Here, we’ve prepared a glossary of the most important terms relating to sustainability in wine. Knowing what these words really mean can help you make more sustainable choices and understand more about the sustainability strategy and actions at The Wine Society.
Farming and growing grapes based on a set of restorative principles designed to improve soil health, minimise chemical treatments and soil erosion, increase biodiversity in and around the vineyard, absorb more carbon from the atmosphere (see Carbon Sequestration, below) with the outcome of healthy, more resilient and disease-resistant vines. While there is still some debate about exactly what is and isn't strictly 'regenerative', it is generally described as farming in a way that puts more back into the vineyard, in terms of biodiversity, carbon and general soil health, than is taken out. It is now possible to be certified for regenerative practices, as achieved by Tablas Creek in California. Read more detail on regenerative viticulture in this article by Simon Mason, our head of wine sustainability.
This is wine made from grapes grown without pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic winemaking also limits the use of sulphites, which are typically used as preservatives in conventional wines. Organic certification for wine often involves adherence to strict organic farming standards. It is not without drawbacks, however. Copper is an important tool in the vineyard arsenal to combat diseases such as mildew (a fungal disease that can impact the yield and quality of grapes) and while reduced in recent years, levels can build up over time in soil. Often, other organic preparations are less effective than conventional treatments and necessitate more applications during the growing season. This can lead to more greenhouse gasses emitted and potentially more soil compaction.
In the EU, specific criteria was introduced in 2012 that winemakers had to abide by in order to be officially certified as organic, and once these criteria are met, products can display the EU organic logo. In the UK, certification can be obtained from the Soil Association, and in the US, certification is granted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other countries will have their own laws and certification programmes around organic practices.
Biodynamic certification requires additional steps to organic farming. As well as using natural methods without chemical intervention, it’s based on the principle of viewing the vineyard as a holistic ecosystem, with each part supporting another. So, crops that improve soil health may also provide a habitat for natural predators like bats, and livestock may graze on the land and their manure be used as fertiliser. A full biodynamic approach also involves planting and harvesting grapes according to the biodynamic wine calendar, based on theory developed by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was one of the first to express concerns about how humans treated the earth. He encouraged agriculture that viewed the land as part of an interconnected, circular lifecycle, together with the four elements of air, water, earth, and fire, creating the biodynamic calendar for farmers to work their land in accordance with things like the weather and astrology. The natural and chemical-free side of this practice is certainly good for sustainability and the overall practices, although sometimes viewed with scepticism, can lead to a high level of care and attention throughout the production process. It can also be an expensive practice to institute, meaning it’s not suitable or possible for all winemakers.
Natural wine usually refers to wine that’s made by small producers, hand-picked and fermented with no added yeast, no or very low preservative sulphur, and minimal intervention either in the vineyard or the winery. Growing practices will often be organic, if not biodynamic. That said, there is no set criteria in law (except in France) on what constitutes a natural wine, so the growing and producing practices are not guaranteed, nor does the term denote anything about the quality of the wine. The term low-intervention is often used interchangeably with natural wine, and has a similar understanding.
These are crops other than grapes grown in vineyards between the vines. Unlike the grapes, they’re not harvested – they literally ‘cover’ the soil and maintain its health in between grape harvests. Cover crops stimulate microbial activity in the ground and generally keep the soil healthy. They distribute rainfall evenly and help prevent soil erosion, which would greatly affect the vine growth. They play a key role in carbon sequestration (see full definition below) through a ‘no-till’ approach; tilling is a popular method of weed control in vineyards to help reduce the use of certain chemicals, but it disturbs the soil, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. Using cover crops instead means they can be mown and allowed to mulch into the soil or be grazed by sheep or cattle.
Cover crops can also help reduce the temperature of the soil in hot climates. In Spain, for example, cover crops have been shown to reduce the temperature of the soil by up to 20 degrees celsius. This keeps the grapes cooler and helps reduce the risk of them drying up or overripening.
This is the efforts made to use water efficiently in the vineyard and winery. Conserving water may be done using drip irrigation systems (running water through pipes straight to the vine roots which vastly reduces water use compared to spraying water over a vineyard with a sprinkler), rainwater harvesting, the creation of reservoirs, or collecting water to reuse from barrel-cleaning and even bathrooms. It’s especially important in regions with water scarcity to ensure sustainable vineyard practices.
Biodiversity is achieved by introducing or encouraging a variety of plant and animal species in and around the vineyard. It’s essential for a healthy ecosystem, and it can benefit wine production by promoting natural pest control (bats, for example, are very useful in vineyards for preying on moths that feed on grape berries and blossoms), enhancing soil health, and contributing to the overall sustainability of the vineyard. Biodiversity is key both over and underground; healthy soils are ones that are full of life - worms, bacteria, fungi and other organisms that make up a thriving ecosystem, and healthy soil equals healthy vines. Dead 'above ground' biodiversity (leaves, manure, animals etc) contributes to a healthy soil.
Treatments in the vineyard and winery
These are exactly what they sound like: fertilisers derived from natural sources. Manure and peat are probably the first that come to mind, but there are others, too. Compost – a compound made of decomposing plant and animal matter – is another. Bones, feathers and even tea bags and newspapers can be added to compost. The benefits of biochar - any organic material that has been anaerobically carbonised under high temperatures - are also being realised. Fertilisers contain nutrients that stimulate growth, like phosphorus, nitrogen, sulphur, magnesium and potassium.
Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides (and which are legally permitted)
These are the chemicals that are added to the crops to kill off pests, like insects that might eat the plant, or weeds that could inhibit its growth. Organic winemaking will not use synthetic pest or weed killers, instead opting for natural treatments; sulphur and copper are still commonly used as fungicides on grapes to combat mildew, and are permitted by law. The EU, UK and other countries where wine is grown all have their own legislation on pesticide use and how much is permitted in agriculture, with these laws usually based on scientific evidence of the effect on consumers, and targets to reduce pesticides to improve sustainability.
Copper is another common additive in winemaking, most commonly used to remove unwanted sulphites and related odours, as well as copper-based sprays used in the vineyard to combat downy mildew. There is some caution required - the addition of copper to the wine can cause a reaction that results in insoluble copper particles, decreased quality and taste, and even health risks. Studies into the effects of copper on wine have identified more effective ways to use it that don’t cause residue, and some winemakers will opt not to use it at all. Copper based sprays are used in organic viticulture although the permitted limits were reduced in 2018; natural/low-intervention wines may also use it.
Sulphites (Sulphur and sulphur dioxide)
Elemental sulphur is an important tool in the vineyard where it helps to prevent powdery mildew. Generally there is a period before harvest where no sulphur is applied to minimise residue on arrival in the winery. Sulphur dioxide, a different chemical, is a common additive in the winemaking process, as it kills unwanted bacteria and yeast, so many wines contain sulphites as a result. Historically, its use in wine was largely accepted, and discussions around its impact on the taste and quality of wine are more recent. Use and maximum levels in conventionally made wines are strictly regulated and limited while organic wines have a lower legal limit; natural or low intervention winemakers will usually choose not to add sulphur dioxide at any stage of the process. It’s important to point out that sulphites also occur naturally as a result of fermentation, and can be found in other foodstuffs apart from wine. The use of sulphur won’t, conversely, stop a wine being classified as ‘natural’ even under the French criteria, as it is not added to the vine, but to the wine later in the process.
Carbon emissions (and where they come from)
Carbon emissions are simply the amount of carbon dioxide that any activity produces. There are set formulas to calculate emissions from each activity that is undertaken to grow grapes and make wine. In the vineyard and winemaking process, carbon is emitted at several stages: the manufacture, transport and use of synthetic treatments (fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides), from fuel used by machinery (e.g. tractors), from water use and from energy use in the vineyard buildings. The rest of the wine production and retail chain also produces carbon emissions from a variety of sources, including providing light and heat to warehouses, operating the bottling process, manufacturing packaging, and the logistics of transporting wine to shops and consumers. Our annual sustainability report gives more detail on our biggest carbon emissions and what we’re doing to reduce them.
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. This can be done through technological means or natural means. Trees are a great way to sequester carbon; they draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow and ‘trap’ it in their wood, leaves and roots.
Another natural method of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is into soil. Plants capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis then transfer it to the soil when they die and decompose. Keeping soils healthy could be a key climate change solution – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has estimated that soil carbon sequestration has the potential to compensate 27% of agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. Even conventionally farmed vineyards will already be capturing carbon but regenerative agriculture (see definition above) can significantly increase the amount of carbon sequestered into soil.
An organisation’s carbon footprint is the measure of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of its activities. Any company serious about tackling climate change needs to take concrete action to reduce its carbon footprint in its own operations and throughout its supply chain - this is what The Society is doing. We have hired an expert, independent environment consultancy to help us calculate our carbon footprint, set carbon emission reduction targets across our business and supply chain, and developed a plan for how we are going to achieve our targets. You can read more about that plan here, and see the latest news on our reducing our carbon footprint in our annual report.