Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES April 17, 2021

Sustainable Wines

By John Szabo MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato, David Lawrason and Michael Godel

Sustainability is the latest word in wine. In the past decade, just about every wine producing country has developed a sustainability program of some description, getting ahead of, or keeping up with, the greening trend, concerns over climate change, and the growing importance of environmental stewardship and social justice worldwide. It’s a subject that seems to crop up everywhere these days. It has, for example, come up in almost all 30 Wine Thieves podcast episodes Sara d’Amato and I have published since July of last year, whether intended to be part of the discussion or not. And it’s back in the headlines this week as the main feature of the Vintages April 17th release, with 11 certified sustainable wines officially listed (even if there are many other wines in the release produced sustainably yet not highlighted as feature wines). As I have written before, sustainable (and/or organic/biodynamic) credentials have become part of my definition of fine wine. Harmful, industrial, non-essential agriculture should simply no longer be, full stop. And at the risk of becoming repetitive, I think sustainability could use yet another overview. It 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. So, it’s worth another look. Read on for some details as well as the crü’s top recommendations from the release, most of which also happen to be sustainably made.


A Necessary Step

The move towards sustainable viticulture has been a necessary step. The wine industry has historically been among the biggest users of agricultural herbicides, fungicides and insecticides worldwide. The top three wine producing countries in the world, for example, France, Italy and Spain, are also Europe’s most prolific crop sprayers, using some 60,000-70,000 tons of pesticides per year (the average from 2011-2015). And after apples and potatoes, grapevines are the third most pesticide-thirsty crop.

And beyond environmental concerns, some actors in the wine industry also need a shake-down on more human issues. According to the estimate of German economist Marica Valente, co-author of an academic paper released this year entitled “An Offer that You Can’t Refuse? Agrimafias and Migrant Labor on Vineyards in Southern Italy“, a quarter of Europe’s agricultural labor is illegal or undocumented. The problem of course isn’t limited to wine, or to Europe. It’s a universal problem, and something has to be done.

Now, the concept of sustainability is gaining ground as wine producers seek to put pro-active measures in place before governments start regulating more heavily, and as public opposition to environmental and social oppression grows. Consumers vote with their dollars.

The broader, more holistic view of “sustainable” wine production sets the approach apart from organic or even biodynamic farming methods. As the word implies, sustainably-run winegrowing operations consider of course the environmental impact of their actions. But the philosophy extends to also encompasses social and economic aspects of wine production.

In short, sustainable winegrowing is a comprehensive set of practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable. Sustainable does not mean organic (or biodynamic) – virtually nothing that is permitted in conventional farming and winemaking is expressly forbidden in sustainable programs – even if reduction of all inputs is encouraged. But many sustainable-certified wineries are also organically/biodynamically certified. And beyond organics, water and energy conservation practices are emphasized, along with maintaining healthy soil, protecting air and water quality, preserving local ecosystems and wildlife habitat, improving waste management and reducing a winery’s carbon footprint.

Furthermore, wineries are encouraged to enhance relations with employees and communities, and improve the economic vitality of vineyards and wineries. Examples of such programs include re-investing a percentage of company profits in community infrastructure, building schools or community centers, or providing medical coverage to employees and their families, or continuing education.

Sustainable viticulture, hence, has been defined by the OIV (Office International de la Vigne et du Vin) as a global strategy on the scale of the grape production and processing systems, incorporating at the same time the economic sustainability of structures and territories, producing quality products, considering requirements of precision in sustainable viticulture, risks to the environment, product safety and consumer health, and valuing of heritage, historical, cultural, ecological, and aesthetic aspects”.

Sustainable associations are in place worldwide. Among the most notable sustainability programs in place are in California, Oregon, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as Austria, Ontario and British Columbia. New Zealand, Chile and Sonoma County have even pledged to make their wine industries 100% sustainably certified in the coming years.

Most of these certification programs are voluntary and self-assessed, though once you have signed up you can expect some form of third-party auditing. In practical terms, each association provides a list of essential and recommended assessment topics, such as soil and weed management, the care of water sources, the optimization of energy use, and a corporate code of ethics. Wineries must establish a baseline of current practices, develop action plans, and demonstrate ongoing improvement in the areas deemed critical from year to year. Additionally, associations provide educational tools, while partners from government, academia, and community and environmental groups contribute resources and expertise and help to identify strengths and opportunities for improvement and set goals to increase use of sustainable practices.

There is significant variation in the details of what is assessed from association to association, and how progress is measured. So, of all the certifications now found on wine labels, “Sustainable” is at once the most comprehensive and laudable, and the most loose and unclear. Since “Sustainable” is not a government-regulated term, the claim from any association around the world can appear on any wine label.

Detractors of sustainable certification consider it “the easy way out” of full organic or biodynamic certification, a way to greenwash their business without having to adhere to stricter farming regulations. It’s also deemed unnecessary in countries that already have strong worker protection, and occupational health and safety codes and minimum wages in place. But wineries that take it seriously make a genuine effort to reduce not just their environmental footprint, but also to improve the lives of their employees and communities, while ensuring their own financial survival, which is of course in the interest of employees. It’s a step in the right direction, and a sustainability certification on a label should be a powerful purchase cue for environmentally and socially conscious wine drinkers everywhere.

So, consider the power and voice of your dollars as you shop for wine. Send a clear message to wineries and retailers that sustainability matters to you and the planet.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide April 17th: Whites & Rosés

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2019, VQA Beamsville Bench
$29.95, Mark Anthony Group
Michael Godel – Holds title as the Niagara yeah-starter, marker, benchmark and harbinger for the sauvignon blanc enveloping sémillon bench ideal. Imagining the future possibilities is half the fun, sipping the current ones the other.
John Szabo – Year after year, the Rosomel Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench comes up trumps in the sauvignon-semillon genre, here in 2019 yielding an exceptional Fumé Blanc of substantial depth and weight, while maintaining balanced proportions. And in the grand scheme of things, it is also excellent value. Drink or hold 2-4 years.

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

John Szabo, MS

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