Throughout the wine industry, sustainability has become a top priority for growers and enthusiasts alike. Extreme and unpredictable weather patterns are putting pressure on vintners and forcing wine lovers to rethink their approach to their favorite wines. Whether it's early harvests spoiling grapes in France; severe, almost tropical, heat altering the taste of Italian wines; or catastrophic wildfires tainting the output of California vineyards, the terrain — or terroir, as it were — is shifting beneath our feet.

However, vintners are working hard to ensure they aren't caught flat footed by these environmental challenges. All around the world, wine growers are taking their roles as stewards of the land seriously and working hard to ensure the survival of their craft through thoughtful cultivation and innovative techniques.

There is no widely accepted standard for what constitutes "sustainable" when it comes to wine growing, and the term is often conflated — appropriately or not — with others, such as "organic" or "biodynamic." There are, however, an emerging set of best practices and certifications meant to help consumers navigate this ambiguous territory.

And for wine lovers, it is territory worth exploring. According to a 2016 study, sustainable wines that used organic or biodynamic methods outscored conventional wines in quality by an average of four points (out of 100) when rated by experts at Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.1

In fact, Wine Enthusiast notes that its top wine of 2018, a 2015 Cipressi (Nizza) from Piedmont, Italy's Michele Chiarlo, has managed to enhance its quality through its sustainability efforts despite being made from Barbera grapes, which have not been "historically considered a high-quality grape."2

What is Sustainability?

First, it's important to distinguish between sustainable, organic and biodynamic. Put simply, sustainable wines are those grown in an economically and ecologically responsible manner that minimizes waste.

That can mean a lot of things. For instance, it may involve organic growing practices, such as eschewing pesticides and other chemical additives. However, because organic growing can be more expensive in some circumstances, such practices may not be economically sustainable. It could also involve biodynamic growing practices, which attempt to align cultivation with the natural rhythms of the Earth and seasons (and are often more spiritual than scientific). Yet such methods may be unsustainable when those rhythms are disrupted by extreme shifts in climate.

Furthermore, while the terms organic and biodynamic mostly refer to how a wine is grown, sustainability can also include how it is bottled, sold and distributed. For example, as part of its sustainability efforts, Michele Chiarlo uses lightweight glass for its bottles and cardboard boxes instead of wooden crates to "optimize transportation … over long distances … and significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases." While this does not directly impact the quality of the wine in the bottle, they feel it will have an impact on the quality of wine in the future by helping to preserve the environment.3

If this all seems like it might be hard to sort out, you aren't wrong. Sometimes even the experts have a hard time. In recent years, many wine producers have shifted to metal or plastic screw top closures in an effort to avoid a wine-tainting chemical associated with cork stoppers. (These fears are largely considered to be exaggerated. Independent studies have found that this taint affects only between 1 and 7% of wine bottles and could not be solely attributed to cork.4) In addition to being easier to use and cheaper to produce, there was a perception that metal or plastic screw tops were more environmentally sustainable, as they could be recycled and would preclude the need to cut down trees to produce the cork stoppers.

However, this was largely a misconception, as cork trees are not felled; rather, they are stripped of their bark, which grows back, making it a renewable, sustainable resource. On top of that, most of the metal and plastic stoppers are not actually recyclable due to their small size, and even if they were, the environmental cost of their production would greatly outweigh any benefit gained from their reuse.5

What Should Wine Enthusiasts Do?

Given the lack of clarity around what truly constitutes sustainability, what is a well-meaning wine enthusiast in search of high-quality, sustainable wine to do?

Despite the lack of a singular, universal standard for sustainability among wine growers, there are a few niche certifications you can look out for when adding to your wine collection.

In California, the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers have joined forces to offer a sustainability certification: Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW). Wineries and vineyards with this certification have been independently audited by a third party to ensure that they are environmentally sound, economically feasible and contribute to social equality.6

Oregon, Washington and Idaho offer the LIVE certification (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), which indicates that the winery or vineyard is operating in accordance with sustainability methods that are suitable for the region's specific climate.7

Other regional or national certifications include: Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand; South Africa's Integrity & Sustainability Certification; and Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile.8

Working Toward a Universal Standard

In March 2019, Porto, Portugal will host the second Climate Change Leadership Conference, with the theme "Solutions for the Wine Industry." More than 700 delegates from over 50 countries will attend to discuss methods for mitigating and adapting to the impact of climate change and commit to a set of principles to govern sustainable wine growing in years to come.9 The hope is that a common framework for sustainability can be established that is flexible enough to address the unique needs and challenges of the various winemaking regions while also providing wine growers — and consumers — clear direction when it comes to identifying what makes a wine truly sustainable. Until such a standard comes to fruition, wine lovers will have to remain vigilant and do their homework.

Take Care of Your Acquisitions

When purchasing and collecting wine (sustainable or otherwise), there are a few things you can do to ensure you and your family are able to enjoy it well into the future:

  • Keep a detailed inventory. Capture important details about your wines, such as where and from whom they were purchased and for how much. Keep invoices to document your acquisitions and the amount of tax that may have been paid.
  • Preserve the value of your collection. Take steps to safeguard your wine by making accommodations for proper long-term storage.
  • Don't forget your wine when planning. Your wine collection isn't just something you take pleasure in — it's also an asset. If you have a valuable collection, failing to take this into account when making decisions about your wealth and estate plans can have serious financial consequences.
  • Think about your legacy. If you aren't going to drink your entire collection, what do you want to happen to it when you're gone? Having a well-documented plan in place is essential to ensuring your wishes are carried out properly.
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