With Labor Day already in our rearview mirror, harvest has begun in many wine regions in the northern hemisphere. A mixture of intense excitement and overwhelming anxiety envelope both farmer and winemaker alike. There is only so much predictability we can expect from Mother Nature, but there are choices we can make along the way that can affect the outcome. With increased focus on the human impact on our planet and negative consequences for future generations, many farmers and producers utilize ecofriendly practices in ways that also benefit the quality of their wines. Multiple factors, including regional regulations, economic costs, and proximity to neighbors, often influence the decision to seek certification for their efforts.
Although 90+ Cellars has yet to offer a wine labeled “organic” or “sustainable”, that doesn’t mean there has not been a focus on finding ecofriendly wines. It is not only the producer that is kept hidden under the 90+ Cellars label, but quite often the producer’s practices. Organic has not always been an indication of quality on a wine label, but as sustainable, organic, and biodynamic techniques have been properly and appropriately applied in regions, the quality has almost become a happy byproduct.
With harvest on our mind, it is a good time to reflect on some of the environmentally conscious practices being implemented in vineyards throughout the winegrowing world. With all of the news about drought in California this summer, irrigation seems to be a likely place to start. Agriculture accounts for around 90% of human water consumption, so water management in vineyards is more relevant to environmental issues than most people assume. There are many factors, including soil type, age of vines, type of rootstock, and annual rainfall, that influence a vine grower’s decision to implement irrigation. Although the Languedoc region in the South of France is a very dry and warm area in relation to much of the country’s wine regions, all three of the Cote du Languedoc wines sold under the 90+ Cellars label come from dry farmed vineyards.
Not only are Lot 33 Rose and both French Fusions, Lots 21 (red) and 65 (white) made from grapes grown without the assistance of irrigation, but the producer also goes beyond typical sustainability practices and supports a couple of unique initiatives. First: the concept of poly-culture farming. Allowing livestock to graze amongst the vineyards supports an ecosystem, as opposed to utilizing the property for the singular focus of grape cultivation. They are also part of what is considered a “green belt”: granting passage through their land so that herders can avoid having to truck their livestock on the roadways.
There are many facets of sustainable and organic farming, but it seems that the crux of the matter for most consumers seems to be the use of insecticides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. Luckily the wine industry has avoided meandering into the GMO arena, but the agricultural use of chemicals throughout the many wine growing regions during the past century has definitely left its mark. There are many natural threats to vinis vinifera that have made chemicals an easy, and sometimes seemingly necessary, solution. Even the strangely beneficial ‘noble rot’ can easily be replaced by another very devastating form of mildew, if the conditions are not perfect. Having struggled with attempting to maintain a small, domestic organic garden for years in the northeast, I know the complex splendor nature can create in a simple tomato, but I still gawk jealously at the abundance Miracle-Gro can provide.
Incredibly, many of the producers we work with have chosen to forgo the use of chemicals as much as their particular regions and vineyards will allow. In the Loire Valley, the producers for both the Lot 118 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and Lot 126 Sancerre avoid the use of pesticides and insecticides, and are even working on obtaining certification for sustainable farming. In the Rhone Valley, the farmers supplying the grapes for the Lot 121 Cuvee Royale abstain from using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In the Piedmont region of Italy, the producer of Lots 26 (Barolo), 27 (Barbera d’Alba), and 110 (Nebbiolo) practices organic farming and is in the process of certification. Even the Lot 37 Shiraz from McLaren Vale in Australia is produced with 95% grapes from vineyards participating in the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing Program.
As organic, sustainable, and biodynamic evolve from catch-words to honest indications of quality in practice and product, it will be interesting to see the impact on the overall wine industry. Just as sanitation and scientific advances changed the landscape of wine over the past few decades, so will a return to more natural and sustainable farming practices. We seem to be approaching a watershed moment where science and technology are bringing us back to more natural winemaking. As a fan of the concept of terrior, it is hard not to appreciate the benefits of being conscious of our impact on the earth.