The SW Summary: On Sonoma, Prosecco, Cru Bourgeois and Slavery

By Hanna Halmari

A round up of some of the most interesting recent articles on sustainable wine. Summarised and edited by Hanna Halmari and Tobias Webb

Did Sonoma County just become the most sustainable wine region in the world?

So asks the San Francisco Chronicle, who report that within California’s $40 billion wine industry Sonoma County Winegrowers reports that 99% of its members are certified sustainable — not quite 100%, but awfully close.

Sonoma County is now aiming to run a pilot of a new certification program called the Climate Adaptation Certification. The initiative, starting in January 2020, will help farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change in vineyards, apparently via tracking carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions.

Sonoma County is trying to get 100% of the county’s vineyards “certified sustainable.”

The SF Chronicle notes that: “But as sustainability certifications have proliferated, they’ve also drawn significant criticism — that the programs’ standards are too lax on the use of synthetic chemicals, that they are marketing ploys constituting “greenwashing,” and that they are financially burdensome to small-scale farmers.”

The Climate Adaptation Certification will, they say, “offer tangible, quantifiable results in a way that the vague, malleable term “sustainability” cannot.” writes Esther Mobley in the SF Chronicle article. Read it here.

Secret sustainability. But why?

The Guardian writes about two wine producers in Portugal who have “quietly switched from conventional to organic practices”.

This was due, says Cassandra Coburn last month, to concerns about soil health and nutrient depletion. So the two producers, not named, have substituted pesticides and artificial fertilisers for labour and technology.

They are using drones with sophisticated sensors, prediction software, and presumably, more manual labour, to track and improve soil health.

The result, writes Coburn, is “healthier soil, healthier vines and an 18% harvest increase per hectare, with a significantly reduced environmental footprint.”

However, the two wineries have not told their retail customers about this. Why might that be?

Both have good reputations for quality, reports the Guardian, concluding that: “All they wanted to do was to keep giving consumers great wine at a good price, without degrading their soil. They hadn’t increased the cost of making wine as they shifted to organic practice. Their management was concerned that introducing the organic designation would lead consumers to question the quality of their wine. They also feared that if they raised their prices to meet the expectation that organic wine costs more, they risked making their wine unaffordable to their current customers.”

Prosecco, cool again, and more sustainable (in places)

Forbes reports on Prosecco’s resurgence and popularity, and notes early on in a recent article that Prosecco’s top quality DOCG wine region is now a UNESCO world heritage site, encompassing the hills around Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, “for their unique and historic terraced plots.”

The article suggests that Prosecco DOC rosé is on the way, perhaps in 2021. On sustainability, it seems interest is really taking off in the region.

In practical terms, the Forbes article, by Lana Bortolot, notes that biodynamic farming is rising up the agenda for producers there, including Demeter certification, and that :

“…the DOC consortium is pressing for more chemical-free farming, has introduced a program for producers to improve agricultural best practices. Wineries such as Bottega in the Treviso province have implemented green mulch programs and natural pest control such as ladybugs and sexual-confusion traps. Bottega and Masottina, also in Treviso, have partnered with the local Oenology School to cultivate indigenous grapes for a sustainable future. At I Magredi, a large producer in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia foothills, solar panels produce one third of the electricity, a meteorological system prompts irrigation on an as-needed basis, and they plan to have a zero-carbon footprint by this year.” More here.

Records of French grape harvests reflect the stark reality of climate change over the last 30 years

The National Geographic draws attention to the link between climate change and the future of wine by discussing how increasingly warm temperatures are changing the taste, feel and strength of wines.

All winemakers know that the point of harvest is vital. Harvest too early and acid levels will be too high and sugars too low. Harvest too late and vice versa. With grapes maturing faster in hotter climates, winemakers are forced to react to the drastic weather fluctuations and harvest their grapes earlier.

This is highlighted by Nathalie Oudin from Domaine Oudin, a decades-old family-owned vineyard. She comments on how “the harvest used to span her father’s birthday—September 28—but now, the bustle of harvest is over and cleaned up in time for his birthday party, two to three weeks earlier than when her grandfather used to make the wine.”

This story of climate change and its consequences on winemaking, especially in the last three decades, is reflected in the history of grape harvests.

As discussed in the article, an analysis of records of harvest dates in Burgundy spanning back to 1354 demonstrates how grapes are now picked almost two weeks earlier than the historical average. The effects of climate change are extremely prominent in recent years, as within “the past 16 years alone, eight were among the earliest harvest dates ever recorded.”

As evidenced in the article, the future of wine largely depends on the climate: “to save wine, save the planet.” More here.

The organic wine market is growing, but environmental concerns remain

Although French wine consumption has fallen in recent years, the organic wine market is growing as consumers show a preference in drinking organic, Euractiv reports.

In 2018 France saw a 12% rise in the surface area of organic vineyards as an increasing number of winegrowers made the shift to organic farming

This trend is largely driven by a prevailing public debate concerning the issues related to the use of pesticides. The article quotes organic winegrower Vincent Mercier in Côte de Bourg, who comments how “there is societal pressure to reduce the use of pesticides, particularly when municipalities want to impose a 150-metre perimeter without pesticides.”

Whilst a welcome trend, organic winegrowing does not necessarily equate to sustainable winegrowing, however. As raised in the article, organic farming requirements do not touch upon key environmental concerns such as carbon emissions, and the widespread use of copper and sulphur in organic winegrowing pose their own environmental issues. Furthermore, the move to organic winegrowing does not come without risks for vineyards. Read more here.

New Cru Bourgeois Classification brings back the old: the return of the traditional three-tier system, plus sustainability criteria

A new Cru Bourgeois Classification system will come into effect in 2020 bringing with it the revival of the historical three-tier hierarchy system. The three quality tiers of Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel will return on wine labels from the vintage 2018 onwards and will be subject to review every five years.

The last two decades have seen numerous changes in the classification system, often leading to controversy among producers. This article in Decanter quotes director of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, Frédérique de Lamothe, who states that “we have learnt a lot from the past and we are confident that this will benefit the châteux, trade and consumers. Most importantly,” he says, “the new classification maintains the quality and origin of the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc.”

Read how the new classification system will work here.

Sustainable Wine recently interviewed Olivier Cuvelier, president of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc. We discussed how the new sustainability criteria the Alliance is working with, may impact the 227 wines produced by members in 2017. Listen to the podcast below.

In brief, sustainability is now part of the assessment and membership criteria, but it’s not clear how stringent the requirements will be. Affordability of the transition to ‘more’ sustainable practices, a common challenge across agriculture, is likely to be a challenge for these smaller wineries, given they lack the profit margins of the classified Bordeaux growths. Producers will need to be HVE 2 certified, and then HVE 3 certified by 2022.

Crus Bourgeois du Médoc represents about a third of Bordeaux’s production. From February 2022, classification will last five years. Cuvelier said in the interview that HVE covers reduction of chemical use, effluent, water management and other areas. He also noted that many of the Crus Bourgeois chateaux are experimenting with approaches such as organic in parcels of their vineyards. But “there is a cost for this, we are conscious of that” he said.

Humidity is a key barrier to eliminating chemical use in Bordeaux, particularly in the small chateaux. “It’s really a challenge” he says.

For the story of sustainability at Chateau Palmer, check out this long podcast interview with winemaker and CEO Thomas Duroux, here. For a shorter interview with Cuvelier, go here.

Europol cracks down on French winemakers employing Bulgarian trafficking victims

Labour trafficking, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors, has become the most prevalent form of modern slavery in Europe.

167 Bulgarian trafficking victims have been discovered by Europol in four wineries in Lyon, reports Freedom United. Despite promises to have all housing and transport expenses covered, victims were forced to live on a campsite and were refused the full payments promised in their contracts.

French officials have arrested three Bulgarian suspects and one French suspect in relation to the case. “The Bulgarian members of the group were responsible for recruitment in Bulgaria while the French member arranged logistics, including organising accommodation for the workers,” comments a spokesman for Europol.

We’ll publish another news and analysis roundup again soon.

Meanwhile, please consider joining us for this, on November 4th in London:

The Future of Wine Forum takes place on Nov 4 in London at The Conduit Club.

It’s a one-day business meeting about how you put sustainability into practice in the wine industry.

We’re bringing together leading winemakers, retailers and industry executives, to discuss why and how sustainability matters in wine. Check out who will be there, here:

With winemakers and executives such as:

CEO, Château Lafon-Rochet * Winemaker, Rathfinny Wine Estate * Buyer, Marks & Spencer * Buyer, Waitrose * Buyer, The Co-operative Group * Chief Agronomist, Catena Zapata * CEO, Château Léoville Barton * Yealands Wine Group * Richard Bampfield, MW * Linton Park Wines * * Accenture Strategy * Wine GB Environmental Sustainability Workgroup * Raeburn Fine Wines * CEO, Garçon Wines * Douglas Blyde, writer * CEO, Simonit & Sirch * Owner, Oatley Vineyard * Owner, Chateau George 7 (Fronsac) * and many more. Spaces are limited, please register now.

Sign up or check out the agenda here: (student discounts available)

SWR Logo

Sustainable Wine is the free online magazine of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable (SWR).

Join 70+ companies in collaborating to define sustainable wine. Click below for details.

Find out more

About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.