Follow the yellow brick road? The green grass track?

Published by Sally on May 8, 2009
1 Comment

A version of this article first appeared in the Drinks Business, January 2009.

In a trade that is heavily reliant on natural resources to provide non-essential products, the wine industry needs to ensure it has appropriate sustainability credentials. 

Initiatives exist, but they vary in content and extent: just the vineyard or the winery too?  What sort of ethical element? Voluntary self-scoring systems or third party certified? Inbuilt annual improvements to measure progress? Tiered systems to distinguish beginners from long-time walkers? Communication to consumers?

FIVS, an international alcohol beverage trade body, has drawn up Global Wine Sector Environmental Sustainability Principles (GWSESP), under which four new world countries have sustainability  schemes:

The New World

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) started in the vineyard in 1997, with a winery module launched in 2002, and has recently announced intentions to remove the voluntary component for participants in industry events.  Philip Manson, science and innovations manager at New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) said: “our goal is [to be] 100% accredited under independently audited schemes including SWNZ, biodynamics, organics and ISO 14000.” 

The SWNZ is a tiered system, and, Manson said “the only tier of participation where the member can make any claims regarding their sustainability status is tier three.” He added: “over the years there have been a range of changes to the practices, including restriction or removal of some agrochemicals, and inclusion of new practices e.g. encouraging use of biological control for pests and diseases.”

South Africa’s voluntary, certified Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) has also been running for a decade. Ethical aspects are covered under WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association) which is both compulsory and independently certified. And IPW contains biodiversity guidelines.

Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa said the industry is both raising the bar for IPW membership, and planning to make it compulsory.  She said: “I will know soon whether we will do this by the 2010 vintage. When it happens we will change the ‘bus ticket’ and promote to consumers, so they know we have genuine programmes that stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny.”

Over in California, Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance said “we launched the Sustainable Winegrowing Programme (SWP) in 2002 as an educational programme with a comprehensive self-assessment work book”, now running to 490 pages. She added: “It will become certified. We’ll launch with a pilot phase in 2009, but at this point we’re not going to have a tiered approach.” It will also remain voluntary.  

The Australian Wine Environmental Stewardship program “requires wineries and vineyards to adhere to an environmental standard requiring documentation of environmental action plans and improvement targets. Producers are to be audited against the standard on a regular basis” said Amy Russell, natural resources director at the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia.


In Europe, winemakers are adopting agriculture-wide programmes such as the certified Agriculture Raisonnée in France, and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farm) in the UK. Yvon Mau in Bordeaux is the first, and so far only, wine company accredited by LEAF, with three certified Bordeaux estates, plus another 12 Agriculture Raisonnée accredited. See box.


Organic and biodynamic viticulture predate the path to sustainability, and, along with carbon footprints, are seen by some as ‘single issue campaigns’ or campaigns that (could) form part of a wider sustainability model, though some advocates already incorporate wider sustainability issues into their production models.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, for example, is “installing 400m² of solar panelling that would compensate for the electricity used on the winery and a few houses. All organic waste is recycled on the estate compost, and this is general practice in biodynamics” according to Olivier Humbrecht MW, who added “I know estates that have their own recycling used water unit to re-introduce clean water in the soil.” And though all organic standards are not the same, the Soil Association’s standards have guidelines for energy management and water use, which will become fully enforced in 2012.

Where organics/biodynamics ban the use of agrochemicals, sustainability models advocate their ‘responsible use’.  But copper is cited as an issue for organics/biodynamics, and can be in mild, damp regions where mildew risk is high, such as Bordeaux, where accumulation over decades may yet be an unresolved issue. The damp, cool 2008 vintage was a case in point for Bordeaux organics, but in sunny, dry California, co-owner of Parducci, Paul Dolan said “maybe copper was used in the vineyard one time in 10 years.”

Humbrecht added “we average 1.5kg/ha/year copper. [EU maximum permitted is 6kg/ha/year]. Experiments amongst biodynamists show if we use less than 2kg/ha/year of copper, a soil that’s alive with organic matter and micro-organisms can metabolise this small amount of copper. This lowers copper levels in the soil while still using small amounts.”   

Carbon Footprints

Greenhouse gas emissions have become a key target across industry sectors, yet remain just one component of sustainable development. Russell said: “greenhouse gases are one waste product to be considered when looking at overall environmental sustainability.”  adding: “the Australian industry has made completion of the carbon footprint calculator a requirement of our scheme”.  Birch and Manson said South Africa and NZ were looking to incorporate a carbon calculator into their schemes.

The arguments against certification?

No one NEEDS to be certified to practice any type of sustainable or organic/biodynamic viticulture, but communication becomes problematic, and potentially, misleading. How many producers claim to be working to ‘organic or biodynamic principles’? How many producers claim the non-measured or validated ‘lutte raisonnée’, which popularly translates as any form of agriculture not following the traditional/conventional systematic use of agrochemicals, according to calendar not need?

Apart from cynical marketing opportunities, and outside of any state or national system, some producers have long been travelling the sustainability path.  Dolan “started down the organic grape growing path 20 years ago. The triple bottom line is the mantra for economically, environmentally and ethically viable sustainability, and we want to make sure we’re operating is such a way as being responsible for our own actions.”  He added: “we’re trying to lead the process so others can see what is possible. Our biggest challenge is compost. We supplement compost with some organic cow manure from outside. That’s pretty much all we bring from the outside. It’s taken us 12 years to get where we are.”  No one argues that the sustainable path is a long one.

In Burgundy, Christophe Chauvel, chief viticulturalist at Albert Bichot said ‘culture raisonnée is a philosophy, an approach, and certification will not add anything to vineyard balance. We try to make the vine work by itself. A huge part of this is observation and common sense, and knowing the diseases. We have tools – the meteo stations, sprays, friendly spiders. The aim is to bring the plant back into balance.”


All these initiatives are work in progress, with a need to measure improvements each year as evidence of progress. Certification may become increasingly important as communication with customers becomes more common, as well as to measure and verify improvements. As Dolan said: “sustainability is a process. It’s only possible to become more sustainable.”


FIVS GWSESP areas of environment risk assessment:


Agriculture raisonée versus ‘traditional’: The Yvon Mau case study

Château Lavison in the Entre-Deux-Mers reduced copper treatments by up to 50%; made no anti-botryits treatments in 2007 versus 2 in 1999; reduced use of weed-killer by 40%; recycled 98% of packaging waste by:


One Response to “Follow the yellow brick road? The green grass track?”

  1. Eric Hundin Says:

    I found your blog on MSN Search. Nice writing. I will check back to read more.

    Eric Hundin

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