Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES September 19th, 2020

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 19th: Sustainability in Ontario and More Great Picks

By John Szabo MS, with picks from Sara, David, and Michael

Sustainability is one of the biggest discussion topics in the 21st century wine world.  And it’s gaining momentum. Every zoom interview and correspondence with winemakers I’ve had in the last six months has touched on it, as well as on directly and indirectly related topics like climate change and carbon footprint, social equity and economic stability. Yet sustainability remains a much more nebulous concept than, say, organics. It’s much broader, encompassing a great deal more than farming practices, and the definition and details change from place to place, which makes it harder to communicate and to fully grasp. But I’d argue that it’s the most important program to implement, even a moral imperative, one which should be part of every appellation system worldwide. As of 2019, Ontario has joined the ranks of many countries and regions around the world with official, if voluntary, sustainability codes. Read on to find out which Ontario wineries have signed on, and for our top Ontario wine picks from the Vintages September 19th release featuring local wines. A smattering of other particularly delicious wines in the release follows.


Sustainability: A Moral Imperative

Despite what Thomas Jefferson said, wine is not a necessity of life. As a luxury, non-essential product, it should be held to the highest production standards. There’s no excuse for irreparably damaging the planet, or exploiting workers, to make it. Winemakers aren’t saving the world. The discussion with wheat or corn or vegetable farmers would be a little different. But when it comes to winegrowing, we should demand nothing less than for producers to leave the earth at least as healthy as they found it for the next generation. It’s a moral imperative.

Every consumer survey and demographic report and trend watch I’ve read recently also points to sustainability as a smart business choice. The next generation of wine drinkers will be asking as much about the sustainability initiatives of an operation as about the quality of the wine actually produced. Probably even more. It’s no longer good enough to be good. A truly fine wine today must also be sustainably made. If it’s not, consumers will move on.

What sets sustainable wine apart from organic, or biodynamic wine, is that the concept encompasses not only farming practices such as reducing or eliminating chemical herbicides and fungicides, but also every other step of the winemaking process. This means reduction of wastewater, for example, and implementation of energy efficiency programs including use of sustainable power sources. And it goes further, far beyond what organic or biodynamic certifications require. It also touches upon human resources, ensuring fair wages and working conditions, social responsibility and being a positive force in local communities. It also looks at the economic sustainability of a business, seeking efficiencies to keeps operations afloat. For these last few reasons alone sustainability models should be lauded.

In practical terms, sustainability codes are implemented, and certification obtained, by creating a checklist so that wineries can self-evaluate their current performance in a number of areas, and measuring it against minimum industry standards. The idea is constant evolution, and operations are expected to improve their ratings in each area over time to retain certification.

Since each country has its own peculiarities of climate and legislation and political and social structure, there’s no universal code for sustainability in the wine business. This is both its greatest strength –adaptability to specific conditions – and weakness, which is the confusion and communications nightmare caused by having dozens of different codes in place around the world covering different aspects of what it means to be sustainable. How is a wine consumer to unpack, digest, and fully understand what all of these sustainability certifications actually mean?

But, I feel, as “organic” was once a hazy, misunderstood concept, sustainability, too, can grow over time to become better understood, especially for next-gen wine drinkers who are already demanding more transparency from the companies that try to sell them things. A proliferation of sustainability certifications on bottles of wine from around the world will raise awareness, and with it, at least a basic understanding of what it means.

Detractors of sustainability programs say that the environmental restrictions are too lax. Chemical pesticides and herbicides, for example, are not forbidden. The barrier is set too low. But from my perspective, any program that forces you to take a hard look at your practices will almost unfailingly lead to better practices and a reduction in the environmental harm you cause, and can very easily lead toward near or full organic practices in time. It’s a necessary step, and most importantly, it gets producers in the door. Demanding a jump from conventional directly to organics is unrealistic and bound to fail. There are risks that not all wineries are willing or able to take. But demanding a move to a baseline level of sustainability is achievable for all. And it’s a base from which wineries can continue to improve their practices.

New Zealand is an excellent example. In a short period of time, fully 98% of the wine industry has become certified sustainable. The incentive was that any winery wishing to participate in, and benefit from, any of the New Zealand Winegrowers marketing initiatives (the industry association responsible for the promotion of New Zealand wines) had to be certified sustainable. It’s a move that worked. And now organic and biodynamic certifications are rising. Chile, South Africa, and the US are also among the more progressive countries working towards sustainability.

I would even go so far as to make sustainability a mandatory part of the appellation certification process. To label your wine as Sancerre or Volnay or Mornington Peninsula or Napa Valley, you must not only adhere to all of the usual requirements of any appellation system, you must also be certified sustainable, according to the local sustainability code created by both industry and government. And it would be audited just like everything else in an appellation system. If you wish to benefit from the collective, shared brand that appellations essentially are, you must contribute positively to its reputation not just in quality terms, but also in environmental and social terms. This would add significant value to the shared brand. And, I think it’s the least we can do for the next generation.

Sustainable Ontario

Ontario, finally, has an official, third-party-audited sustainable certification process in place as of last year, with certified wines now entering the market. According to Wine Country Ontario, “participating wineries are audited annually to ensure they are adhering to environmentally sustainable practices in their winemaking operations. Best practices include conservation of water, reduction in waste and wastewater and implementation of energy efficiency programs.”

Additionally, certified Ontario wineries, “must also produce VQA wines, which are always made from 100% locally grown grapes. Local wines inherently have a smaller carbon footprint and also play a vital role in preserving local economies. They are an integral part of a community’s economic health and are woven into their fabric. Sustainably Certified Ontario wineries must also be good neighbours and cultivate positive relationships with their communities. They must be leaders in social responsibility and be committed to producing authentic regional wines. VQA wines are a cornerstone of local food cultures that should be preserved for generations to come.”

Participation is, for the time being, voluntary, like every other sustainability certification in the world. But it’s a very good start.

Look for the green leaf icon  found on labels to identify Sustainable Ontario Certified Wines.

Ontario Certified Sustainable wineries to date:

Buyer’s Guide September 19th: Ontario

Closson Chase 2017 Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir, VQA Prince Edward
John Szabo – Predominantly from the South Clos vineyard, with 10% from the Churchside (for which there is a separate bottling), this is fermented in open top wood and aged in barriques, of which less than 10% were new. The colour is garnet red with notably ripe fruit (harvested at average of 23º brix – very ripe indeed for PEC), with a purity of fruit that brings to mind New Zealand pinot, particularly Marlborough, with its sweet-savoury-tart red berry character. The palate is decidedly county, however, with firm, succulent acids and sinewy tannins woven into the ensemble. Drinking well, but cellerable into the early-mid twenties I suspect.
David Lawrason – This to my mind is the best vintage by Closson Chase, a very fine and classic County pinot that is balanced and refined. It is light to medium bodied, quite smooth, warm and even rich on the palate, with mild shrubby tannin.

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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS


Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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