Management Briefing

Sustainability in Wine - Part III - Organic Wine

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In part three of this month's management briefing, Ben Cooper turns his attention to the organic wine sub-category.

When it comes to environmental sustainability, a feature of the wine industry that differentiates it from other alcohol beverage sectors is the presence of a significant and growing organic sector.

The organic sector not only represents a heightened level of environmental sustainability, which particularly-motivated consumers can access within the wine category but the development of organic farming within the wine sector has had a significant impact on improving environmental sustainability and the adoption of environmentally-friendly practices in mainstream viticulture.

Organic growth

According to the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the worldwide organic vineyard area increased by 197% from 84,000 hectares in 2004 to 256,000 hectares in 2011. This equates to 3.4% of a global vineyard area of 7.5m hectares, FiBL states. Europe accounts for 89.1% of organic wine production, while North America represents 4.5% of the production.

The largest organic wine producer is Spain with 79,016 hectares, followed by France with 61,055 hectares, Italy with 52,812 hectares, the US with 11,448 hectares, Turkey with 8,871 hectares and Germany with 6,900 hectares. After these six, the other principal countries producing organic wine in descending order are Iran, Greece, Moldova, Chile, Austria, Argentina, Portugal, China and Bulgaria.

Interestingly, organic wine production in Germany represents a significantly larger proportion of total viticulture in comparison with the global ratio, with organic accounting for around 7.5% of the total German vineyard area in 2012 (7,400 hectares). Organic wine production increased by 176% in Germany between 2004 and 2011, and the German Wine Institute (DWI) expects the organic wine sector in Germany to continue growing.

Perhaps because it represents a larger proportion of its wine production than other countries, the DWI has been at pains to promote the German organic wine sub-sector, issuing a number of bulletins about the growing significance of organic farming in German wine production. Although the  DWI does not break down organic wine volumes by market, spokesperson Ernst Büscher believes it would follow a similar pattern to German wines in general. So around 15% of organic wines would be exported, with the UK, the US and Scandinavia the principal markets.

In addition to some prestigious German wine estates which have developed organic production, such as Weingut Bürklin Wolf, Weingut Wittmann, Weingut Christmann, Weingut Rebholz and Weingut Friedrich Becker, Germany also boasts two state-run wineries which have converted to organic, namely Staatsweingut Bad Kreuznach in the Nahe region and Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Trier in the Mosel.

Organic influence on the mainstream

Ernst Büscher believes the spread of organic methods in Germany has undoubtedly influenced conventional wine farming and assisted the general improvement in environmental sustainability seen in recent years, and he is far from alone in this. "I think it has quite a high impact on viticulture in Germany because we have quite a long tradition of organic viticulture, about 25 years. A lot of methods they used are now standard in conventional viticulture," 

This view is echoed by Paul Dolan, a Californian organic winemaker and renowned sustainability champion. Dolan has no doubt that natural techniques developed by the organic sector in California have influenced and have been taken up by conventional farmers, and this has helped to improve standards of sustainability in the mainstream. 

"The practices of canopy management and soil management through the use of cover crops in order to extract nitrogen from the air and build the natural nitrogen in the soil are just two examples of what the organic guys were doing that has now become common practice in grape growing," Dolan explains.

According to Dolan, whereas there may once have been ten to 15 differentiating criteria between an organic and a conventional wine producer, today there may only be three or four. Even the use of compost and using animals in the vineyard - geese, sheep and goats are all used in organic vineyards to control weeds - are now becoming conventional practices, he continues. "The differentiating factors between organic and conventional are really just down to chemical use for the most part."

This is also the experience in South Africa. In order to obtain organic certification, a wine grower in the country would have to use either the European or US accreditation as South Africa does not have its own organic standard for wine.

Su Birch, the outgoing chief executive of Wines of South Africa, observes that, while farmers may not wish to go as far as organic accreditation, organic farming methods are influencing the mainstream. "There's a big movement towards that way of farming," she says. "There's a huge interest in it and people are experimenting but that last leap for them is difficult. They don't necessarily want to go 100% organic but they are trying very hard to farm as naturally as possible."

This certainly would appear to speak to rising levels of environmental sustainability in the mainstream wine production. 

As one might expect from a champion of the organic sector, Dolan says that organic farming has been an "inspiration" to the mainstream sector and the pioneering work of organic farmers has been a key catalyst in general evolution towards the better management of natural resources in grape growing in California. 

The wide acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability within the California wine industry, Dolan adds, owes much to the pioneering work of organic farmers. "This broader understanding of the importance of natural resources and the health of the resources and how to manage resources, it really came about from the pioneering of the organic guys because they saw it first."

Ironically, the spread of more sustainable, natural practices into mainstream viticulture could have the effect of making organic wines a harder sell though the figures from Research Institute of Organic Agriculture suggest there is still a strong upward trajectory.

Moreover, Robert Blue, winemaker of the groundbreaking Bonterra organic wine produced by Fetzer Vineyards in California, believes there is still a role for organic producers to play in spearheading agricultural innovation in wine. "I think there's a relevancy for organic because there is still innovation coming," he says. While the influence of organic was greater at a time when the pace of innovation was faster and the many techniques now in place were being honed, the "thinking out of the box" that has characterised the development of organic over many years will mean it will remain relevant to mainstream viticulture going forward, Blue says.

The close linkage that the wine sector has with its agricultural supply chain - arguably as close as that enjoyed by any food or beverage category - has meant that the focus in terms of mitigation along the entire value chain has focused more on upstream agricultural supply rather than downstream in areas such as packaging and consumer disposal.

Clearly there has been significant progress in making the agricultural stage of wine production more environmentally sustainable but the final section of this briefing looks at what has, or more accurately what has not, been done further downstream in the value chain.

For the final part of this briefing, click here. Full details can be found here.

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