Wine appears to be an incredibly unsustainable product. Large areas of vegetation must be cleared to plant vineyards, around 700 litres of water are required to make a single bottle of wine, not to mention the energy requirements of a winery. However, compare the environmental impact of a glass of wine to a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and you will feel far more virtuous about your favourite tipple. The added bonus is that growers and wineries have long been focussed on finding more sustainable ways to make wine. Finding a wine that tastes great and that you feel good about drinking is now easier than ever.
Climate change is a huge concern for the wine industry. Grapevines are dependent on sunny days and cool nights to gently ripen fruit for quality wine. Rising temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns and water shortages can significantly affect yields and fruit quality. For this reason, the wine industry was one of the earlier groups to recognise the need for sustainability. By the time the threat of global warming was beginning to be understood by the broader population in the 90s, many wineries had already implemented changes to reduce their environmental impact. Sustainability in wine has a number of levels, from complete avoidance of synthetic chemicals in organic and biodynamic viticulture through to multi-layered sustainability programs focussed on reducing environmental impact.
When your entire livelihood is dependent on a single yearly crop it can be very hard to step away from pesticides entirely. Sustainable viticulture allows some synthetic sprays to be used but only when required and with a targeted response, moving away from routine spraying of broad-spectrum pesticides. Often organic pest-control strategies are practiced but without the strict ban on all chemicals. This allows growers in high-risk pest or disease prone areas to promote sustainability with a reduced risk of being wiped out by a bad season.
Reducing chemicals is just the beginning though. Sustainable viticulture involves a range of activities including smart use of water through water-conserving irrigation systems, mulching to prevent water loss, recycling water, composting grape skins, installing solar panels to reduce energy costs – true sustainability is a holistic approach.
Family-owned winery Yalumba turns one-hundred and seventy this year and is a leader in sustainable viticulture in Australia. Their initiatives include installation of solar panels to provide 20% of all power on site, a leading plant nursery that works with the Australian Wine Research Institute to develop drought-resistant vines, and they were the first winery to join the national packaging covenant to reduce the impact of consumer packaging on the environment. The VITIS program was established in the 1990s whereby for every hectare of vineyard land, Yalumba ensures there is a hectare of preserved or newly planted native vegetation. This large-scale commitment to sustainability has inspired many smaller producers to become more involved.
As with other organic farming, artificial herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers are banned in organic vineyards. Organic viticulture aims to coexist with natural systems – if the growing environment is healthy, then a healthy plant will follow. This is achieved by feeding the soil with natural fertilisers, building nutrients in the soil through planting alternative crops (known as cover crops) between vineyard rows, promoting biodiversity by maintaining natural habitats, and controlling vineyard pests by growing crops that attract natural predators.
For a wine to be labelled ‘organic’, the vineyard must be certified by one of the regulating bodies. Organic practices are strictly controlled. All practices, from the natural agents used in the vineyard, through to the winery processes must be documented and comply with the standards set down by the certification. It can take a number of years to transition a vineyard to be fully organic and this can be a costly process. For this reason, there are a number of smaller producers employing the benefits of organic viticulture without necessarily obtaining the certification. This can make finding organic wines a bit challenging but does speak of the commitment to reducing synthetic chemicals in the wider industry.
‘Biodynamic’, the current buzz word in wine making, is based on principles developed over ninety years ago by Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian social philosopher, and the same chap that invented the Steiner method of education. Until the late 1800s most agriculture was essentially organic. As synthetic chemical use began to become mainstream, farmers were reporting reduced health and fertility of their soils, animals and plants. In response, Steiner held an agriculture course in 1924 detailing the principles that evolved into a new approach to farming. Biodynamic agriculture employs the chemical-free approach of organics and takes things a step further by incorporating a spiritual belief system. Astral calendars, showing the position of the sun, planets and moon influence vineyard work; identifying which days are best for planting, spraying, and harvesting.
To add to the mysticism of biodynamics, the sprays used are very specific preparations referred to by code numbers, a response to the banning of Biodynamics by the Third Reich in Germany. As an example, preparation 500 involves packing a cow’s horn with dung and burying it over winter to ferment and become ‘energised’. This is then sprayed on the vineyard twice a year to build soil structure, attract earth worms and stimulate beneficial bacteria and fungi.
Fifteen years ago, biodynamics was often dismissed as spiritual mumbo jumbo. However, the quality of the wine speaks for itself and biodynamics is now attracting some of the biggest names in wine internationally. Henschke Hill of Grace is one of the most lauded wines in Australia and comes from a single vineyard in the Eden Valley that is grown biodynamically. Prue Henschke is the caretaker of this incredible site which dates back 158 years. A trained viticulturist and scientist, she is deeply committed to biodynamics. Henschke uses the Antipodean Astro calendar to set spray schedules “What I see at this time is a build-up of moisture in the atmosphere which makes the environment conducive for the bacteria and fungi in the soil preparation to build up in the vineyard soils.” Hill of Grace is always picked just before the full moon of Easter, a cycle which governs fruit ripening times “and the 18.6-year lunar elliptical range from North to South of the Equator is a signal for flood events.” This holistic approach ensures premium quality and avoidance of weather events which can be catastrophic for viticulture.
Internationally there is a huge focus on promoting sustainable viticulture. Wineries and vineyard owners are committed to protecting their natural resources. Locally grown, sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines are taking up a larger proportion of wine lists. Wine-drinkers are becoming more concerned about where their wine comes from and how it was made. As the commitment to sustainability increases from across all facets of wine from growers to drinkers, it will become even easier to make delicious choices that also preserve the environment.
The Henschke’s purchased the Archer’s vineyard in the Adelaide Hills in 2009 and now manage it biodynamically. From a high altitude, cool-climate vineyard this Sauvignon blanc is a fresher style that goes beautifully with fresh seafood showing flavours of guava, lemongrass and a hint of passionfruit.
Lark Hill is a 100% biodynamic estate from the pristine cool climate region of Orange in New South Wales. This is a chardonnay-lovers’ chardonnay, elegant and crisp with fresh citrus fruit, white peach and subtle oak – but also one that may just convince chardonnay-sceptics how good this variety can be.
A vegan wine from Paxton’s entirely organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards. Tempranillo is a native variety to Spain and loves the Mediterranean climate in McLaren Vale. This is a medium-bodied, juicy, versatile red that matches easily to a range of dishes.
Planted in 1919, Yalumba recognised the huge value of these old shiraz vines and began the process of transitioning to biodynamic agriculture, achieving certification in 2015. Steeple is a bold, rich and complex Barossa Shiraz with wonderful ageing ability.