The green guzzle dilemma

March 1, 2008 by
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If there’s anywhere ethical shoppers are most likely to let their haloes slip, it’s probably in the wine merchants. Organic wine hasn’t won a fabulous reputation for flavour; and while British plonk may be low in carbon footprints, its following isn’t very high in numbers either. When faced with the thought of a nice cold Australian Riesling after a hot, frustrating day – what’s a green guzzler to do?

Chateau La Grolet, Cote de Bourg, France

Wine expert and co-creator of the 100 Best Australian Wines list Quentin Johnson says that shoppers should put the carbon footprint into perspective. ‘Wine tends to be shipped by sea in containers,’ he says. ‘The odd bottle might go by plane if it is an urgent sample, but that would definitely be the exception.’ His point is backed up by Gareth Edwards Jones, a professor of agriculture and land-use studies at the Universityof Wales and a leading researcher on food miles, who recently told Wine Spectator Online that wine shipped by sea has a much smaller carbon footprint when compared to trucks and, especially, airplanes. So if you can pick wine from anywhere you like with a clear conscience, where to start? In South Africa, more than 70 per cent of wine growers have united to put aside 40,000 hectares of land (45 per cent of the wine-making land) for conservation, to protect the country’s biodiversity, according to Wines of South Africa, a not-for-profit organisation representing exporters and producers. Protecting the Cape Floral Kingdom, a World Heritage Site, should mean the unique flora and fauna of this region is safe, while the land is cultivated in a sustainable fashion.

In California, one million ladybirds were recently released in Mendocino to combat aphids on vines. And Fairtrade projects are now operating in Chile andArgentina, as well as South Africa– workers receive a fairer wage for their work and social policies are put into place, too. With more than 100 wines carrying the Fairtrade logo, sales are on the up; more than three million bottles were sold in 2006, compared with 800,000 in 2004.

It has been suggested that Georgian winemakers will join the scheme soon too; the former Russian satellite is involved in a desperate trade battle withMoscow, where authorities have banned Georgian wine imports, claiming they are full of dangerous impurities. The former acolyte state denies this; wine is one of its most vital exports and the economy is being crippled by the ban, and claim it is a backlash against their stance for independence.

Over here, English producers are not lagging behind. At Camel Valley, in Cornwall, Bob Lindo is producing award-winning wines, while recycling or reusing 99 per cent of his waste; employing locally and paying above the minimum recommended wage; and even running an otter sanctuary. He says: ‘We didn’t set out to run an ‘ethical’ vineyard but found it was naturally the best way to run our business.’

Susan McCraith, who is busy setting up the first ethical advisory wine service: Ethical Fine Wines (ethicalwine.com) due to launch in September, understands just how difficult it is to buy morally pleasing plonk. She has admitted that many of the wine producers she deals with don’t seem to understand the concept yet.

A former buyer and business advisor for Waitrose, Susan aims to help the consumers she used to watch wandering the aisles – wanting to buy the right thing, but not knowing where to begin. Yet, she admits, green provenance in itself is not enough. ‘Quality is the key. The ethical credentials must be good but so must the taste.’

For Quentin Johnson, the taste is vital. ‘It is no good if however ethically the wine is produced, it tastes horrid. No one is going to want to drink it. So ethical producers, whatever their approach, must never lose sight of the flavour of the end product.’

One area of intense focus over the past few years has been the soil – which is critical to the wine’s taste. There has been a creeping realisation that techniques used over the past 50 years may have depleted the earth the vineyards depend on.

It is a concern familiar to anyone who prefers to shop organically – most of us recognise that intensive farming methods do not the tastiest food produce. So many of us prefer to shop this way now, the organic food and drink market is worth more than £1.6 billion in theUK.  And wine lovers are no exception. According to Sainsbury’s, in 2005-2006, demand for wines made from organic grapes in their stores increased by nearly 500 per cent, despite organic wines costing 5-10 per cent more than their immediate peers (often due to higher wage bills).

But producing organic wine is a tricky business. Achieving organic status is difficult enough; maintaining it can be a nightmare. If a vintage is wet, producers need to use something to stop the rot or they could lose a whole crop. Use a chemical however to save the crop and they lose their organic credentials for three years.

Organic wines are difficult to produce without additives, too. The rules limit the use of sulphur dioxide yet this chemical is a very important ingredient for preventing the wine turning to vinegar. Green wine lovers will always be attracted to organic wines, but there can often be a pay-off in quality.

The greater influence within the wine world has come from the biodynamic movement – a production theory which sounds too wacky for serious vineyards to follow; yet some of the big names – Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy and Fetzer in California, for example – are doing just that.

Biodynamic viticulture (also called Organic Plus) follows Rudolf Steiner’s theory of agriculture, outlined in the 1920s; it brings together ecological concerns over pesticides and fertilisers with worries over the spiritual shortcomings of modern farming methods. A biodynamic farm is essentially organic, but it also follows more unusual ideas based on planting and harvesting according to the cycles of the moon. Field preparations are used but these are made from crushed cow horn and powdered quartz; composts include one made from yarrow blossoms stuffed into the bladders ofred deer. Workers eschew machinery for horse and cart.

An article in Science magazine in 1993 compared biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand; the report concluded: ‘The Biodynamic farms proved in most enterprises to have soils of higher biological and physical quality: significantly greater in organic matter, content and microbial activity, more earthworms, better soil structure, easier penetrability, and thicker topsoil.’

Wine expert Quentin Johnson says: ‘There is no doubt that even in some of the world’s top domaines, the adoption of biodynamic practices has improved the wines still further. Many producers influenced by these examples are now adopting a partial biodynamic approach, or systems heavily influenced by it.’

Respect for the soil, a positive attitude to local ecology, and delicious, too; biodynamic wines could be the ones to warm your heart as well as your stomach.

FIVE WINES TO TRY:

America: Bonterra Vineyards Chardonnay 2005, Mendocino, California. Available from www.majestic.co.uk, £9.49 per 75cl bottle

England: Camel ValleyBrut ‘Cornwall’ 2005. Available from www.camelvalley.com, £17.95 per 75cl bottle.

France: Chateau La Grolet, Cote de Bourg. Available from www.festivalwines.co.uk, £11.99 per 75cl bottle.

Italy: Sainsbury’s SO organic Valpolicella, Italy. Available from www.sainsburys.co.uk, £5.99 per 75ml bottle.

Australia: Battleof Bosworth Shiraz\Viognier. Available from www.vintageroots.co.uk, tel: 0800 9804992, £11.50 per 75ml bottle.

 

 

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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