Winemaking's sensible, and sustainable, future
Over the past 20 years there has been a big increase in the acceptance, production and desire for organic wines. While one of the reasons people buy organic wines is health risks, which are debatable, many choose them for environmental reasons.
Organic viticulture has a relatively simple set of rules that prohibit the use of chemical fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and herbicides. While some of those things certainly improve the environment, it shouldn't stop there.
I have written before about the complexities hidden behind a simple division of wines into organic and conventional and argued that the separating line is pretty hazy.
In countries such as Switzerland and New Zealand there has been a 'Sustainable Viticulture' movement that promotes considered and restricted use of products prohibited under organic certification but also puts in place rules and guidelines on frequency of ploughing and cover-crops to prevent erosion and run-off, increasing biodiversity in the vineyard and encouraging best-practice such as disease-forecasting, biological controls and cultural methods to reduce the risk and therefore the need for pesticide use.
Until recently this movement of lutte raisonnée has had little traction in France but now the Ministry of Agriculture, along with Vignerons Independants, have devised a certified scheme called Haute Valeur Environnementale.
It covers four main areas: biodiversity, weed-control, pesticide use and fertilisation. In each area, estates are awarded points which, when added up, determine whether they qualify for high environmental status.
Estates which maintain hedgerows, encompass wild areas, grow other crops or raise animals would score highly on biodiversity.
Those who minimise herbicide usage by using mechanical methods and allow other plants to grow between the rows and along the borders score points for weed-management.
Pesticide usage is assessed by comparing the total amount sprayed with the authorised maximums. Most organic sprays, except copper, are exempt. Farmers who reduce sprays by limiting the dose when there are fewer leaves in spring, stretch out the frequency when risk is low or time their treatments accurately to reduce overall usage will qualify, even if those sprays are synthetic.
The use of modern, sophisticated machinery which prevent spray-drift or recuperate the spray that misses the vine also provide points.
The assessment of fertilisation covers both organic and chemical fertilisers and monitors whether the producer is applying too much, to boost production, or maintaining the minimum levels required.
As well as assessing these factors, the auditors question producers on their comprehension of environmental safety measures, such as how they clean their sprayers, how they store and handle products and how they determine and record pesticide usage.
All in all, it's a pretty thorough and rigorous process that will enable producers, whether practicing organic viticulture or not, to prove their environmental credentials.
Personally I hope that, because it doesn't divide organic from conventional and promotes best practice beyond simply prohibiting products, it will evolve into a system that all vignerons can follow and therefore remove the worst offenders while also recognising those who go one step further to protect and improve the environment in and around their vines.
Jonathan Hesford is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon. www.domainetreloar.com