The wine industry is working seriously to manage sustainability in several regions of the world. They have adopted programs to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint – regarding chemical use, carbon emissions, water conservation and waste — and also make a contribution to societal needs in wine growing communities.  Wine industry associations in many regions have implemented certification programs, some more rigorous than others and some limited to sub-regions and not applied nationally. These programs naturally vary, with little standardization. Given distinct climactic conditions, unique biodiversity, different labor conditions and community needs, they obviously have different pre-requisites and requirements for achieving the seal of compliance.

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 in the book The Business of Sustainable Wine, for Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and The United States below.

Very simply it means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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.

Sustainability presumes that resources are finite and should be used conservatively and wisely with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used. In simplest terms, sustainability is about our children and our grandchildren, and the world we will leave them.

Typically, when we use the term sustainability, we think of avoiding the depletion of natural resources and protecting the natural environment, but sustainability is more than just protecting the land, it extends to preserving culture, traditional cuisine, landscapes, community. We also need to protect social and economic resources – natural capital and human capital.

Sustainability is the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come.

Most people believe wine is a natural product that comes simply from grapes grown with sunshine, soil, water and human attention; then crushed, fermented and bottled.  They picture winemaking as a bucolic scene, a small vineyard nestled in a picturesque hillside, the farmer and his family close to nature and living in harmony with the seasons.

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.

There exists no official or legal definition of natural wine; neither has any legislation been passed to date by any regional, national or supra-natural authority, and there are no organizations that can certify that a wine is natural.  However, there are many unofficial definitions or codes of practice published by the different associations of natural wine producers in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

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.

In organic farming, the use of chemicals is strictly controlled by law. Pesticides and chemical fungicides that are made available to the conventional farmer are prohibited from use by the organic farmer. The organic grower concentrates their efforts not on reacting to pests, but on growing a healthy vine that is able to withstand pests and feed itself naturally. First and foremost, this means developing a healthy soil and a balanced ecosystem within the vineyard. The producer must implement cultivation practices that minimize soil erosion, including crop rotation that provides erosion control.

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.

Like organic farming, Certified Biodynamic farming avoids the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fungicides. Biodynamic (often described as life-energizing) farming strives to maintain and even return life to the soil as well as to the farm as a living system.  Two things that distinguish biodynamic farming from other forms of organic farming are:

  • 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.

There is much ado 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.

Organic and biodynamic production methods don’t work in every region, especially very humid areas more prone to mildew. Also, some growers use biodynamic or organic practices without pursuing those certifications. For example, sustainable viticulture emphasizes the use of cover crops and careful canopy management (trellising and pruning) and employs composting. Chemical spraying is permitted in sustainable farming, but chemical use is minimized, and spraying events are documented and recorded. Sustainable producers believe their approach is more realistic and economically driven as the market demands both quality and volume; a vineyard is a business undertaking, which must be commercially viable.

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
“Beer is made by men, wine by God.”
– Martin Luther