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Sustainable and Organic Vineyards for Earth Day 2020!

Well, son of a berry, let’s get into some S.O.B. wines for Earth Day! When one approaches the nerdier end of the wine enthusiast scale, we come across categories of vineyard management called Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic (SOB). These are the most-known wine production guidelines for creating fermented grape juice in a way that takes the Earth’s wellbeing into account. Here, we won’t focus as much on biodynamic vineyards, but we would like to add another approach to vine cultivation: conventional. As noted, we are going to focus on vineyards because, taken in its entirety, this is an extremely complicated topic when it comes to not only winemaking, but also farming. The good news is we will break these categories down and suggest some of our favorite examples of sustainable and organic wines to try below, so let’s get going!

Winemaking is, first and foremost, farming. Just as there are manipulations of soil and vegetation for farming apples, apricots, and avocados, Aligoté needs the same. We manipulate the vine, maintain the development of the grape, and harvest the fruit to be processed in the winery. The question here is what practices can producers use with regard to their own market and sustainability expectations.

It’s impossible to say whether one category of conventional, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or natural wine is better than another. There are really excellent and really terrible examples of each. [Quick disclaimer: The Wine Outlet only carries excellent wine. Thanks for your attention]. So, instead of blanketly grading these categories on a better to worse scale, it’s best to describe some of the advantages and disadvantages of each for both winemakers and consumers. We know all vines need four basic things: warmth, sunlight, nutrients, and water. How these resources are given to the vine defines the agricultural method. So, let’s start with how conventional vineyards work.

Conventional Method

Conventional viticulture is the backbone of mass-produced wines. We do not mean to imply any negatives or characterless attributes, but for these vineyards, consistent production is king. Here, the goal is to increase yields and reduce cost. While each producer uses these methods in different ways and with different emphases, these vineyards likely will employ mechanization at each opportunity for efficiency in the vineyard. Pests are taken care of with routine pesticide spraying, and soils are infused with man-made fertilizer to give the vines the nutrients they need. Crucially, when vines have too much of what they need, they do what vines do. They grow in all sorts of crazy shapes, climbing up buildings, wrapping around trees, developing extensive greenery (as opposed to fruit), and even spreading along the ground. Conventional farming allows growers to limit excess nutrients, water, and sunlight (photosynthesis/sugar accumulation) that will prevent vines from running wild. At the end of the day, these are crops to be produced, harvested, and maintained. So, with all this control, what is the downside?

Vineyard worker spraying pesticides…Source: Duke University

In many cases, but not all, conventional growing might jeopardize the sustainability of vineyards.  When the majority of nutrients a vine receives are infused into the soil, then the natural regeneration of these essential nutrients tends to deplete. Additionally, if pesticides are overused, the naturally occurring processes of a vineyard will not manifest in a sustainable manner. In other words, when bugs die, or animals defecate, or undergrowth is completely removed, the nitrogen, magnesium, and potassium that is produced by these processes becomes absent. The vineyard is then sustainable only insofar as humans are there to create the environment as opposed to the environment continuing to create itself. Many wines that arise out of conventional viticultural practices are fantastic, but what can vineyard managers do to mitigate some of these environmental concerns when it comes to conventional growing? The answer lies within other viticulture methods.

Sustainable Method

The simplest question to start with is, what makes a vineyard sustainable? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer, and certain areas of the world address sustainable farming differently. For example, sustainable practices in Lodi, California and South Africa will have different norms than those in New Zealand. New Zealand actually has a very low bar when it comes to sustainability even though a high percentage of growers in New Zealand qualify for sharing their wines as sustainable. So, what do we make of this relatively unregulated and unprotected term ‘sustainable?’

It may be best to think of sustainable winemaking as a more conscious approach to the naturally cyclical means of producing grapes. At the very least, pesticides and nutrient supplements are reduced in the vineyard, and this is coupled with a heightened sense of environmental consciousness that stems from organic practices. Sustainable growers may save some cost on the expenses of herbicides, pesticides, and man-made fertilizer. Here, a more ecological understanding of the interaction between the ecosystem in which the vineyard lays and the quality of the fruit of the vine become more intertwined. Some sustainable producers often hold themselves to standards that would qualify for an organic certification, while some producers simply need to meet demand and maintain a greater awareness of the environmental factors at play. Oak Farm’s 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is a great example of a wine from a producer that hand picks their grapes from three sustainable vineyard sites. With no additives and a fresh-fruit profile, this is one of our favorite examples of sustainable wine from our stores. Spain also maintains a significant presence in the wine-world scene when it comes to sustainable and organic wines. A recently released example is from Ignacio Valdera’s Bermejos Listan Rosado from the Canary Islands. Sustainable farming in the Canary Islands is not easy considering the terrain, but Valdera’s Rosé is vibrant with minerality that truly shows its sense of place.

One of Bermejos’s sustainable vineyards on Lanzarote in the Canary Island…Source: David Bowler Wine

Organic Method 

This finally leads us to a brief look at organic wines! Like sustainable wines, there is variation in the level of qualification that a producer must attain before being certified. For example, standards for the European Union are different from those in the United State and from those in Australia. That being said, these standards are more codified and more reliable with regard to the actual practices within the vineyard. Difficult growing environments, like those in the Loire Valley, can be made more challenging by keeping organically certified vineyards; however, success stories like those from Chateau Passavant inspire other producers to go organic and consumers to reward these efforts. Though they are great for marketing, some of these certifications can be quite expensive for producers, so many winemakers will forego the certification process even though they adhere to organic standards. This is particularly common in areas with rich history in winemaking such as Burgundy, Piedmont, and Rioja where the vineyards have been entrenched in already established organic practices for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, many premier producers, such as Domaine Buisson-Charles of Burgundy, continue to hold their organic certifications, making it clear to consumers that their vineyard management will remain organic at its core.

A major factor for organic practices in the vineyard is the biodiversity that pervades the rows of grapevines. Got pests? Introduce an insect as a predator. Mice? Get a cat. Weeds? Don’t use herbicides, just mow the vegetation and let their nutrients seep into the ground and help your grapevines. Bears? Well… that’s a tough one…just be careful. By monitoring weather conditions, taking care of soil conditions, pruning the vines by hand, harvesting by hand, and, overall, using natural elements to your advantage, what results are grapevines that year-over-year will not only yield characterful fruit, but they (in all likelihood) will survive with disease resistance into old age, producing wines with depth of flavor as opposed to their younger counterparts. Piedmont, Italy hosts vines that have been growing since the end of the Second World War, and some of those are owned by Massimo Rivetti. These vines, in a way, have settled into themselves and have meshed with the soil to proudly show off the lands in which they grow. This is particularly true in Massimo Rivetti’s Barbaresco, which is a must-try for Nebbiolo lovers.

Organic farming has other benefits including saving costs on chemicals, instilling an environmentally positive consciousness focused on sustainability, and producing a well-looked-after crop that will (more often than not) reward your taste buds. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is known for its environmental consciousness when it comes to growing grapes, and Dai Crisp’s Lumos Wine Co. makes no exceptions to their organic methods. When it comes to Lumos, you are getting wines with minimal human intervention, leaving your taste buds to experience the freshness that organic farming can bring. Despite this, and similar to the other methods, organic practices also come with their disadvantages. Organic farming demands more labor and thus higher labor costs, and with the reduction in mechanization, there tends to be lower yields. Despite this, organic practices resonate with consumers, and today, on Earth Day, we want to celebrate the efforts of the winemakers, whether conventional, sustainable, or organic, who work to give back to the lands from which they take their grapes.

Organic Vineyards of Massimo Rivetti…Source: Kysela Pere et Fils

Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Before closing, we should address the wines that your hypothetical friend, named Rainn, absolutely loves: biodynamic and natural wines. Underneath the beret on top of his head and jumbled between memorized phrases like ‘that song’s played-out’ and ‘she’s such a Scorpio,’ Rainn’s brain believes these wines give him a sense of centered-ness that jive with his constructed image – which is basically the human manifestation of a t-shirt of a pug wearing a scarf. But, he may love these wines for reasons beyond how they’re made.

Biodynamic agriculture embraces the idea that certain homeopathic and holistic approaches to agriculture will benefit the product and, in short, lead to a balance between the universe and the earth. Many of these vintners will align their practices with celestial movements or other natural reference points. Many biodynamic wines follow organic practices (many times without certification), but these agricultural techniques necessarily force the farmers to pay close attention to their crops. Whether you believe Tannat should grow towards the constellation Taurus or Chardonnay should grow out of manure filled cow horns (yeah that’s a thing), these winemakers are paying attention.  In fact, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which year-over-year produces the most expensive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world, utilizes this method.

Romanée-Conti Enclosed Vineyard…Source: Heritage Auctions

As a final note, natural wine deserves its own blog post, especially as the wine world is a bit divided on this topic. Natural wine is almost more of an idea than it is an established practice. The philosophy is that grapevines should be interfered with as little as possible. So, this means no chemicals, additives, etc., but this also means extremely limited use of sulfur dioxide. Without going into too much detail, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a preservative and antiseptic that allows wine to stabilize overtime and during travel. Crucially, pretty much all wine has SO2. White wine tends to have more to preserve the fresh fruit flavors of particularly crisp white wines, but even these levels are, literally, hundreds of times lower than those found in dried fruits such as raisins. Regardless, SO2 is a key player in the natural wine movement, and only time will tell how long this movement will keep going.

Thanks so much for sticking through this somewhat long post, but we hope that through this discussion you’ve thought not only about what wines you might want to try, but also about how farmers can take care of the Earth. The full list of either sustainable or organic wines we carry can be found below . We love these wines and hope you will too. Happy Earth Day!

Vienna

2016 Oak Farm Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi, California (Sustainable)

2017 Lumos “Five Block” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Oregon (Organic)

McLean

2016 Massimo Rivetti Langhe Pinot Noir Piedmont, Italy (Organic)

2017 Chateau Passavant Anjou Blanc Loire Valley, France (Organic)

Great Falls

2017 Domaine Buisson-Charles Meursault “Vieilles Vignes” Burgundy, France (Organic)

2018 Los Bermejos Listan Rosado Canary Islands, Spain (Sustainable)

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