These differences have led to confusion and even skepticism in some quarters regarding sustainability claims by wineries and sustainability certification programs.
Consumers nowadays see a lot of certification schemes and generally are unable to distinguish one from another. Retailers, determined to provide environmentally responsible products, want assurance that these products, and the seals they display, meet acceptable levels, if not the highest level, of impact and authenticity. More than that, they want to display the certifications recognized by the end consumer.
Consumers in general don’t know how to navigate the various seals and certifications and retailers often don’t have the resources to provide this information or education. There is some understanding of organic certification, given consumer experience with organic foods. Only in a few instances have customer communications, education and marketing been included among the priorities of the regional sustainability programs. A brief overview of each program is available for Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and The United States below.
The term sustainability is often used quite loosely, and it is a term that has been abused by wineries and marketers alike. Many producers in the wine industry are trying to figure out how to enhance quality and production of wines while being more cognizant of their impact on their immediate and global environments. For some, this means reducing the use of certain chemicals. For others, it means making daily operations greener by reducing the waste stream and using more renewable energy sources.
Until the 1920s, organic agriculture was the norm. Farmers used natural means to feed the soil and to control pests. This all changed after the two world wars when chemical weapons were developed. Many of these substances – DDT used against mosquitoes to control malaria, and TNT, a powerful nitrogen based explosive — were tested on insects, and when the war ended, they were turned with a vengeance against agricultural pests. TNT was reconstituted as a nitrogen fertilizer.
Thus, agriculture changed dramatically and, especially in the US when industrial agriculture came into being, producing great quantities of food at low prices. The trade-offs pose great risks to our ecological and social health — topsoil depletion, erosion, groundwater and soil contamination, depletion of water resources and deforestation.
In fact wine growing is a very industrialized process that is tough on environment and workers. Wine is a major global industry, subject to the same cost constraints, desired profit margins and investor expectations as other industries. These business realities affect decision making about integrating sustainability into manufacturing and business practices.
Several “green” practices are associated with wine: natural, organic, sustainable and biodynamic.
What we call natural wines are wines made with the least possible use of chemicals, additives and overly technological procedures. That includes chemicals in the field, such as pesticides, as well as things like sulfur or any of the many various chemicals, additives, cleansers, and fining agents used in conventional winemaking, that are legally permitted, to protect the wine from spoilage or premature browning or overcome a deficiency. These are not permitted in natural wines. And there are many technological manipulations of wine, employed in conventional wineries that would not be used to make a natural wine. However the result in natural wines can often be cloudy wine with lumps of natural yeast in the bottle, or untimely spoilage.
The uses of beneficial insects, cover crops, natural fertilizers, and the planting of companion crops (such as Echinacea to attract natural predators), are common. In addition, weed management is integrative, allowing a cycle of growth, mowing and composting wherein the biomass is used as fertilizer instead of traditional chemical fertilizer sprays.
In order for wines to carry the organic seal on their packaging, their ingredients must be approved by a government body – in the US it is the US Department of Agriculture and the EU provides approval of certification rules of European countries. There are important distinctions between these government requirements, but in each case it is ultimately a government body that determines what is labeled organic.
- the use of a complex system of herbal sprays and composting techniques, known as “preparations,” and
- the timing of the operations on the land, which is strictly regulated by the movements of the spheres of the universe (the planet and the moon).
Where organic farming focuses on refraining from adding certain things to the vine and the soil, one of the core principles of biodynamic farming is adding certain preparation elements to the soil, fertilizing with natural products according to a lunar cycle. These “preparations” are made from herbs — such as yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle oak bark, dandelion and valerian flowers — mineral substances and animal manures, and are used in field sprays and compost applications that revitalize the soil with life and aid in photosynthesis.
Much ado is made about use of the two most iconic biodynamic preparations, which are made using cow’s horns. Utilizing a cow horn as a receptacle for cow dung, the horns are buried over the winter, and then excavated in the spring. The material that results smells of rich earth and looks like beautiful soil. By putting the horns underground in the winter, the constant temperature allows the dung to ferment, creating a welcoming environment for colonies of microbes to flourish. Once taken out of the horn, this fermented soil is placed in water that is vigorously stirred, and applied in homeopathic quantities to the soil.
Biodynamic wines worldwide are certified by one organization, Demeter, and the requirements are exactly the same in every country.
Sustainable wine production is a broader concept that includes practices for:
- energy and water conservation
- carbon emissions reduction
- waste management
- packaging and recycling
- fair compensation to workers
- worker health and well-being
- social responsibility to communities
Some of these sustainable certification initiatives are more rigorous than others.
“Beer is made by men, wine by God.”
– Martin Luther