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.

Tenuta Fratelli Povero Terre del Conte Roero Arneis 2019, Piedmont, Italy
$16.95, Rare Earth Wines
David LawrasonThis is a lovely, bright and vibrant example of a local white. It is more aromatic and tropical than expected, with exotic lime leaf, green banana, spearmint and starfruit. It is light to medium bodied, just off dry but still delicate and fresh. A lovely summer white.

Jules Taylor Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Sustainable, Marlborough, New Zealand
$19.95, Vinexx
David Lawrason – At least a dozen NZ SBs cross my tasting bench every month, and all are bright, lively and intense. I am now stopped by those that have finesse and composure. This is a lovely, clean, pristine and discreet. It will not tire your palate.

Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Similkameen Valley, British Columbia
$34.95, Wyse Wine Agency
David Lawrason – This sauvignon hails from the Similkameen Valley which is cooler than the winery’s site on Black Sage Bench. It shows a lovely fragrance of fresh dill, grapefruit, orange blossom, guava and mint. It is quite full bodied, warm and lively. Flavour depth is impressive. Serious sauvignon.
Sara d’Amato – A sauvignon blanc for chardonnay lovers with plenty of character and texture. This vibrant, north Pacific sauvignon blanc feels Napa inspired but with a notable stamp of BC’s cool Similkameen Valley. Silky with notes of lemon blossom and elderflower, lemon oil and white grapefruit, starfruit, and passion fruit.

Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2017, Elandskloof, South Africa
$27.95 Vinexx
David Lawrason – Although showing Cape tropicality, this is a tight, complex and mineral-driven chardonnay from a small, high altitude sub-region near Franschhoek based on volcanic soils. There is a core of great minerality here, so firm, fine and balanced. It is so well focused, complex and long on the finish.

Marani Rkatsiteli 2019, Kakheti, Georgia
$13.95, Global Cellars
Sara d’Amato – Try something new without breaking the bank like this immensely appealing dry rkatsiteli from Georgia. Featuring a chalky mineral texture, light body and pleasant peach and citrus fruit on the palate.

Caves d’Esclans Whispering Angel Rosé 2020, AC Côtes De Provence, France
$17.95 (375ml), Glazer’s of Canada
John Szabo – The latest release of Sacha Lichine’s hugely successful Whispering Angel rosé is yet another deliciously fresh, crunchy and saline wine, with ample red berry fruit and just the right amount of creamy-yeasty lees influence without going too far. It has more gravitas than the mean to be sure, yet neither is it stuffy and ponderous – call it serious fun. Drink or hold up to a year or two.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide April 17th: Reds & Fortified

Cabral Colheita Port 2000 Bottled in 2020, DOP, Portugal Douro
$15.95 (375ml), Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc.
John Szabo – This seems a bit of a silly price, even for a 375ml bottle, aged 20 years in cask before bottling and arriving at our shores. It shows the character of a classic tawny style port, but also with the depth and ripeness of the generally declared, and excellent, 2000 vintage. Really quite an exceptional wine for the money, to be enjoyed with hard or blue veined cheeses, or sipped alongside a dark chocolate-nut torte, or simply on its own. Lovely stuff.

Dry Creek The Mariner Meritage 2016, Sustainable, Sonoma County, California
$56.95, Wine Lovers Agency Inc.
John Szabo – This is an impressive blend from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, rich, polished, concentrated and satisfying, bursting with ripe dark fruit with sophisticated oak spice. Dry Creek, a pioneer of ‘meritage’ (Bordeaux blends) in California, has clearly mastered the art, and prices remain sane, too.

Garage Wine Co. Renacido Vineyard Lot #74 Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Dry Farmed, DO Maule Valley, Chile
$37.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Michael Godel – Ontario native Derek Mossman Knapp’s ’16 Renacido Vineyard is dry-farmed old vines untreated in every respect. Now into the third vintage fruit substance and clarity are tops, herbals, botanicals and how they influence a wine’s liqueur are attention-grabbing. There is no true reference point but itself and that my friend-folks is the crux of Derek’s singular wine.
John Szabo – Ahh, really fine aromatics lead off here – this is intriguing and savoury old vine cabernet, dry-farmed in the Maule Valley. Don’t expect supple, easy-drinking texture though – this wine has grit and grip, a tannic-drying sensation that will have you reaching for the salty protein, as it should. There’s raw energy and power here that draws you in, plus I love the wild range of flavours on offer: all manner and colour of berry fruit, a biodiverse Chilean countryside of herbs and flowers, some dried, some fresh, and a lingering finish. Derek Mossman is on to something with the Garage Wine Co. ethos and approach.

Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Sustainable, Sonoma County, California
$27.95, Corby Spirit and Wine Limited
John Szabo – This wine appeals on several levels. For one, it’s made by the Benziger family, one of California’s early pioneers of sustainable farming, before sustainability was a thing. Here, they walk the walk of biodiversity and integrated farming as a matter of course, in a time when sustainability matters more than ever before. And secondly, and importantly, the wine is honest and delicious. It’s balanced, dry, flavourful, full of the dark berry fruit expected of the variety, without excessive oak flavours. This for me is the model of sub-$30 California cabernet, and also far superior to many more expensive versions, too. Chapeau bas.

Gabriel Meffre Saint Pierre Crozes Hermitage 2016, Rhône, France
$30.95, Trajectory Beverage Partners
Sara d’Amato – Peppery and ready-to-drink, this muscular syrah features pleasantly aged characters like leather, earth, black fruit skin, tobacco and exotic spice, red plum, iron and meat. Nicely composed and impressively integrated.

Album Reserva Red 2018, Alentejano, Portugal
$19.95, The Vine Agency
David Lawrason – This is a very generous, smooth, almost plump yet well balanced blend from the sunny south of Portugal. It has a lovely nose of sweet, candied plum, Turkish delight, lilac, cedar and spice. It is medium-bodied, nicely rounded but not heavy.
John Szabo – Here’s an attritive red blend off the top (mainly petit verdot and alicante bouschet with splashes of syrah and aragonês, aka tempranillo), delivering plenty of red and black berry perfume, supple and polished, ripe and sleek, with a notable, and welcome, absence of obvious wood influence. A polished and quite sophisticated Alentejo red all in all, ready to enjoy or hold short term.

L’Équilibre Syrah/Grenache/Carignan 2017, AC Pézenas, Languedoc, France
$20.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
John Szabo – Lovely wild and savoury perfume and sweet ripe red and black fruit make this an attractive wine straight off the top, while the palate delivers a substantial freight of flavour and depth, and a long, lingering finish. I like the liqueur-like intensity of fruit, ripe but not exaggerated. Quality wine with an open, honest feel. Drink or hold 2-3 years.

Bayle-Carreau Château Landreau 2016, Cotes de Bourg, Bordeaux
$19.95, Connexion Oenophilia
David Lawrason – This is a lovely, lighter-hearted merlot-based (85%) Bordeaux from the right bank. It is mid-weight, juicy and lively with just enough acid structure, and still showing some youth despite five years of age. It offers fine scented raspberry, herbs and touch of cedar and some minerality.
Michael Godel – Expect a solid and proper play between substantial fruit and ample tannic structure, medium weight and body. At this price it just speaks to warm evenings, outdoors, grill employed and calm set in. Lovely wine, ideally aged and ready to go.

Domaine des Verchères Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2018, Burgundy, France
$22.95, Noble Estates
David Lawrason – This vegan friendly pinot shows a lot of character for the money, and it is structured well enough to age five years. The nose is nicely lifted with cran-cherry fruit, some twiggy herbality and vanillin. It is medium bodied, tart edged and grippy.

Henry of Pelham Estate Gamay 2019, Sustainable, VQA Short Hills Bench
$19.95, Family Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – Who could not shed a smile in seeing Henry of Pelham’s gamay join the VINTAGES game and here, with a high-toned yet comforting and knowable example from their Short Hills Bench vineyard. Just what gamay should be, playful, grippy and running with varietal truth.
Sara d’Amato – An ideal spring red – light, aromatic and versatile with food. An upbeat but but balanced gamay with what feels like mild oak treatment. Lower-yielding estate vines lend impressive texture and length. Savour this one even though you may want to drink it down.

Domaine de Côtes Rémont 2018, AP Chénas, Beaujolais, France
$20.95, Rare Earth Wines
Michael Godel – Niche producer farming only four hectares. While stony mineral, the fruit stands out broad and sweet and the overall impression is a linear one, precise and focused. Just a silly ridiculous value here to scoop up by the cases.

Domaine de L’Espigouette Pas de Meunier Rasteau 2017, AC Rhône Valley, France
$24.95, Appellation Wines
Sara d’Amato – A peppery find sure to lift your mood. This round, rich and inviting Rasteau is plenty salty and with a delightful crunch of grenache. Full-bodied but not heavy, the flavours are typical of grapes sourced from these rocky, limestone soils. Offering more complexity than expected at this price point.
Michael Godel – Rasteau reds are on the rise, quality has never been higher and here the balance, restraint and get togetherness is really quite something. A mineral wrought red if ever a Rasteau were one, quite hematic, cool, salt-licked, near ethereal. Structured solid and capturing a sense of this Meunier’s place with a capital “M’”and so much more.

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.

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

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

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