Lifestyle & opinion

Sustainability in wine: The flair behind the flavour

How are winemakers around the world adapting to different conditions and challenges in vineyard and cellar? A look at just a few of the growers with whom we work reveals a tapestry of solutions, lo-tech, hi-tech, quirky and sometimes jaw-dropping…

Tablas Creek, California
Tablas Creek, California, the world’s first certified regenerative organic wine property, maintains a herd of about 200 sheep and a full-time shepherd

As with good wine, it’s best to start in the vineyard. From Bordeaux to the Barossa, we hear time and again of growers navigating a path away from reliance, or overreliance, on chemicals, often having to strike a difficult balance between the insurance that spraying can provide and the long-term health of the land.

Many have turned to regenerative agriculture and biodiversity not merely to face down the challenges to come, but also repairing damage already done through years of heavy-handed chemical usage. Some of these methods are described as ‘low intervention’, but they involve a paradoxically enormous effort spending time in the vineyards, observing them and working around the clock to take care of them. The dramatic images of bougies (candles) illuminating French vineyards during this year’s spring frosts served as a vivid demonstration of how some can and will ‘intervene’ under extreme duress from Mother Nature.

By their nature, grapes are a monoculture and tough on soils, so a gentler approach can be found by recasting the vine as one actor within a cast of characters in a thriving ecosystem. Certifications for these heroic efforts are now numerous, opening in the process a can of well-meaning worms for the consumer: even the keenest of us are quick to be confused by the abundance of different bodies and symbols.

Organic, the best known but not always a silver bullet for virtuous viticulture, is being joined by several other rising beacons, many of them localised. For example, an increasing number of growers with whom we work in France have now gained the HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) level 3, and the pride with which they disclose the achievement reflects what a difficult thing it is to gain.

While romantic tales of such heroism by small-scale artisan producers abound, the logic of scale also means that the impact of a thoughtful colossus making such efforts can have an even larger environmental impact. Symington Family Estates in Portugal have led the way in attaining B-Corp certification, an initiative that is not limited to wine and which assesses a dizzying array of factors concerning social and environmental performance. Chilean heavyweights Concha y Toro have also received certification recently.

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A visit to Champagne Louis Roederer (purveyors of the prized Cristal) some years ago was also an eye-opening experience in this regard, offering a sense of the enormity as well as the endeavour behind their sustainability work. 115 of their 242 hectares of vineyards are now certified organic and farmed biodynamically. They pay a premium for fruit farmed in a similar way when dealing with other growers, and in the winery they recycle 90% of their waste, reducing their carbon footprint by 25% in the past decade. It has earned them the inaugural ‘green emblem’ from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate to recognise ‘the most extraordinary cases of sustainable efforts’, but while these efforts are indeed notable, they are far from isolated within the world’s most famous fizz region.

Although we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that greater investment power increases the scale, it’s worth stopping and marvelling at some of the innovations that result.

As well as being pioneers of the Terra Vitis movement within France, Château Beaumont, a Bordeaux address many members will know for its splendidly consistent and good-value claret, found a striking way to reduce reliance on water and chemicals in the winery, using – of all things – hospital-grade nebulisers to sterilise their tanks. Though they had difficulty convincing some curious neighbours of its use, the results gained by these remarkable robotic contraptions speak for themselves. Not only does this initiative reduce waste, but also cleaning time (which anyone with winery experience will tell you takes up an extraordinary percentage of the job), a boon to efficiency.

Grove Mill
New Zealand’s solar-powered operation Grove Mill have established a wetland reserve to maintain local biodiversity, use recycled glass for their lightweight bottles and labels derived from sugarcane

The importance of sustainability may have become more prominent recently, but New Zealand was establishing the first countrywide wine industry programme back in 1994. Among the incredible stories that have come out of the country during the intervening years, it’s particularly striking to see how a winery like Grove Mill operates. Behind their much-loved sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir lies an operation powered by solar energy, bottling the wines in lightweight recycled glass and labelling them with sugarcane-derived paper. Australia’s Brokenwood also have an admirable focus on packaging, which those who’ve enjoyed The Society’s Semillon will have felt in their hands via the lighter-weight bottle.

Amazing things are happening in South Africa, where efforts to mitigate severe inequalities have given life to transformative initiatives in helping farming families, such as the Pebbles Project, supported by Lubanzi; and when it comes to environmental concerns, Jeremy Borg of Painted Wolf's fundraising efforts for wildlife conservation also deserve a special mention.

Owl
Delicato Family Wines have erected owl boxes in their vineyards to help with pest control. Just one of many sustainable initiatives introduced across the business

California, unsurprisingly, is also a hotbed of inspiring stories. Last year Tablas Creek became the world’s first winery to secure a Regenerative Organic Certification. And in the vineyards of Delicato, you’ll find everything from weather stations to owl nesting boxes, to provide up-to-the-minute information and pest control respectively!

Every region and sub region in the winegrowing world faces its own problems and priorities when producing something as magical as it is, fundamentally, agricultural. By finding new ways to tackle them, these and many other growers are not only safeguarding the health of their own vineyards, wineries and workers, but also the wealth of knowledge for others facing comparable challenges. We raise a glass to these incredible people, their efforts and their innovations.

Browse our selection of organic wines

Martin Brown

The Society's Managing Editor

Martin Brown

Martin joined our team in 2011 having worked as a professional scribe in various capacities. He is responsible for much of our online and printed communications and is a regular contributor to our Discovery pages.

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