Sustainable is the word of the moment for wineries aiming to be environmentally friendly. But what does it actually mean, asks BEVERLEY BLANNING MW

At a roadside lunch stop in Portugal a couple of years ago, I was amused to see the restaurant’s wine list divided into three categories: red wines, white wines and green wines. The Portugese were referring, of course, to vinhos verdes, but it seems only a matter of time before we see ‘green’ wines featuring on many lists, as producers across the globe embrace more environmentally sound practices. ‘Green’ has never been more prevalent, or more fashionable, than it is today, and it is increasingly used interchangeably with the new buzzword, ‘sustainable’.

Wine producers in Oregon, Bordeaux, California, South Africa, New Zealand – and probably most other places as well – are fighting to be the first, the best, or the leader in the field. So is sustainability really the new green? And what exactly does it mean to be sustainable? Until quite recently, the term ‘green’ carried fairly simple connotations of organic grape growing. Most people now know that organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals, with the aim of protecting the crops, soil, the environment and human health.

Regular readers of this magazine will also be familiar with biodynamics, a more holistic and spiritual form of organics that imposes tougher rules on producers, requiring them to consider their farm as a living organism that does not rely on external sources for inputs. The continued health of the land is assured via the addition of compost and herbal preparations. These ‘alternative’ forms of viticulture (in particular, organic practices) have gained widespread acceptance from producers and, increasingly, the public. They stress the importance of more natural grape growing to maintain the ecological balance and long-term sustainability of the vineyard. But there are now many alternative options available to wineries wishing to promote their environmental credentials. Numerous bodies have sprung up offering certification in return for commitment to so-called sustainable practices, and each is vying for credibility in the increasingly crowded earthfriendly marketplace. One of the first of these was LIVE, which stands for Low Input Viticulture and Enology, an Oregon initiative founded in 1997. LIVE growers proudly state that 23% of the state’s vineyard land is certified as sustainable, organic or biodynamic. The descriptions of the different practices are pretty much in line with what one might expect and are perhaps in the original spirit of producing wine in a way that cares for the future health of the vineyards.

Finding a definition

Elsewhere, distinguishing one set of sustainable practices from the next is less straightforward. Hands up if you have heard of CarboNZero, Green Globe 21, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, Environmark or Sanctuary Habitat Rehabilitation? These are all programmes supported by one company, New Zealand’s Grove Mill, the world’s first carbonneutral winery. Each of these five programmes carries its own stamp, and it seems clear that the company is genuinely committed to protecting the environment. But none of these programmes requires Grove Mill to farm organically. Several wineries are exploring the options of carbon offsetting, whereby they make a contribution to have trees planted, thus replacing CO2 lost to their practices, to reduce their negative impact on the environment.

But the ‘carbon neutral’ debate is anything but neutral. Organic growers, riled by the environmental claims of their nonorganic competitors, point to the greater imperative of looking after one’s own land first, before doing damage and just stumping up cash to pay for it. Nick Mills, of family-owned biodynamic producer, Rippon Vineyards, in New Zealand, says: ‘I think it is fantastic that a product can be produced carbon neutrally, but washing one’s hands of the impact that current agricultural practices place on the land, just by planting some trees somewhere else, seems irresponsible.’ Fellow Kiwi radical James Millton, of Millton Vineyards, is even more irate: ‘It’s a load of skulduggery,’ he says. ‘In the end, you are looking at a carbon footprint, but are you looking at your own footprint? The sustainable people need to realise there is further to go.’

Defining exactly what sustainable means is a tricky business, because it is such a broad term. There is no single definition, but The University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program defines sustainable agriculture as addressing the three main goals of ‘environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity’. Common sustainable practices include integrated pest management, recycling bottles, and using solar energy and biodiesel fuels. In contrast to organics or biodynamics, however, it is not just about practices relating to growing grapes. It can include, for example, policies on electricity and water usage, waste management, packaging, transport and employee welfare. Dr Ann Thrupp, manager of sustainability and organic development for California producer Fetzer describes sustainability as ‘a broad, holistic concept’.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand claims that 65% of the country’s vineyards are managed under their rules for sustainability, but it’s hard to establish what the rules are (I’ve never managed it, despite six months’ worth of discussions with NZ Winegrowers, which stresses that the self-audit is a ‘living document’, so is always changing… which is a rather convenient way round hard and fast rules). The vague official line is ‘using best practice, environmentally responsible and economically viable processes’, which covers re-use of energy and recycling etc. One has to imagine, though, that the criteria might be different from, say, the Oregon growers, who can only manage a paltry 23% of participation under their rules. The New Zealanders plan to have every winery in the country included in their programme within five years. This may not be too ambitious, given that SWNZ has different levels of membership: accredited member (where you have to meet certain criteria) and member (available to anyone, regardless of their actions). The programme also offers separate membership for wineries and vineyards, meaning that a winery can be accredited and use the SWNZ logo on all its marketing materials, put up a sign outside the winery and so on, while continuing to follow whatever practices suit best in the (non-accredited)vineyard. The only place the SWNZ logo actually relates to the grapes is if it appears on the bottle. In this case, the grapes have to be from 100% certified accredited vineyards.

The wide-ranging nature of sustainability programmes, frequently portrayed as their strength, means that the focus on ‘green’ winegrowing is diminished. An environmental management system, such as SWNZ, does not necessarily relate to the environmental soundness of the wine produced; rather, it relates to the company producing it and the audited systems it has in place. The difference is important. After all, since sustainability seems to include anything and everything related to a vineyard’s activities, how can one know which of these elements is the most important? Is it more pressing to offset carbon, or to save water? To ensure economic viability, or to be more environmentally aware? In a study last year attempting to evaluate the true environmental cost of producing a bottle of wine, researchers from the University of Palermo made the point that, ‘a producer of toxic or carcinogenic substances can obtain EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme) registration in spite of its products being far from ecological.’

This is one of the reasons why sustainability initiatives aren’t generally mentioned on the bottle: the audited elements of sustainability don’t necessarily relate to the contents therein. Unlike traditional systems of organic or biodynamic culture, the concept of ‘sustainability’ carries no guarantees of green practices in the vineyard. To get around the problem of systems that don’t take the end product into account, the Italian researchers favoured the beautifully acronymed POEMS, or Product-Oriented Environmental Management System, for their study of a Sicilian winery. The group found that indirect inputs were the major culprits for energy use in the winery. Researcher Maurizio Cellura, a professor of environmental physics at the university, comments on the most remarkable finding of the group: ‘Around 50% of the environmental pressure of the wine was due to the glass bottle,’ he says. Equally interesting is the second largest energy input, accounting for 20% of energy consumption: fertilisers, biocides and sulphur. This suggests that the broadbased sustainability programmes could do more in future by focusing on the most unsustainable areas of activity.

The chemical factor

The production of agrochemicals requires huge amounts of energy but, unlike in the Palermo study, this is rarely taken into account when measuring sustainable practices. The environmental impact of chemicals in the vineyard is an even thornier issue, and one that sits uneasily within the remit of all-inclusive sustainability programmes. Arguably, though, this issue should be at the very heart of sustainable vineyard practice. A 2005 report from French public agricultural research institutes, INRA and Cemagref, attempted to find solutions to the unsustainable use of pesticides in French agriculture. Vineyards were noted as being among the heaviest users of pesticides. The report blamed the development of intensive systems of agriculture and the low cost of pesticides – along with producers’ reluctance to reduce their yields. The authors consider that the ‘reasoned’ use of pesticides(as favoured by sustainability programmes) is likely to be a ‘transitory phase in a strategy of reducing the need to resort to pesticides’.

Of course, followers of biodynamics are keen to point out that the ‘new’ sustainable viticulture is nothing more than what they’ve been doing all along. Encouraging biodiversity, leaving areas unplanted to create natural habitats, observing what happens in the vineyard and avoiding recourse to chemicals are all routine practice. Jim Fullmer, head of biodynamic certifying body Demeter, in the US, says: ‘With biodynamics you develop your own natural ecosystem that gives you a biological system of checks and balances, rather than a manmade one. It’s the last entirely self-sustainable farming system, and it has clout because it’s been around for so long – it predates all the organic discussion by decades.’

Biodynamics for all is an unlikely scenario, but some form of sustainability – or accountability – in viticulture is becoming a necessary practice. Nobody wants to think that wine, of all things, is the product of a polluted environment. Reading the guidelines of the various sustainability initiatives around the world is a depressing reminder of the wholly unnatural nature of the ‘conventional’ agriculture of recent decades. It is reassuring that action is being taken to protect the land for future generations, but these are the early stages of a growing movement that will be driven more by individuals’ commitment than by marketing-led initiatives. Sustainable viticulture today feels like frantic collective back-pedalling of the wine industry to try to undo some of the damage of the past.

Written by Beverley Blanning