Tag Archives: Biodynamic

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