spirit should release those layers in the glass. As the taster you should be able to enjoy the experience, a bit like the dance of the seven veils—one layer being stripped of after the other. That should appeal to your senses an provide an experience unlike any other. That’s the aim. The proof of the pudding remains to be seen.
“Remember, the spirit of each of the farms is divided into the same barrel types. Each farm is a standalone bottling like any other distillery. So, it’s like we got forty different distilleries, except it’s not. It’s one distillery, using different origins of barley. That’s the difference, that’s what we’ve done. Waterford isn’t going to be for everybody. The concepts that we are putting in play, are not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. I accept that. People that understand the concept and are intrigued and curious, those are the people this whisky is for.”
Thijs is a spirits writer and accredited liquorist from The Netherlands. He runs the blog Words of Whisky and contributes to a number of Dutch and international publications.