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All these wine production methods can be a bit confusing at times, so here’s a quick breakdown of the key points: What are sustainable wines?...
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All these wine production methods can be a bit confusing at times, so here’s a quick breakdown of the key points:
What are sustainable wines?
At the heart of sustainable winemaking is the commitment to eco-friendly practices. This approach embraces both ecological principles and social responsibility. Sustainable vineyards often use renewable resources, and prioritise energy and water conservation. In the late 20th century, the escalating use of chemicals in vineyards came under scrutiny due to its environmental and health implications, with wine farmers at the time suffering from a higher rate of cancer than others. Thus, sustainable winemakers aim to minimise chemical use, contributing to healthier vines, ecosystems, and farmers. This category includes both certified (organic or biodynamic) and non-certified (Lutte Raissonnée) vineyards.
Organic winemaking revolves around using grapes certified as organically grown. This means that harmful pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilisers are off-limits. Furthermore, additives like artificial preservatives aren't allowed (although natural ones like Sulphur Dioxide are). There's also a sub-category, organically farmed wines, where the principles of organic farming are followed without formal certification. Across countries, the standards for what qualifies as 'organic' can vary, but the core idea remains the same - no synthetic chemicals. Turning a vineyard organic usually involves a three-year process that encourages biodiversity and natural methods of pest control.
Biodynamic winemaking builds on organic practices, but adds another layer of complexity. It follows the teachings of Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), which include homoeopathic treatments and considerations of astronomical and astrological cycles. The biodynamic calendar, which considers moon phases, planetary cycles, and zodiac constellations, guides the vineyard and winery processes. Treatments such as nettle, yarrow, camomile, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian are used to nourish the vines and make biodynamic compost. Soil health is crucial in biodynamic viticulture, often featuring mixed cover crops between vine rows to retain soil moisture and nutrients. The aim is to create a 'closed system', minimising energy and resource consumption. Championed by Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive, biodynamic practices have been adopted by top estates worldwide, such as Petrus and Chateau Palmer.
'Lutte Raisonnée', a French term translating to 'reasoned fight' or 'supervised control', promotes vineyard biodiversity through cover crops, soil ploughing, and the use of manures and natural composts. Some view it as a stepping stone towards full organic farming, while others see it as a balance between conventional and stricter organic standards. This method is open to interpretation; some growers seek certification through agencies like Terra Vitis, while others independently follow organic practices, reserving treatments for optimal conditions. Innovations, like integrated pest management and hormone confusion, reduce spray use, benefiting the vines, ecosystem, and winegrowers. In a world of climate change and unpredictable weather (frosts, hailstorms, unseasonal rain, lack of wind, excessively high temperatures etc), this more generalist approach to sustainability is often seen as the most pragmatic and economically viable. Unless the producer has very deep pockets!
Natural wines extend the principles of organic and biodynamic winemaking to champion minimal intervention. These wines, made from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes, shun synthetic chemicals or sulphites. In the winery, natural winemakers forgo commercial yeasts, enzymes, or additives, favouring traditional methods. These wines strive to express the grape and terroir in their purest form. The downside can be huge variations between vintages and wines that rarely travel well beyond their area of production.
To sum up
These winemaking methods aim to produce wines that truly reflect their grape and terroir. The decision to embrace these practices is often driven by a desire for the highest quality wine. It's important to note that these practices can overlap and may be pursued without formal certification, as evidenced by producers who choose not to publicly declare their organic or biodynamic credentials. Since I started my journey in the wine trade over 30 years ago, I’ve witnessed the demise of many of the hyper-yielding low-quality production in a lot of the world and significant growth in the sustainable movement. At Tannin and Oak, we work with producers who reflect these sustainable values and leave the mass-market production for the supermarkets, where decisions are usually based on the economic bottom line rather than ecological credentials or quality.
Comment or question
Is it true biodynamic wines are made by witches?