What is sustainable wine?

The United Nations had defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Essentially, this sounds very much like it is compatible with organic and biodynamic wines in that it concerns the environment, and there is certainly no reason why organic and biodynamic producers can’t also be sustainable. However, it doesn’t mean that every sustainable producer is also organic and biodynamic…

A reasoned fight

Where environmentally friendly practices are concerned, we’ve already established that there are a number of grey areas – are organic fertilisers any better than chemical ones? Is it really okay to still spray copper? And so on.

Sustainability recognised this and takes a more pragmatic approach often referred to as ‘Lutte Raisonnee’. This means the “reasoned fight” and accepts that sometimes compromises need to be made. Every effort should be made to enact environmental profits, but not in a way that would jeopardise profitability and the success of the business. If that means that it’s a choice between spraying pesticides and losing large volumes of grapes, then spraying would be the practical choice. Sustainable farming is an attractive option where organics and biodynamics might present serious challenges.

The reality is that there are often years where spraying isn’t necessary and so growers are effectively practicing organic viticulture. Most grow cover crops, plant hedges and encourage biodiversity. Ironically, many sustainable growers use less copper than organic and biodynamic growers, because of their pragmatic approach to the use of other chemicals.

The sustainable approach to pest and disease control is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). As expected, the use of pesticides would ideally be a last resort, with preference given to organic tools like predator pests, sexual confusion and homeopathic remedies.

Beyond the vineyard

Considering the impact wine production has goes beyond the vineyard for sustainable producers. They will consider all aspects of production and the effect on the
environment, and take steps to reduce any negative consequences their actions have where possible. So as well as using tools such as IPM, they might also use lighter weight wine bottles, energy saving lightbulbs and solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint. They might invest in conservation work or plant trees to offset what carbon footprint they do have.

Sustainability also considers humans and social responsibility. This could involve ensuring that workers have access to training and the opportunity to gain relevant qualifications, providing support for workers’ families through housing and education schemes, forming links with local charities or social projects, or contributing to the local tourist economy.

Certification

Unlike organic and biodynamic, sustainable certification is much less rigid when it comes to enforcing practices. Very little is actually banned, instead the emphasis is on minimising certain actions and using smaller doses. Rather than rules, there are guidelines or recommendations. Monitoring, record keeping and transparency are crucial though.

Certificating bodies might be connected to government, as in New Zealand, or producers might belong to a private association such as ‘Terra Vitis’. Their priorities might vary depending on local concerns such as greater emphasis on water preservation in Australia, or racial issues and redressing societal imbalances in South Africa.

What about Fairtrade?

Fairtrade could also be considered a sustainable certification as it tallies with ideas around social justice. In their words: “[Fairtrade and sustainability] are both about people, and meeting their needs today without compromising the needs of people in the future.”

It mostly focuses on wines from Chile, Argentina and South Africa, and certification includes checks on chemical use, working conditions, pay and financial commitment to local community projects.


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