The three pillars of sustainability

People – Planet – Profit. 

Sustainability. A hard and complex thing to define, as it covers so many different aspects but it does seem to be the current buzzword as we are all increasingly becoming more aware of our health, well-being and the environmental issues around us.

I recently attended a webinar on sustainability where it was mentioned that 25% of all greenhouse gases come from agriculture and animals, and the care of vines is no exception. The concept of ‘regenerative farming’ is central to an increasing number of wine producers who believe in the importance of biodiversity and the harmony of nature in the vineyard.

As a vineyard is in essence a monoculture of a perennial plant, disturbance to the soil should be kept to an absolute minimum to ensure that the natural micro-organisms in the soil are encouraged and maintained. Cover crops can be grown to capture carbon and to minimise water use, particularly where water used for farming is expensive to buy and may be short supply at certain times. Sheep are sometimes encouraged to graze in the vineyard on grass, and cover crops to encourage plant growth and biodiversity. Selected rootstocks may also be used to restrict the vine’s vigour, requiring less control. All of these different processes will encourage vines to use their own resources to work hand in hand with nature.

A good proportion of a winery’s emissions come from the use of diesel vehicles so far-thinking producers are making the investment in electrical vehicles for working their land – as we all will probably need to do in the not too distant future. Or indeed, revert back to the traditional use of a trusty plough horse leads to less compaction of the soil and is also a lovely thing to see!

A few of our producers are installing beehives in their vineyards to promote pollination and obtain honey as a welcome by-product! The composting of pruning and grape pomace for natural fertilisers is also becoming more widespread, rather than sending for distillation as in the past. Using sexual confusion in the vineyard from insect pheromones as an alternative to chemical pest control is becoming increasingly popular with growers as they realise the advantages for the environment.

Many people would automatically think that an organic wine would be sustainable by definition but with the contentious use of copper as a treatment against diseases in the vineyard, which is allowed under organic viticulture, and which can contaminate the soil as a heavy metal if it is used too frequently; the issue is more complex than just acceptance of all organic wines as sustainable.

Biodynamics are a continuation of this theme, where all vineyard practices (and winemaking) are carried out according to the moon phases, using specific treatments for disease prevention as well as natural fertilisers and which are now being recognised as more main stream – previously perhaps dismissed as rather hippy and ‘woo-woo’. I know from tasting wines which are produced using biodynamic and organic techniques that they seem to have more depth of flavour – more ‘soul’ and energy, if I can express it that way. One of our producers, the redoubtable Gérard Bertrand in the South of France is fully embracing this way of working with all of his estates either already certified as biodynamic or in conversion, and the results in the quality of his wines speak for themselves.

While researching the sustainable credentials of our suppliers, I was struck by how many of them have this ethos central to their production values and guides everything they do from vine to bottle. A great many of them have gone the extra mile and gained certification in their country – such HVE (Haute Valeur Environmentale) in France, WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) in South Africa, Sustainable Wine of Chile, Bodegas de Argentina Certified Sustainability, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, to name a few – all of these regulate the use of insecticides and pesticides as well as fertiliser and water usage with protection of the environment in mind, and to maintain the biodiversity of the local area.

Climate change is also necessitating a rethink by wine growers who have difficult choices to make if their vineyards are affected by the extremes of weather which we currently seem to be experiencing – by rot in the case of excessive humidity or Summer hail damage, whether to irrigate (if even allowed and if the vineyard is set up for it) in case of drought, loss of fruit caused by Spring frosts; the challenging factors are unfortunately endless.

If they are passionate about the environment and their philosophy is to avoid chemical treatments, the choice is stark. Either compromise on their principles and lose their sustainable or organic status or accept the loss of their crop with the accompanying loss of income. I remember talking to one of our organic producers a few years ago who had had to make that choice – and he decided to remain organic and lose the majority of the crop. I felt so sorry for him but admired his tenacity and adherence to his principles. The news coverage of the frost in France’s vineyards in April where the countermeasures taken in the form of burning straw or heaters raised their own issues with complaints about damaging the environment through smoke contamination is another case in point – faced with losing your burgeoning crop or taking these extreme measures, what decision would we make ourselves?

We are probably just at the start of the sustainable journey and I look forward to seeing how viticulture, and winemakers, adapt over the years to come.

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