By Madeline Blasberg, Certified Wine Consultant for Etching Expressions
Winemaking, when all things are considered, can be a very dirty business. Chemical pesticides, fertilizers, weed killers, and hours of diesel-burning machinery add up to a considerable social and environmental impact. Around the world, wineries are implementing eco-friendly practices, conceptualizing the process as an integral part of the local community and ecosystem. Most wineries begin implementing change where the wine itself begins: in the vineyard. Here is some of what they’re up to:
Natural pesticides and fertilizers
When the soil needs a boost, rather than turning to commercially fabricated fertilizers, animal manure and compost can create soils rich in organic material.
In the US, and most well-established international wine regions, ‘organic’ is a highly regulated term. Wines can be made from organically certified grapes (meaning zero synthetic additives), or the label can be applied to mean “organic wines,” which are made from organically grown grapes and contain no added sulfites. And, while these different types of organic can affect the final product, they both succeed in reducing the impacts of chemical runoff on the lands and surrounding landscapes.
Rather than growing grapes in a pristinely manicured plot isolated from other life forms, some vineyard managers are honoring the grapevine’s place among the wild. Biodynamic farming recognizes the connectivity between wildlife and natural fauna and supports the belief that the presence of different species – wild pollinators for example – enriches the growing environment of the grapevine. Take, for example, the Yalumba Winery of Australia, which set aside 135 acres for conservation and wildlife sanctuary.
Biodiversity can also be protected by preserving cover crops, a plant variety (or group of varieties) that creates green groundcover between the vineyard rows. These cover crops stabilize the soil, reduce evaporation and inject vital nutrients into the soil, creating a veritable feast for grapevine roots. Cover crops are generally selected from plant species that would otherwise grow wild in the region, as well as for their unique abilities to fix nutrients in the soil.
In some wine regions where grapes are grown in dry conditions, water conservation is of the utmost importance. Controlling the flow of water to the vine is akin to the agronomist controlling the plant’s growth hormone: access to water determines the vine’s capacity to grow, make repairs, and produce quality fruit in abundance.
Dry farming is the practice of relying only on rainfall and forsaking all modern irrigation techniques. It allows the winery to conserve thousands of gallons of water annually and forces the vine to focus all its nutrients on producing high quality, concentrated fruit. This practice reduces the need for costly and environmentally damaging infrastructure, while allowing for precious water to remain in its natural ecosystems. Frog’s Leap Winery saves 10 million gallons of water annually by dry farming.
When it’s time to prune and harvest, trading in machinery for manual labor tends to increase quality and precision and decrease environmental impact. While this approach tends to increase production costs, the land is less disturbed and fewer fossil fuels are used in the process. Not to mention, local and immigrant populations often rely on these seasonal jobs that wineries provide.
These practices, and more, are becoming more common as wineries return to their farming roots and take responsibility for their toll on the environment. Whether or not “green” vineyard practices enhance the taste of the final product is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself. Though it’s hard to deny that the peace of mind in buying an eco-friendly product doesn’t make the wine go down just a little bit smoother.Photo: Viña Caliterra on Flickr