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Sustainability - the many faces of sustainability in the wine industry

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

As consumers we are all eager to do our bit for the environment and lighten our footprint on the planet and thus many of us gravitate towards brands that claim ‘sustainability’ in the hope our decisions will make a difference. It is not always clear however, when sustainability is being cynically used as a marketing tool with little to back up its implementation, and when it is a certified practice and a core philosophy. In the world of wine, huge strides are being made in recognising the importance of sustainability, as resources have been put into research, education and official audited certification. The result has been a significant change the way in which grapes are grown and businesses are run. It is a work in progress but we are certainly heading in the right direction.

According to the dictionary sustainability is the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Following the second world war chemical intervention suddenly paved the way for more economically viable agriculture as it reduced pests and disease and therefore crop loss. It was wholeheartedly embraced across agricultural sectors who were battling food shortages (rationing in the UK continued until 1953) and post war economic recession. The British government stated “stability and efficiency” were absolutely paramount to agriculture and chemicals such as DDT were providing the perfect solution. The chemical age of farming had started and as the population began to boom, it became even more fundamental to all agricultural sectors.

The long term environmental ramifications of the sustained use of chemicals in agriculture began to be seen decades later. Bird, insect and microbiological life in the vineyards have been severely affected, so much so that in 1988 French soil biologist Claude Bourguignon stated that the vineyard soils of Burgundy were ‘dead’. Humans were also being affected. Cases brought to the courts in the last decade, particularly in France concluded that deaths from cancer were caused by the long term exposure to herbicides such as glyphosate, used in the vineyards. Concerns are not only for vineyard workers but surrounding communities.

As a result, awareness has risen sharply in the wine industry and producers around the world, often encouraged by industry and government bodies, are looking to change their practices, embracing ‘lutte raisonnée’ or the ‘reasoned fight’, a method of farming that takes a measured approach to sprays, only using them where and when it is absolutely necessary, as well as organic and biodynamic farming. The sustainability movement has gathered strength, with huge investment into research, education and support. It’s basic tenants include minimal vineyard pesticide and fertiliser input, protection of vineyard soils, the promotion of biodiversity and the preservation of the environment as well as reducing water use, waste management, non-renewable energy consumption and carbon footprint.

Some countries have a clear national industry certification with the requirements for certification outlined on their websites such as ‘Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand’, and ‘Sustainable Wine South Africa’. All wineries who are certified follow clear and audited guidelines. Today 98% of the vineyard producing area in New Zealand are certified under this scheme. Some certified wines display a sticker or stamp on the bottle, as with South African certified wines, others have information on their website. ‘Sustainable Wines of Great Britain’ certification is in the process of being launched.

In some countries certification varies by region, making it more confusing for the consumers to recognise. In the Champagne region of France for instance there are two different sustainable certifications a winery could choose, and these certifications are rarely displayed on the bottle. The two certification options are the Haute Valeur Environnementale ‘HVE’ certification, which works through three increasingly stringent tiers to achieve certification. This was an initiative of the French Ministry of Agriculture in 2001 and is valid throughout France. The Conseil de Vins de St Emilion in Bordeaux have gone so far to declare anyone wishing to use the regions Appelletion d’Origin Protégée (AOP) must be certified HVE by 2023. In 2014 another initiative was launched by the Champagne Trade Association called Viticulture Durable en Champagne or VDC. Certification is equally stringent requiring the adherence to 60 critical standards, 31 major standards and 20 minor standards and are audited every 18 months.

Increasingly there are targets on sustainability to be met at regional and governmental level which is a wonderful step towards the wholesale move to sustainability for the wine industry. Below are highlighted just three of the many extraordinary wine producers who are doing their bit to make our planet a better place, illustrating the many shapes that sustainability can take within the wine industry

Champagne Louis Roederer

Champagne Louis Roederer is one of the smallest Grandes Marques champagne houses, but they are pioneers in the area of viticultural sustainability in the region. They own the majority of their own vineyards, all of which are farmed organically and/or biodynamically (a system eschewing chemical herbicides, pesticides or fungicides). Soil health is of paramount importance and they are HVE certified. Working hard in all areas of the business, they have reduced their carbon footprint by 25% in the last decade and they are now recycling 90% of their waste. With typical Gallic modesty little of this is publicised as they believe it should not be a marketing tool but is simply the right way to work. It is thanks to this deep rooted respect for nature combined with exceptional talent and skill that they are able to create such sublime, elegant and crystalline champagnes from the Brut Premier NV through to the iconic Cristal.

Meerlust Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Meerlust Estate is certified as a Sustainable Wine of South Africa, but one of the most impressive and unique things about Meerlust is their work in the area of social and economic sustainability. Tackling a history of racial and economic inequality they set up the Meerlust Foundation focused on the educational, social and developmental needs of the farm workers children. As a result, over the last decade these children have achieved, on average, an additional 5 years more schooling than their parents. They were also instrumental in the creation of Companiesdrift, a Black Economic Empowerment venture owned by the Meerlust Workers Trust which has grown to encompass the workers from 3 different farms and has become a successful and diverse company providing economic independence and a secure future for themselves and their families. Oh, and the wines are world class too, with their flagship Rubicon an icon of South African fine wine.

Castello di Fonterutoli, Tuscany, Italy

Fonterutoli is a fascinating project focusing on biodiversity and sustainable clean energy. They have built the most incredible cellar designed to have a low environmental impact. Everything is moved by gravity rather than pumps, the cellars are deep in the ground and are cooled and humidity controlled by natural springs that run through the walls. They produce their own clean energy by using agricultural waste products as fuel and of the 650 hectares they own, only 116 are under vine, the rest are given over to woodland both for the sake of biodiversity but also carbon absorption. As a result of all of these actions, their property absorbs 5 times more carbon than it releases. There is nothing like drinking top class wine with a clean, green conscience.

Beautiful stories such as these can be seen across the wine world, from Chile and Australia to Portugal and Germany as the wine industry moves increasingly towards a truly sustainable future.

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