One Spanish winery very much thinks it is – particularly in light of climate change and its effect on winemaking – and has already taken its first steps on the journey to sustainable winemaking.
Rioja’s Ramón Bilbao was thrilled to announce in early 2020 that it has already exceeded targets on its sustainability drive in both its winery and vineyard – including in the reduction of greenhouse gases, energy efficiency, water management and reduction of waste. The producer has also achieved organic certification for its wineries in Rioja and Rueda and is now working towards official viticultural accreditation with ECOCERT. This is all the result of a precision viticulture programme designed to reduce the need for treatments in the vineyard, drastically reducing the chemical impact on the regions’ water tables.
‘Our mission,’ says head winemaker Rodolfo Bastida, ‘is to tangibly show our role in a mission shared by the whole Spanish industry: to be increasingly open and more ambitious in matters of sustainability. If the longest journey starts with a single step, Ramón Bilbao has firmly started a journey towards achieving 100% sustainability.’
But what is sustainability, and what is it in relation to winemaking? Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW answers this question…
Sustainability in winemaking
Written by Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW
Sustainable development was ‘invented’ in 1987, with this definition: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
I tend to define sustainability following two principles. First, going along the lines of Indian economist Amartya Sen’s definition of justice: there is no perfect justice, but there are many ways of reducing injustice. We should not pretend to reach sustainability, but must endeavour to consider, for anything we do, its impact on the next generations. Second, according to thermodynamics laws. Entropy, the disorder, always grows. But we can minimise its growth by adopting least-energy patterns.
Sustainability means, among other things, thinking ahead, beyond our lifespans. Sustainability is a matter of intergenerational equity, a compromise between long-term welfare and short-term benefits, something that classic capitalism struggles to accept.
Another key implication of sustainability is that it cannot be understood or enforced with sectoral actions. It needs a comprehensive approach, covering environmental and economic elements, but also social and territorial aspects. Sustainability is complex, often counterintuitive.
The idea of sustainability quickly conquered the hearts of consumers; it is an obvious good. Because of that it became a favourite term for marketing sharks. Almost anybody, even the oil companies, claim to be sustainable, while we have evidence that the whole oil industry is unsustainable.
Making wine sustainably
- Wine is all about sustainability:
- It is made from plants that should stay in the ground for a very long time. Vines should ideally live longer than us.
- The best wines are made to be enjoyed after decades, even centuries.
- Vine-growing is an intensive agricultural activity, using an overly proportional share of chemicals, energy and labour, and thus impacting disproportionately our environment.
- Vine-growing is also a major vector for managing territories. Wherever vineyards are relevant, rural societies are structured around them.
- Wine has been used as a symbol for power and trade, the pillars which determine our future.
A sustainable vineyard must be a vineyard planted, trellised and pruned to last for many decades. Most vineyards in the world are grubbed up when they are between 15 and 35 years old. No matter how beautiful and organic those vineyards are, this is unsustainable. Wasting the impressive amount of energy and information invested in those root systems, in order to get very high yields, is the antithesis of sustainability.
Vineyards must be resilient. Resilience is closely associated with intimate integration in the terroir, and a high degree of self-sufficiency. Because of that, old vines are a precious asset, and many modern irrigation systems that prevent the plant from exploring the soils deep below are not sustainable (with some exceptions).
A key biological factor for resilience is biodiversity. Sustainable growers should consider all life in and around the vineyard, and enhance the biodiversity there. It is key to preserve life in the soils.
Pesticides, copper and other killers should be excluded, but more research is needed to find the right solutions. Growers also need to understand that vines are just one element of a greater ecosystem, with other plants and fauna. They should not grow vines at the expense of other species, but develop in a positive interrelation.
If a grower claims to be serious about sustainability, he or she should explain what they do with the community around them; how they contribute to the sustainability of their district. There is no such thing as a sustainable vineyard, but a sustainable territory.
Self-sufficiency is closely related to a circular economy. Following this model, most supplies used in the vineyard should be produced locally. A reliance on patent-protected products made overseas and imported, is not only unsustainable, but is clearly negative.
One of the key points of a circular economy is retaining added value at origin. The reason for a proliferation of cheap wine on supermarket shelves is very low prices for the grapes. Those cheap wines come from agricultural areas that are currently being deserted because the low prices destroy any hope for growers to make a reasonable living and have a dignified future.
This model is clearly unsustainable. And there is no way of calling yourself a sustainable consumer while you are paying less than £5 for a bottle of wine.
Being local does not mean being traditional. The world is – and always has been – changing; so producers must also change. Keeping traditional grape varieties, which are no longer adapted to the changing climate, is not sustainable. Introducing new varieties is sustainable; provided that those varieties are grafted onto old roots.
The search for sustainability evidences the need for harmony, and the sense of place. When sustainability is an aim, some wine producing regions show their innate advantage, since nature provides the right conditions upon which vines can produce high-quality fruit without requiring extensive external input. For instance, much of Spain, with low-fertility soils, little rain and moderate yields, is occupied by resilient vines that facilitate the quest for sustainability.
Developing new trellising systems, with a long-term perspective, is also sustainable. The introduction of artificial intelligence into the vineyards is a very promising development – provided it is fed with renewable energy. Chaining yourself to tradition and nostalgia is probably the most unsustainable idea for any wine producer.
The key values for sustainability are human. First, the value of loyalty to the land and its people. We must not abandon the territories because conditions are trickier.
Second, the values of solidarity and joint effort. We must act together to face the complexities of sustainability. Being together works at a local level by associating wineries and growers with all other local players. Being together at global level works by sharing knowledge and connecting producers and consumers along the same lines.
Third, being humble. Nobody will achieve sustainability, but everybody should become less unsustainable. Because of that, it is very positive to count on initiatives such as Wineries for Climate Protection, in which wineries commit and report on their progress to be better in areas such as energy efficiency, water and waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, the most crucial element for sustainability, is our health. Goethe once said that rich people like to drink well, and poor people like to drink a lot. Please drink as rich people, especially since now there are excellent wines at more affordable prices. And let’s teach our kids to drink with intelligence.
Spanish Wine Academy from Ramón Bilbao
A note from our sponsor
For Rioja winery Ramón Bilbao, sustainability is a priority and a major step forward on the journey to being a conscious company. It is a huge responsibility for this almost 100-year-old winery, whose future legacy is now being built on different pillars – waste reduction, recycling, energy efficiency, water management and lower greenhouse gases – all trying to contribute to a sustainable future.
Research and development are central to Ramón Bilbao’s philosophy in making better wines and improving environmental impact. Ramón Bilbao has already achieved organic certification for both its wineries in line with the Wineries for Climate Protection scheme. Ramón Bilbao also uses precision viticulture to spot higher vineyards with the right microclimates to achieve optimal ripeness without the added use of water and treatments.
If the longest journey starts with a single step, Ramón Bilbao has firmly started a journey towards sustainability.