Increased awareness of climate change has boosted interest in sustainable winegrowing practices. For publication in week starting 19 February 2018.
Sustainable winegrowing methods have become increasingly popular and relevant in recent years. To that end, the world’s first gathering of winegrowers to discuss these kinds of practices met in Verona in Italy earlier this month.
A dozen organisations involved in sustainable practices known as the International Sustainable Winegrowing Network organised the event.
They included the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Austrian Wine, the Valpolicella Wine Board and Sustainable Australian Winegrowing. The aim is to hold the event in different countries each year. The opening meeting had a specific focus on new farming technologies with low environmental impact.
Sustainability appears to sit somewhere in the middle of a continuum with biodynamics and organics at one end and conventional production methods that involve significant use of chemicals at the other. Earlier columns have noted that conventional viticulture is allowed use up to 180 active pesticides and another 140 chemicals in the cellar and during the winemaking process. Some are not good for the human body.
Willi Klinger, managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, said sustainability meant different things to different people but noted that the business aspects were important. “We cannot be sustainable if we are not profitable.” Making a vineyard organic was expensive but becoming sustainable could be less so. “Using a lighter bottle, for example, can halve the cost of bottles and make a big impact on the environment.”
Klinger said he was proud of the fact that 30 per cent of Austrian vineyards were organic. He noted that Nordic nations only wanted to buy good wines from green or organic estates, and suggested that European nations needed to have a common denominator of what sustainability meant, plus a common logo.
Steve Lohr, chairman of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and CEO of J. Lohr Vineyards, pointed out California’s size by global standards. It is effectively the fourth largest wine region in world, with 250,000 hectares. “California is very much in tune with looking after the environment.”
The alliance was formed in 2002 and Lohr said three in four vineyards there had done some form of sustainable self-assessment. It uses third party auditors to ensure vineyards are sustainable.
Lohr defined sustainability as involving three Es: environment, economics and social equity. Some of the practices were widespread, such as vineyards making their own compost instead of using petro-chemical fertilisers. The last factor included how well wine estates treated their staff. “We find we get more support from our community because people feel that we are taking care of the environment.”
Lohr noted that US President Donald Trump “says climate change does not exist” but “as farmers we know it does exist”. Because of changing conditions, Lohr said, the Napa Valley was seriously considering whether it would be possible to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, for which the area is famous, half a century from now.
Olga Bussinello, Director of the Consortium for the Tutelage of Valpolicella Wines (the Valpolicella Wine Board), said it had become urgent to find ways to protect and conserve resources and the environment.
Bussinello said the consortium’s RRR protocol – Reduce, Respect, Retrench – announced two years ago was designed to protect the environmental balance of Valpolicella, the wine region known worldwide for producing Amarone. The meeting took place a day before the 50th anniversary of Amarone Anteprima, the annual release of the new vintage of Amarone, in Verona, the city of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
James Hook, an agronomist in Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region, represented Sustainable Australia Winegrowing at the conference. McLaren Vale was the first region in Australia to adopt the group’s sustainability criteria.
About 16 per cent of McLaren Vale vineyards had been certified organic, he said. “Because Australia is such a dry place, we have to manage water carefully. Economics have forced us to be very careful with water.”
“McLaren Vale has vines that are more than 140 years old which must be protected. Heat waves are our main issue with climate change.” Vineyards managed by adapting canopy systems, and planting vines from southern Italy that could cope with extreme heat.
Steve Lohr of California said his company used shade cloth to protect grapes. These allowed about 60 per cent of the light to get through and kept grape temperatures below 37C, the point at which grapes can be damaged by heat. “This is expensive but we get better quality berries.”
In California the industry averaged about six or seven litres of water to make one litre of wine. At the J. Lohr vineyard, Steve Lohr said, by 2012 they had managed to bring that figured down to two litres of water to make one litre of wine. “Saving water became a culture and we had contests to find ways to use less water.”
Row orientation for vines represents another way to be sustainable. Vines should be planted on a north-south orientation in cool climates because this approach increases sun exposure. But in hot climates such as Australia and South Africa, an east-west row orientation is better because vines are less likely to be burned. East-west is considered best for California.
Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand follows recommendations and guidelines issued by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. Its program ensures members meet international standards for sustainability practices while helping the environment, businesses and local communities to thrive.
This program was introduced commercially in 1997 and has been adopted by grape growers across the country. Sustainable winery certification standards were established in 2002.
Stephanie Bolton, director of the LODI Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing Commission in California, also addressed the conference, which attracted about 1,000 delegates.
Her organisation began in 1992 when local growers chose to tax themselves to pay for sustainability. More than 200 growers had become certified since then, many using online self-assessment tools. “We plan for the next 100 years, not just the next few years.”
California had introduced a major education program for growers for saving water and she noted that cover crops represented an excellent way to conserve water and ensure vines were properly irrigated.
Wine menu in the United States now indicate that wines come from certified sustainable vineyards. Increasing numbers of people appear willing to pay a little extra for sustainable wines, Steve Lohr said.