Tag Archives: Biodynamic

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.

Sustainability: We have no other choice

The problem is: it doesn’t sound very sexy. Sustainability.

Key word, at the moment, along with, say, Organic, or Biodynamic, or Natural. But an awkward word, too.

With Organic you get a wistful Tom and Barbara Good Life self-sufficiency schmaltz, you venerate weird carrots, and supplicate yourself – oh Lord! – to the soil, and perhaps (best of all!) subconsciously conjoin the word to a similar one which is very exciting.

Biodynamic, too, has its moments, with its odd combination of Rudolf Steiner argot, the bewilderment of physics, and a boyhood memory of Steve Austin, the world’s first Bionic Six Million Dollar Man.

And Natural is the best of the lot, redolent of Alpine yoghurt, the notion of innate talent, an appreciation of something not messed up by blokes, and, in the background, Aretha’s soaring You Make Me Feel….

But Sustainability – the yoke which brings those three together? Not many rock songs with that in the title. Inspiring nothing more than great spreadsheets, perhaps. Alice Feiring wrote that being sustainable is like being a little bit pregnant¹.

To be fair, in terms of wine, there is much much more to sustainability than solely how the wine is produced. The concept looks into every aspect of the journey from vine to consumer, including bottling, commercialisation, marketing, and human resources, and raises questions about energy usage, waste, social impact, carbon footprint and climate change.

But there is not one global definition or set of standards to which all producers can adhere – and therein lies an ambiguity.

Organic

Although consumers might assume that wine production has little impact on the natural world – in contrast to large-scale intensive agriculture – the reality is sadly different. Unfortunately, Vitis vinifera is a notoriously fragile plant. And most vineyards are monocultures that rely heavily on preventive spraying of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides to keep disease and pests at bay. “Awareness of the damage caused by overuse of chemical treatments has spread since French soil biologist Claude Bourguignon famously declared in 1988 that the soil of Burgundy’s vineyards was ‘dead’”³. Although it is simplistic, the growth of organic winemaking (which basically bans most chemicals from the vineyard and states that all additives need to be organic) is as a result of these concerns. It is rare today to find a French vigneron who does not espouse lutte raisonnée (literally ‘the reasoned fight’, meaning the measured use of sprays).

Biodynamic

Famously outlined by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in a series of lectures in 1924, biodynamics is a holistic approach which focuses on maintaining soil health and linking soil management to lunar cycles, earth rhythms, and astrology – to guarantee happy vines. Some of the practices in biodynamics appear strange, such as using nine plant-derived “preparations” in crop management, and burying a cow’s horn full of manure into the soil, but advocates are convinced that the processes result in improved soil quality and overall vineyard health.

Natural

This is where it gets tricky. Basically, this takes the organic and biodynamic principles, but goes further in the winemaking processes, requiring that nothing be added or removed. The Naturalistes’ bête noire is sulphur dioxide (SO2). While sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in virtually all wine (“contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l), the Naturalistes say that adding to this (EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white) changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it and masks inferior quality grapes. And may give you a headache. Other key themes are using only wild yeasts, rather than inoculated, no fining, no filtration, and limited use of oak. The problem is that, unlike organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.

One issue is that while the Organic/Biodynamic/Natural movements have definitely had an impact, they are still a little too much on the fringe to make a huge difference with general consumers. Which is why, despite its lack of cool, the doctrines of sustainability are so important:

  • Vineyard management does not just involve proscribing agrochemicals and cultivating other plants to encourage biodiversity, but also embodies the efficient use of energy, the reduction of gas emissions and the reduction and reuse of water.
  • In the winery, the use of renewable energy (solar panels, for example), and the reduction, recycling and reuse of waste are fundamental.
  • Wine packaging has been the subject of particular focus. Of all the carbon used in the manufacture of a wine bottle, 85% comes from the glass, 9% from the cardboard box of the packaging, 4% from the cork stopper, 1% from the paper label, and 1% from the plastic capsule: hence the call for lighter bottles.
  • Transporting the wine has come under scrutiny. Aircraft, trucks and ships are big emitters of CO2. The most common and environmentally-friendly route is by sea, five times less harmful than by land, and eleven times better than by air.
  • While all of these areas demonstrate direct causation, there are numerous secondary themes. Sustainability can cover the implementation of security, health, well-being, education and training programmes; it means encouraging an inclusive culture, with ethical standards of conduct, in which employees feel committed to the company’s philosophy.

Remember: this involves all aspects of the supply chain. Here at Hallgarten we are proud to have achieved ISO-14001 certification; gaining it has benefited not only our working environment but also our whole approach.

But there is also one other important driver, the game-changer: promoting a green image makes economic and common sense. There are unquestionable marketing advantages for producers to portray their wines as pure products, unsullied by chemicals. Which is why sustainable has become big business.

And which is why the number of sustainability certifications in the wine industry has proliferated in the last few years. They include:

  • The French government’s Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE). The target is for 50% of wine-growers to be certified HVE by 2025, with a 50% reduction in chemical sprays.
  • In New Zealand, 98% of producers have the Sustainable Winegrowing NZ certification, which requires adherence to standards in biodiversity, soil health, water usage, air quality, energy and chemical use.
  • 75% of Chile’s producers are certified sustainable. Producers have to meet the three “E’s” of sustainability – economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social equity.
  • Sustainable Australia Winegrowing is one of three certification programs of Australia’s EntWine program (whose goal is to foster environmental custodianship and continuous improvement).
  • In 2013, Bodegas de Argentina launched a sustainability protocol, modelled after the Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW) system, and modified to fit Argentina’s unique climate and growing conditions.

Making this transition to more sustainable methods is tough. There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions: biocontrols that attract beneficial insects in one place may attract pests in another; vineyards in humid regions depend more on fungicides than dry regions. Sustainable methods tend to be more labour-intensive and yields lower than for conventional viticulture, so wine prices are higher.

But ultimately, we may have no other choice.

Gérard Bertrand’s Challenge: Uncover new terroir through Biodynamic Winemaking

The landscape changes as you drive south along the A61 from Toulouse, the plains of the Acquitaine giving way to the craggy and jagged Occitainie. The first distant view of Mont Tauch to your right is a thrilling one.

Due east of La Livinière, you leave the road and drive onto a winding dirt track. Enclosed within a small stone wall is a patchwork quilt of vineyards. You park the car and start to walk up a steep hill. Some of the vines are 60 years old, gnarled and majestic.

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It is a small estate – nine hectares – and it doesn’t take long to reach the top of the hill. You stop here, turn around and survey the steep slope behind you. Below are the vineyards of Minervois, then on the other side of the valley, Corbières. Further away are the Pyrenees and, to the left, the Mediterranean. Mourvèdre has to see the sea, as the saying goes. You walk further and crest the hill and here the view is of the Black Mountains and, beyond, the Cévennes, stretching towards the Massif Central. A farm labourer and his donkey – she is called Victoria – are working the vineyard. You feel an almost imperceptible change in the temperature. Nestled in the vines, is the small, stylish but unobtrusive winery.

Nineteen years ago Gérard Bertrand stood on this very spot, facing south towards the sea, just like the Mourvèdre. Was he thinking of his father, who helped found the appellation of Boutenac over the highway in Corbières? This, he decided, was his destiny. This is where he opted to make his masterpiece. And to do so using biodynamic methods.

This is Clos d’Ora.

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It is exposed to two different climates, the maritime and the mountain which produces a wide diurnal difference, and straddles a geographical fault, a meeting of two plates. The ground is clay and marl on the maritime side, favouring Carignan and Mourvèdre – wild concentrators of fruit – and sandstone and limestone on the other side of the hill, where Syrah and Grenache flourish.

Olivier, one of Bertrand’s winemakers, shows us around the small winery. There are nine tanks (one for each hectare) all spotlessly clean, all gravity fed. They use only indigenous yeasts.

“The problem is that people “get” organic winemaking,” we say, “but they struggle with biodynamic winemaking. How do you explain it?” And we – the importers – launch into a discussion amongst ourselves about the definitions of biodynamism, with the shifting of the moon’s moods, the tides, the burying of the bull’s horn and the astronomic calendar with its root days and fruit days. But what does it do to the wine? And we begin to tie each other in knots.  Olivier is so patient with us. He gives a small cough. “Well, what it comes down to, is that it adds freshness and acidity.”

Which stops us in our tracks. Freshness and acidity.

“In our estate at Cigalus, when we converted to biodynamic winemaking, we did it slowly, with five hectares, then ten hectares and so on. And each year we could tell the difference between those batches and the rest. So then we converted everything.”

But, we say, we need a new name for “biodynamic”. “Natural” has already been taken by one set of winemakers. “Pure” is good, that might do it. But again, Olivier trumps us. “You should just say… because it tastes better.”

Because it tastes better.

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Two weeks ago during another buying trip to the Languedoc, one of the winemakers in Argeliers lamented: “This region needs new leaders. It is going nowhere. We need an ambassador for the paysan.”

But the answer is there. They already have their ambassador. Gérard Bertrand, whose challenge is to find new terroir, reveawp_20161205_20_38_00_proling it through the development of biodynamic winemaking (his words), is already changing the way the Languedoc is perceived. He would be a demanding man to work for, you’d think, as you stand on the same spot he did. But as one of his workers told us: “Where would I move from here? Any move would be a downwards one.” Such are the demands of excellence. But, thinking of a different sport to Bertrand’s, are Conte, Mourinho, Klopp any different? Do players choose to work with them, or choose to leave? And what about us as importers? What do we choose to do?

We have chosen excellence.wp_20161205_14_17_33_pro

There will be some who crib Clos d’Ora, some who knock it, others who say it’s too young to release (the 2012 and 2013 are already on sale), others who compare its price to those of the Grand Crus (which is exactly the point!) But there are certainly others who wish to be at the birth of something new, something special, something that will be talked about in a hundred years. There are those who look to the past and those who look to the future

Me, I’m for the future