Austria: The Green Heart of Europe – Special Feature

by John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board

For nearly a century, Austria has been one of the cleanest, greenest countries in Europe. Among wine producing countries, it stands behind only France in the global Environmental Performance Index, ranked 6th in the world overall. The EPI is an annual data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world, calculated using 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories.

And the importance of sustainability has never been greater. Climate change is the single biggest existential crisis facing humankind today. Agriculture is on the front lines of this battle – no other business relies more directly on weather. But it is also part of the problem. The very methods used to increase food production and safeguard supply developed since the end of WWII – heavy mechanization, ever-stronger chemical treatments to combat disease and pests, synthetic nitrogen-based fertilisers -have contributed to the degradation of ecosystems and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

And winegrowing is an extremely concentrated and highly focused form of agriculture. As an intense monoculture, grape growing requires the application of substances to protect the plants from myriad maladies and pests, as well as some form of fertiliser, not to mention the frequent use of many machines and the energy they consume, as well as a huge amount of water.

Photo: Copyright AWMB Marcus Wiesner

Since wine is a non-essential, luxury product, it’s even more imperative that the wine industry farm in a responsible, sustainable way. Virtually every wine producing country has developed and implemented some form of sustainability program/certification over the last 20 years, to varying degrees of seriousness and success. It has become a major topic in the wine world, and, as I’ve written before, sustainability credentials will soon become an integral component of the definition of “fine wine”. Consumers are demanding it. Adherence to ethical values in ecological, economic and social concerns has become an indispensable and a fundamental prerequisite for commercial success. No wine can be fine if it isn’t also fine for the planet.

Much of the sustainability PR messaging has come from the new world, from countries like New Zealand and Chile or the United States, all eager to share their green credentials. But there’s a small country in the heart of Europe that has quietly been green, and getting greener, for a very long time now: Austria.

Photo: copyright AWMB Manuel Zauner

Austria is, after all, the birthplace of researcher and anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics, and as early as 1927, Austria registered the first organic farm in the world based on his teachings. Austria was also the first country in the world to establish national regulations for organic farming, ten years before the first regulations were established by the European Union. Today, over 21% of Austria’s farmers and almost 25% of the farmland is managed under the high environmental standards of organic farming, according to Grüner Bericht. Fresh organic products represent more than 10% of Austrian supermarket turnover.

Viticulture is no different. 15% of Austria’s land under grapevine is certified organic, one of the highest percentages in the world of wine. To put the number in a global context, only about 4.5% of the world’s vineyards are certified organic. There are currently 77 biodynamic wineries registered by Demeter International, including the world’s second oldest Demeter-certified winery, Nikolaihof in the Wachau. That’s an impressive number, a total second only to France, where there is 15 times more land under vine.

There are also another 16 biodynamic producers registered under the Respekt association, an organization formed in Austria in 2007 exclusively for winegrowers (Demeter certifies all forms of agriculture). There is also a particularly fervent commitment to biodiversity among Austria’s biodynamic winegrowers, with many incorporating wild habitat breaks in the vineyards, and the use of a wide range of flowering cover crops and permanent or semi-permanent ground cover.

Photo: Copyright AWMB Klaus Egle

The reason you might not know about the earth-friendly philosophy that permeates the entire nation of Austria is precisely because it’s such a normal, natural, everyday thing. Organic products in Austria are not niche. They’re mainstream. Responsible management of resources has long been regarded as an imperative in Austrian wine production. Austrian vintners see creating a biodiverse vineyard as common sense rather than a hassle, or a clever marketing angle. The Austrian wine Marketing Board has a few short sections on integrated/sustainable/organic/biodynamic viticulture buried on their otherwise impressively complete and detailed website. It’s never really been a messaging focus, any more than the California tourism board trumpets sunshine as a selling point. It’s just so obvious that there’s almost no point in mentioning it.

But, if you live outside the idyllic, Austrian green bubble, here are the main categories of earth-friendly wine certifications in use in Austria, in increasing friendliness, and what’s behind these labels.

Integrated Viticulture

Integrated Viticulture is the baseline for Austrian viticulture, already a step up from standard conventional farming. It’s a method of “working toward the profitable production of qualitatively high value grapes, wine and other grape products:, according to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. “Protection of human health as well as conservation of the basis for production and the environment stand at the forefront of Integrated Viticulture.”

Photo: copyright AWMB Manuel Zauner

In practical terms, materials and treatments deemed ecologically harmful and potentially damaging – including harmful to the user spreading them in the vineyard – are strictly limited or forbidden altogether. Cover crops are to be planted and permitted herbicides may only be applied in narrow strips under vine rows and should not contaminate the soils over the long term. The list of accepted pesticides is likewise much narrower than those conventionally permitted. Another goal is to lower CO2 emissions through a reduced number of tractor passes through vineyards.

Wines made through this method of viticulture can be designated and described as: wine made from grapes produced via Integrated Viticulture. Nearly three-quarters of Austrian vineyard land (72.6%) is cultivated according to the principles of Integrated Production, which means virtually all vineyards that are not already certified Sustainable or Organic (see below).

Like most sustainability initiatives in place around the world, Austria’s version requires that resources be conserved as much as possible, and emissions reduced to the lowest possible level. Outside of environmental considerations, its scope expands to include the production chain, the distribution chain and the consumer as well.

The first step towards certification is for vintners to perform a self-assessment via on online tool created by the Austrian Wine Growers’ Association. Vintners enter their operating figures in key areas in the categories of ecology (grape growing, vineyard systems, wine production), economy and social concerns. The figures are then assessed and graded automatically according to a specific sustainability key, based on the following criteria: climate neutrality, use of water, energy and equipment, soil fertility, biodiversity, high quality standards, social aspects and economic return. The system does not present concrete figures, but rather a relative reference, and when all assessment points are filled in, the result is presented in the form of a spider diagram showing the winery’s current sustainability status along with potential for improvement (See image).

Practices which make only a small contribution to sustainability, for example, are accorded a lower value, whereas, for example, a change from heavy to lightweight glass bottles means a major score. Other big-ticket measures include the exclusion of chemical/synthetic pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, such as glyphosate, which is banned from use under the certification,  as well as the promotion of biodiversity, the reduction of energy consumption and the number of tractor passages through the vineyard, and the partial or total abandonment of non-renewable energy sources.

The black dot marks the current status in each category. The further out the dot lies, the more sustainable the particular category is. The red area shows distinct potential for improvement, while the green area reflects above-average sustainability. Ultimately, winemakers can see where they stand: how far they are from an optimally managed winery and what improvements can be made through various practices.

After this initial online self-assessment is completed, an application must be submitted, followed by an examination by independent bodies. Only when the outside examination has been successfully passed, that is, when all sustainability parameters are scored in the permissible range, is an estate allowed to display the SUSTAINABLE AUSTRIA logo on the label.

Organic viticulture

Organic viticulture differs from integrated production in that chemical/synthetic nitrogen-based fertilisers, freely soluble phosphorus fertilisers and chem­ical/synthetic pesticides may not be used, and no herbicides may be employed in soil management. For crop protection it is preferred to use crop-care treatments and crop-fortifying treatments but there are also crop-protection applications permitted specifically in organic viticulture. Of these, copper- and sulphur-based preparations have the greatest relevance in combating the twin threats of downy and powdery mildew (peronospora and oidium). Permitted products are listed in the EU organic regulations. Certified organic estates also guarantee that all substances used on their premises are non-GMO. Social and economic issues are not directly considered in organic certification.

Monitoring and examination by one of the official inspection bodies in Austria guarantees that production has complied with the guidelines of EU statutes and those of the Bio-organisations. Use of the EU BIO-logo with the code number of the certification authority is compulsory. And as of the 2012 harvest, the descriptions BIO-Wein or Öko-Wein are permitted.

15% of Austria’s total area under vines is cultivated organically.

European Union’s certified organic logo.

Biodynamic viticulture

In practice, Biodynamic farming meets the organic standard including the prohibition of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but goes much further. The integration of animals and animal feeds, perennial plants, flowers and trees, water features, and composting is emphasized. Dependence on imported materials for fertility and pest control is reduced, and must be purchased from a biodynamic farm/producer. Water conservation is considered. Farms are required to maintain at least 10% of total acreage as a biodiversity set-aside. Riparian zones, wetlands, grasslands, and forests: all are considered an integral part of the life of the farm. Specially prepared medicinal plants, minerals, and composted animal manures help increase the vitality of the grapes grown and further anchor each individual farm in time and place. As with organic estates, biodynamic estates also guarantee that all substances used on their premises are free of any genetic manipulation.

Photo: Copyright AWMB Manuel Zauner

In order for a winery or a vineyard to refer to itself as Biodynamic, it must have achieved certification through Demeter by adhering to the Demeter Farm Standard for a minimum of three years if conventionally farmed previously, or a minimum of one year if organically farmed. Respekt certification follows similar lines, though note that Demeter owns the certification mark BIODYNAMIC® to ensure a marketplace definition for the benefit of consumers and trade, while Respect uses the modified term term “Biodyn”.

The entire farm, or vineyard, must be certified, not just a portion of land within the farm. Farms are inspected annually to ensure that the Standard is being met. The Farm Standard reflects the Biodynamic principle of the farm as a living organism: self-contained, self-sustaining, following the cycles of nature. It is a regenerative organic farming system that focuses on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. It demands close observation and participation of the farmer.

Social and economic issues are not directly considered in Biodynamic certification.

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

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.