ECO WINE Explained

From fossil fuel furnaces and gas-powered cars to eco-friendly heat pumps and electric bikes, the world is finding a new, green future – and wine is increasingly trying hard to be part of that transition. From conventional to sustainable to organic and biodynamic, wine growers are learning how to use new practices and products to reduce monoculture as well as the use of toxic chemicals, that decrease bird and bee populations and degrade soil health.

But as consumers find their choices widening, they are also getting confused. What do all the virtuous green terms mean? Not so long ago, in the pre-green preening era, wine was just wine, and the question was simply red, white or rosé. But today, eco-wine categories — sustainable, regenerative, organic and biodynamic — are the new lingo of wine.

This article covers the different types of farming practices, from the conventional to each of the four main eco-labels, so that wine lovers can pick the type of farming they want to support, or at least understand how their wine grapes were grown. The terms describe what happens in the vineyard, not the winery, from the way the grapes are fertilised to the way the grower keeps weeds under control and combats mildew. Various practices also support — or negatively impact — biodiversity.

GROWING GOOD GRAPES

Farming for good grapes is a lot of work, and even in fine wine regions, conventional or sustainable growers use large amounts of synthetic, nitrogenbased fertilisers and toxic chemicals, which are
mainly herbicides and fungicides, and some insecticides. These are harmful for biodiversity and soil health. Chemicals used on vines are well documented in California, which is the only place in the world where reporting is both mandatory and transparent regarding the quantity of agrochemicals used. An increasing number of eco-conscious producers have turned to organic or biodynamic methods that forego synthetics, using only organic fertilisers and rely on vigilant, preventive practices and gentler, organic approved materials. They may still be monocultures, though many are proactively working to preserve biodiversity and create a healthy habitat for birds and bees.

Not so long ago, in the pregreen preening era, wine was just wine, and the question was simply red, white or rosé. But today, ecowine categories – sustainable, regenerative, organic and biodynamic – are the new lingo of wine

EUROPE’S EXPANDING ORGANIC SECTOR

You get a sense of the scale of organic wine grape growing from the fact that the world’s three largest wine producing countries — France, Italy and Spain — have 18% of their vineyard acres certified as organic, and the market for organic wines is growing rapidly each year. Producers can command a slightly higher price, around 20% to 25% for organic wines in the low end of the market if the bottles are labelled with organic certification. At the higher end, however, organic wines are generally priced the same as their non-organic peers and the bottles tend not to be labelled organic, even if the producer is certified.

In the US the number of organic vineyard acres is close to three percent but those in fine wine regions like Napa are around 11%. Similar to European wines, the organically grown US wines at lower price points are bottle-labelled with the word organic, but at higher price points they are not. Since there is no price difference in the US for organic in the lower priced tiers, there is less incentive for growers to become organic, compared to the EU.

In Bordeaux, more than 300 producers in the affordably priced wine tiers are converting to organic certification this year, as they try to catch the wave of rising prices for organic grapes that their southern counterparts are enjoying. In southern France, organic vineyards in the Languedoc and Châteauneuf-du-Pape account for about 30% to 35% of the acreage. Some French co-ops are expanding by converting to organics. Alsace, in fine wine circles, is an organic and biodynamic hotspot.

QUICK GUIDE TO TERMINOLOGY

Let’s start with the terms organic and biodynamic which have the clearest and most unambiguous definitions, with robust monitoring and well-established certification systems and also the highest level of consumer trust. The simplest definition of organic and biodynamic wine grape growing is farming without synthetic chemicals.

That sounds easy, yet it is anything but.

By restricting the use of non-organic products growers must use a different set of methods, beginning with fertilisers and cover crops in the vine rows to fertilise the soil and then extending to weed control and combating mildew. Many producers say that they are sustainable (another popular green term) but this term is not well defined and there are dozens of sustainability programmes. There is so much variability that it is very confusing to know what the term means in actual practice. At the lowest end, sustainability can mean simply aspiring to greener practices, for eg, evaluating whether or not the spray schedule should change from the previous year. At the higher end, some of the more tangible steps in sustainability emphasise using natural resources more conservatively, ie, saving water or energy.

Another term, regenerative farming, has recently entered the wine world. There is one programme in the US, Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), that combines sustainability and organics with rigor. It was originally founded in opposition to the US allowing hydroponically grown food to be certified organic and its intention was mainly to impact row crop farmers. However, many
organic and biodynamic producers wanted the added prestige of ROC and are signing up. Others also use the word “regenerative” without the word organic because they are not organic. Yes, it is confusing.

Lastly, biodynamic is another type of viticulture. As a baseline, it requires organic certification with its standards pertaining to materials prohibition, but going beyond that, biodynamic requires growers to use mineral and herbal sprays that promote plant health, vitality and resilience as well as grape quality. While some say that biodynamics is possible only at small scale, an increasing number of producers are using them at large scale. Both Languedocbased vintner, Gerard Bertrand (producing conventional, organic and biodynamic wines) and the Chilean winery, Emiliana (which produces only organic or biodynamic wines) have 2,000 acres of biodynamic estate vines.

By restricting the use of non-organic products growers must use a different set of methods, beginning with fertilisers and cover crops in the vine rows to fertilise the soil

Vallonné Vineyards: Producing premium wines from grapes grown on south-facing slopes overlooking the clear waters of the Mukhne Dam in Igatpuri near Nashik

FERTILITY

Organic and biodynamic producers are picky when it comes to the food they feed their vines. They use only organic fertilisers or compost, often house-made. They do not use conventional
fertilisers, used by conventional and sustainable growers, which takes 75 times more energy to manufacture than organic compost. Compost is a critical part of organic viticulture for another
reason — water. Compost increases the amount of organic matter in the soil which increases water retention significantly.

Organic producers also rely on nitrogen-producing cover crops that provide nutrition for the soils. They can plough these under or mow and mulch or crimp them, thus protecting the soil by keeping it covered, which is especially critical in times of drought. Covered soils retain water and nutrients better.

Decisions about which cover crops to use are a hotly debated topic, since they are the plant’s food. Like top chefs, some vineyard management experts have their favourite blends of cover crop
species, which they see as “their secret sauce”. The greenest among them may use only native species of perennials, because they reseed each year, saving seed costs.

WEED CONTROL

Controlling weeds in the vineyard is another key topic. Conventional growers use herbicides and they are still fairly ubiquitous, although more and more fine wine growers are opting out. Herbicides generally contain the carcinogenic chemical, glyphosate, applied in the spring to kill weeds that grow under the vines and between the vine rows. However, in addition to killing weeds, herbicides also kill healthy beneficials in the soil, such as mycorrhizal fungi which are responsible for many of the flavour compounds vines pump up from their roots to enhance their fruit.

In California, supermarket wines are often grown with a deadlier herbicide, paraquat, which is linked to Parkinson’s disease. Paraquat is not used on California’s fine wines but one can buy a bottle of “sustainable” California wine, usually found in a supermarket, grown with paraquat. (Paraquat has been banned in Europe since 2007.)

To control weeds, organic growers use special under-vine mechanical cultivators that mow just the narrow strip under the vines, bouncing around each individual vine. Wineries may also rent flocks of sheep to mow down their cover crops, but these are only used in the early part of the growing season. Organic growers are excited about the coming era of electric tractors that mean an end to fossil fuel use in cultivation.

Decisions about which cover crops to use are a hotly debated topic. Like top chefs, some vineyard management experts have their favourite blends of cover crop species, which they see as “their secret sauce”

FIGHTING MILDEW

Mildew is a big challenge. While many conventional wine growers, especially in fine wine regions, are decreasing or eliminating conventional herbicides, they are still addicted to synthetic fungicides. Sulphur is the most commonly used fungicide in all vineyards, but non-organic growers (conventional or sustainable) typically also use synthetic fungicides that are toxic to birds and bees.

Copper which is also used as a fungicide is under attack as it harms the soil. In France, the government has now restricted its use by all wine growers. Detoxing soils from copper may be a job for Mother Nature. Researchers are looking at plant-based solutions in the hope of finding organisms that can naturally remove copper from the soil. Thousands of growers now use gentler anti-mildew products, including Regalia, a popular biofungicide widely used by both conventional, sustainable and organic growers.

SUMMING UP

With increased knowledge about the ins and outs of various farming practices, wine lovers can better evaluate how close the claims of brands come to truly being green and avoid a lot of greenwashing that gets in the way. It’s an ongoing conversation that’s sure to teach both consumers and the industry how best to communicate and validate how eco-friendly a wine really is.