There is no single national sustainability system for wine in France, but two programs bear mentioning – a sustainable agriculture system favored by a small group of wineries and a regional sustainability program in the Champagne region.
Haute Valeur Environnementale
The French Ministry of Agriculture developed the Haute Valeur Environnementale or HVE certification in 2001, a three-tiered system that encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phyto-sanitary strategy (i.e. measures for the control of plant diseases, reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management. Once an operation has attained the third and most stringent level of the certification process, it is deemed worthy of the title “High Environmental Value” (“Haute Valeur Environnementale” or HVE). The authorities recently established an official label that producers with this status can display on their products and marketing materials.
HVE has strong support from the trade organization Vignerons Indépendants de France (Independent Winegrowers of France) a group of eco-conscious small-scale producers, about 25% of which are organic producers. They see a slowing in the number of new entrants to organic certification among wineries in France. HVE is less strict than organic requirements in terms of the elimination of chemical inputs in the vineyard, but it emphasizes other points, such as the promotion of biodiversity, which makes it much more aligned with sustainable agriculture systems that have concerns about vineyards being monocultures.
This voluntary approach involves three levels:
- Level 1 is a prerequisite for access to the process, obtained by carrying out a self-assessment by the farmer, validated by an accredited auditor. Action plans are created.
- Level 2 has 16 “best practices” around 4 themes: biodiversity, use of pesticides, fertilizers, water management. At this level a vineyard could receive the environmental certification label; it is validated by an external audit.
- Level 3 is the highest level and provides the certification HVE (high environmental value) for the entire farm operation. It includes performance requirements measured either by composite indicators, or by global indicators corresponding to the four themes. This level is also validated by an external audit after 3 years of operating at Level 2.
The logo may be affixed to finished products (including wine bottles), containing at least 95% of raw materials from farms with high environmental value (HVE).
Viticulture Durable en Champagne
In the early 2000s, The Champagne trade association, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, hereinafter The Champagne Bureau, sponsored an environmental footprint assessment of the viticulture and winemaking in the region. The result was a ‘Champagne Business Environmental Management Plan’ with four key action areas:
- The reduction of environmental risks to human health, particularly those arising from the use of agricultural inputs.
- The preservation and enhancement of terroir, biodiversity and landscapes.
- The accountable management of water, wastewater, by-products and waste.
- Confronting the energy/climate challenge.
Then in 2014, the Champagne Bureau launched its own “sustainable” winegrowing certification under the Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC) label, becoming the first French wine region to create its own sustainable label and certification requirements.
Champagne is quite concerned about the rise in the mean temperature by 1.8˚C (3° F) and predictions of continuing increases in the temperature going forward, which could have detrimental effect on the cultivation of cool-climate grapes and production of champagne as we know it.
Essentially the new VDC certification is very similar to the national HVE – in the sense that a company as a whole is certified. Like sustainable wine certification programs in “new world” wine countries, Champagne’s VDC includes sustainable practices in the vineyard as well as water and waste management.
Certification requires compliance both with 60 critical standards and 31 major standards. There remain 34 minor standards and at least 20 of those must be complied with as well. It takes 3 years to be certified and Champagne Houses are subject to audits every 18 months.
Just one year after this initiative was launched the system gained recognition through environmental certification from the French Agriculture, Food Processing and Forestry Ministry. As of midyear 2015, about 15 producers representing more than 2000 hectares – amounting to 6% of the land area – have Viticulture Durable en Champagne certification. This may seem like a small number but remember these types of programs are still new in France.