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Sustainable viticulture: ‘so vague it’s meaningless’

Sustainable winegrowing carries no guarantees of green practices in the vineyards, according to claims made in the latest issue of Decanter magazine.

The idea of sustainable winegrowing – one that limits the environmental impact of making wines – has grown enormously in popularity in recent years.

Now a report by Beverley Blanning MW in the November issue of Decanter, has found that there are so many different rules governing accreditation schemes, not just between countries but within wine regions, that it is extremely difficult to tell which are genuinely environmentally-friendly, and which are far from it.

Until fairly recently, ‘green’ winemaking simply meant organic, limiting the use of synthetic chemicals. But the idea of what constitutes a green wine has now evolved, and a winery wishing to show its environmental credentials has a wide range of options that tend to come under the vague umbrella term of ‘sustainable viticulture’.

Recognised sustainable schemes include Agriculture Raisonée in France, Sustainable Winegrowing in New Zealand, Integrated Production of Wine in South Africa and the California Integrated Winemaking Alliance. Some are independently audited, some self-audited, and each has different criteria by which the accreditation is judged and given.

The root of the problem is that there is no one definition of the term ‘sustainable’, Blanning says. Depending on the scheme, the word may relate to anything that takes place within the wine company’s systems, from carbon offsetting to saving water to staff training.

‘The audited elements of sustainability don’t necessarily relate to the contents [of the bottle]’ Blanning says, citing a University of Palermo study which found 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.’

The same is true in California, where Sonoma vintner Chis Benziger says, ‘Lots of people say “we practise sustainability” without following any rules, so they can have the illusion of sustainability without the burden.’

‘Sustainable viticulture today feels like frantic collective backpedalling within the wine industry, to try to undo some of the damage of the past,’ Blanning concludes.

‘Sustainable Viticulture: The New Green?’ by Beverley Blanning MW, is in the November issue of Decanter Magazine, out next Wednesday 3 October. Subscribe now and save 30%

Written by Jane Anson

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