Anson: Fifty shades of green – Wine’s big new debate?
Jane Anson looks at the rise of sustainability and ‘green’ initiatives in the wine world but also where the fault lines lie.
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Louis Roederer’s Cristal Champagne has run a series of advertisements in the last few issues of The New Yorker. In them, they don’t actually use the word biodynamics (almost certainly the term was deemed too technical) but they talk about biodiversity in one, and burying cow horns filled with horse manure for its fertilizing effects on soil in another.
As such, Louis Roederer is part of a robustly growing green movement that is sweeping through wine at the moment, and it’s not just individual companies that are getting on board.
In May 2017, St-Emilion announced that, from the 2019 vintage, all producers using four local AOCs must be organic, biodynamic or environmentally-sustainable.
The decision concerns a healthy 3.8 million cases of wine produced each year within the St-Emilion, St-Emilion Grand Cru, Lussac St-Emilion and Puisseguin St-Emilion appellations.
Blanket use of herbicides will be forbidden, even on plot boundaries, and all vineyard treatments will be tracked. Recycling of water and waste treatment will be obligatory and every winemaker must commit to obtaining an officially recognised environmental or organic certification, either individually or collectively.
Without these measures, the wines will be bottled as simple Bordeaux (although the new rules are also not legally binding until the national appellations body has officially altered the relevant cahier de charges).
It seems obvious to me that two such high profile names should be applauded for bringing the idea of sustainable viticulture to the attention of the wider public.
But I’ve been reminded recently that who does and doesn’t have the right to talk about going green is one of the most divisive subjects that I can think of in wine. Not for consumers, by the way, but among the producers themselves.
There’s even a name for it – greenwashing – that calls out people who use spin to claim the benefits of being environmentally-friendly without living up to it in reality.
So St-Emilion’s choice to allow the third way of ‘enironmentally-sustainable’ HVE3 certification allows for some wriggle room that not everyone agrees with. HVE3 is France’s highest level of certified sustainable farming, demanding water and fertilizer management, a biodiversity programme and reduced pesticide and fungicide use but is categorically not organic or biodynamic.
And then there’s the case of Champagne house Henri Giraud, who you might remember a few weeks ago released a wine label that made the rather striking claim that it contained zero residue of pesticides.
Called Esprit Nature, it took a few minutes after the news story was posted for the backlash to start, via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. I got messages from winemakers in Champagne – most notably from members of the Organic Champagne Association – who very clearly pointed out that Henri Giraud was making these claims despite being certified neither organic nor biodynamic (the company does in fact have one bottling with Ecocert certification, but does not sell it as such, and is not organic across its range), and queried the methodology used.
Claude Giraud, in response to the criticisms, pointed out that in 1992 the company became one of the first to sign up to sustainable farming in Champagne, stopping the use of all herbicides and insecticides. From 1997 he worked with HACCP Food Safety compliance scheme and from 2000 halted all use of fungicides. He says the only disease he has trouble controlling today is mildew and for that he uses synthesized products that are not approved in organic farming.
Reducing pesticide use is a particularly inflammatory topic right now. Next week sees an EU vote on the continued use of the molecule glyphosate, most typically known as Round-Up, and consumer interest has been raised by a series of scare (or reality check) stories.
I went to a conference in Bordeaux recently about exactly this, most notably through the development of ‘no spray’ rot-resistant hybrid grape varieties that have been planted by agricultural research institute INRA Bordeaux since 2011, as well as a select number of winemakers in the region.
After the conference, I tasted through four of the resulting wines for the first time. A Métissage red from the Cabernet Jura grape and a white from the Cal-604, both made by the Ducourt Family, and INRA’s own first two vintages of their red and rosé wines, both from the Artaban grape.
The Artaban rosé was particularly good, lightly flavoured but nicely floral, while the Métissage white was crisp and fresh, and definitely had potential – possibly with a little more lees-ageing to fatten up the flavours.
The Cabernet Jura was deep red, a rich bristling colour with plenty of tannins and a tarry edge, but was a long way from the Bordeaux typicity that they are looking for.
Ducourt grows its resistant vineyards organically but focuses its communication on the use of hybrid grapes and the way they drastically reduce the amount of treatments needed.
When asked why, Jonathan Ducourt sensibly points out that ‘there is too much confusion for the consumer with all the green initiatives that exist which are sometimes good, sometimes just marketing.
Most consumers think organic means no spraying but our ‘control’ organic plot needs ten sprays per year while our resistant grapes need just one or two’.
So who has the moral high ground in all of this? The HVE3 supporters who are looking beyond the vineyard to carbon emissions and ensuring fair treatment of workers? The organic producers who are fighting Big Phama? The resistant grape champions who are hoping to discover a rot-free vineyard that needs no treatments at all?
Giraud’s argument is that we should judge on results not methodology – an attitude that neatly brings his detractors to boiling point. And yet Louis Roederer is not fully biodynamic across all its vineyards.
The company is completely open about this, having made the decision to produce Cristal Rosé as 100% biodynamic since its 2007 vintage because, as winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon told me on my last visit, ‘it’s on the best terroirs that you feel the greatest impact’.
This might disappoint some producers, but when it comes to raising consumer awareness, surely even the most ardent biodynamic estate can see the benefit of the Louis Roederer halo effect? My guess is that the subject of what is and is not environmentally acceptable is going to get bigger, and the arguments over greenwashing will grow right alongside.