More and more of us are looking beyond the wine in our glass and demanding to know how the wine is made. Whether we want wines that are "natural," biodynamic, organic or sustainable, increasingly we want to know that winemakers are doing their best to protect the environment and not relying on chemicals to ripen their grapes.
And the wine industry is listening. The Wine Institute in California has developed standards for sustainable winegrowing, defining environmentally friendly practices that leave growers maximum flexibility to deal with the vagaries of the weather. Industry associations in Napa and Sonoma counties, the areas most affected by the recent wildfires, have declared their goal for 100 percent of their members to be practicing sustainable viticulture.
In the Pacific Northwest, a hotbed of environmentalism, regional certifications for wineries in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia include LIVE, or Low-Impact Viticulture Enology, and Salmon-Safe, which focuses on maintaining the health of rivers around vineyards. Organic and biodynamic practices are also popular.
This year, the winegrowers of St. Emilion and its satellite appellations in France's Bordeaux region voted to require environmental certification for wineries seeking to put the prestigious appellation names on their labels. Starting with the 2019 vintage, all wineries in the appellations of St. Emilion, St. Emilion Grand Cru, Lussac St. Emilion and Puisseguin St. Emilion will be required to be certified or in the process of being certified as sustainable, organic or biodynamic, a sort of uber-organic farming philosophy. Otherwise, they will be labeled simply as Bordeaux, a less-prestigious designation that commands lower prices.
Wine lovers and winemakers quibble over the merits of these respective certifications and their restrictions on vineyard and winery practices. Governmental regulations in the United States and the European Union confuse the subject enough to fuel several dissertations. At least a certification on the label shows the winery makes an effort to have some third-party organization evaluate and approve its environmental practices.
It may not matter what certification is on the label, as long as something is. As consumers increasingly look for foods produced without pesticides and herbicides, they also want to know their wines were made with the environment in mind. And that concern for the environment doesn't stop when the grapes are harvested: St. Emilion's program, for example, includes responsible water usage and composting.
"No one can ignore anymore the impact of their environmental behavior," says Franck Binard, director of the St. Emilion Wine Council, which voted in May to require its members to be environmentally certified. "And the market is ready."
In St. Emilion, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site at the heart of Bordeaux's Right Bank region, about 180,000 people each year visit the wine council's store, the Maison du Vin. Over the past three years, "interest in organic wines has increased dramatically," Binard said during a recent visit to Washington.
Important Bordeaux markets, such as Norway, Finland and Quebec, where government agencies approve which wines can enter the market, have started favoring wines with environmental certification. And Carrefour, France's leading supermarket chain, is considering a similar requirement, Binard said.
"There is a real demand, not just for organic vineyard practices, but also many questions on what you are doing to protect the environment," he says.
When the St. Emilion Wine Council polled its members, it found about 45 percent were already certified or using environmentally friendly vineyard practices. Many of the rest confessed a lack of knowledge about sustainability, so the council added education to its program. The commission drafted several proposals, and the membership voted in May to require certifications. The new requirements ban herbicides and many fungicides in the vineyard, while requiring wineries to control water usage and limit their carbon footprint through energy conservation and measures, such as solar power.
Other wine regions, especially in the New World, have been trying to reduce their carbon footprint for years. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, sponsored by the Wine Institute, a trade association, helps wineries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by limiting use of pesticides and fertilizers, especially nitrogen. The alliance's efforts also focus on conserving electricity in the winery and limiting environmental impacts from packaging and shipping wines.
St. Emilion's new rules do allow flexibility. "There are many levels, depending on your commitment," Binard says. "The aim is to ensure everyone begins" on the path to certification of some sort.
He said the vote to require certification took some courage, coming shortly after a devastating frost decimated much of Bordeaux's vineyards just as the new buds were most vulnerable. It was the worst frost for Bordeaux since 1991. Environmental certification will not protect against nature's wrath, such as frost or hail, of course, or the wildfires that recently devastated Northern California. But this year's frost throughout Europe reminded St. Emilion's growers how fragile and unreliable their changing climate can be, and the importance of protecting their environment.
In 2019, St. Emilion will be celebrating 20 years since UNESCO's designation. By requiring environmental certification, its winegrowers will also be taking an important step toward ensuring their future — by protecting their present.