Last week we had Earth Day, and all media was full of climate doom and save the planet pleas from environmentalists and scientists. Most of us probably gave the matter some thought, whilst others would have let the warnings pass them by, either because they don’t believe or would rather leave it all to others to solve. Governments and large corporations continue to talk the talk whilst any walking the walk is generally cosmetic, fiddling (whilst Rome burns) around the edges without addressing the key issues. One of those issues is agriculture.
A few years ago, we saw an enormous revival in the interest in nature writing, whether this was through those who poetically described the nature they saw in our past, like WH Hudson and Edward Thomas, or highlighted the perils we were about to face, like Rachel Carson in the 1960s. Have you noticed how there has been a bit of a shift over the past year or two? Now we have moved to a narrative which purports to show what needs to be done. We have solutions like Chris Smaje’s “A Small Farm Future”, James Rebanks’s “English Pastoral” (more or less a return to rotational and smaller scale farming which takes on stewardship of nature at the same time) and Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” (hopefully self-explanatory), and many more, all of which offer us a hope for the future under the overarching umbrella of sustainable regenerative agriculture.
So, what has all this got to do with wine? Well, I feel that wine has somehow become disconnected from agriculture in general and has largely slipped out of the debate. Wine producers grow grapes, which provide an annual crop just like any other form of agriculture. It could be said that viticulture is different to other forms of agriculture, arable farming and animal husbandry, being fruit production, where the tree or vine remains in situ throughout its whole life cycle, rather than a crop being planted, grown and harvested (by animal or man) through a growing season.
This perhaps avoids that which is central to all agriculture, the soil. Many people, perhaps the majority, are aware now of the issues surrounding the application of synthetic chemicals in vast quantities to crops. Especially from the middle of the 20th Century, the agrochemical industry began to provide solutions which could, along with modern mechanisation, increase crop yields dramatically, pushing memories of food shortages into the past (so the theory went).
By providing cheap food, the idea goes, people are moved out of poverty too. Combined with the choices reliably available in the new modern supermarkets, it all sounded so good. Food could equally cease to be seasonal, and cease to be of national origin, one of the first consequences of global markets. But looking at it from the perspective of the 2020s, that just hasn’t happened. We in Britain spend close to the smallest proportion of our income on food in the whole world, and by quite a long way the smallest proportion in Europe, yet we still have food banks, child poverty and, just as importantly, many very poor farmers.
Going back to the farming landscape, the biggest visible impact of the application of agrochemicals is in the flora and fauna which are removed from our farms in order to “keep our crops healthy and to increase yields”. This is no different for vineyards. Wild flowers provide food for pollenating insects, and insect life provides food for birds, and so it goes on up the food chain. In this fiftieth anniversary year of JA Baker’s book, “The Peregrine” it is interesting to note that a general recovery in raptor populations in the UK hides the fact that they are often adapting to safe urban environments whilst actually declining over some intensively farmed regions (and grouse moors, of course). But the biggest impact, which we don’t see, unless it is pointed out to us, is the effect of these chemicals on soils.
On the earth (as opposed to in the seas), our soils contain by far the greatest number of living organisms. Or I might say “should contain”. The effect of spraying crops regularly, in which we include spraying vines, acts inevitably as a kill-all solution. Constant spraying, especially when coupled with soil compaction by tractors, creates a dead zone. Then we must add in the effects of soil erosion on hillside vineyards, which deprive the vines of a whole system of nourishment and health. So, to keep producing a crop from increasingly sterile soil, more and more chemicals need to be poured in. In fact, the eventual outcome is that the application of chemicals becomes systemic. Everything is thrown at the vineyard/field system in order to hedge against any eventuality, a bit like giving livestock antibiotics whether or not they have any illness or disease.
With antibiotics we kind of get it. Resistance. This is no less a problem for livestock and poultry as it is for humans. The situation with the application of synthetic chemicals to a vineyard is analogous. You need more and more applications until, as we have seen on some of the large industrial farms, the soil dies and it cannot be revived. There’s no pulse in this living organism.
Arable farmers used to have a solution which worked, rotational agriculture on, perhaps, a mixed farm with crops and grazing animals rotating, and with fields left fallow to recover. Of course, you can’t do this in a vineyard, and you don’t need to. Every year, barring frost and hail, serious disease or bush fires, you will (under all but the worst circumstances) get a crop. Sometimes large, sometimes small, but a crop nevertheless. This gives a false sense of security that all is well in the ground.
So, let me get around to the point of this article. Many consumers who are at least aware of the issues surrounding highly intensive agriculture are nevertheless unable to draw a connection to the wine they drink. Of course, we have “organic” wine, but I don’t think the majority of even mildly concerned consumers seek out organic wine every time they take a bottle off the shelf. This is without any discussion of what exactly organic means here.
The people who are really doing the most to make wine sustainable are those making so-called “natural wine”, but the difficulty here, let’s not kid ourselves, we who advocate for low intervention viticulture and winemaking, is that this area is currently very niche. A lot needs to be done to educate consumers about what natural wine is and how it may differ to wines farmed and made conventionally, but before that happens the wine retailers and wine writers need to be educated.
I always find it both funny and frustrating that people who can afford to buy their provisions from fresh produce suppliers like Riverford Organic, or buy their “Duchy Organic” lines from Waitrose “because they are not covered in pesticides” (a topic for discussion from both angles) are nevertheless wholly uninterested in what is sprayed on, and what additives go into, the wine they have just selected to accompany their “pesticide-free” dinner.
There’s a whole list of things wine producers are trying out in order to make viticulture more sustainable, and many of those are focused on renewing soil health. They can range from using a horse to plough between the rows, using sheep to graze the space between, using sexual confusion rather than sprays to deter insects, and even planting trees to encourage birds, right up to not tilling the soil at all. Those who follow the practices suggested by Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) use no pesticides nor herbicides, and follow a “no-till” philosophy which is being shown increasing levels of interest, both in viticulture and farming generally.
I should also add in a sentence about wine farmers who work their vines on a mixed farm. It used to be the norm in much of Europe, especially France. Today it remains relatively common in parts of Central Europe, especially countries in the former Eastern Bloc. It has also seen something of a revival in Austria. Cows, goats, geese, chickens, ducks, sheep, they all fit in to the lifestyle choices which many younger winemakers are drawn to.
As an aside, so many of the books I read talk about the disconnect from his or her land a farmer suffered when they swapped horse and plough for the insulated cabin of a tractor. James Rebanks, in English Pastoral, talks about the importance of walking his land every morning, just as his grandfather did, looking for tiny changes and any signs that something might not be quite right, as do the best wine producers who get to know their vineyards intimately. Feeling the ground under your feet does genuinely act as a connection between farmer and land.
Natural Wine’s opponents can be highly vociferous, criticising wine faults without caring to address the issues surrounding the potential harm which can be caused by synthetic chemical applications. We no longer have DDT sprayed on our crops, but we still see the widespread use of Glyphosate (which is the subject of mass actions for damages connected with cancers, although the producer, Monsanto, it must be stressed, argues that more than eight hundred studies show no cancer risk so long as the herbicide is used according to directions on the label). But let us not pretend that the lobby groups will ever allow governments to ban the whole arsenal of weed and pest killers currently at the vigneron’s disposal. It needs to come from the farmers.
Many of these critics of natural wine almost seem to have an attitude which goes along the lines of “if the wine’s faulty it must be a natural wine”. They forget that some of the world’s most famous wines are “natural wines”, at least under any definition which accepts the application of minimal added sulphur. They also forget that some of the greats from the past made wine without synthetic chemicals or winery additives, even into the early 1980s, because they simply could not afford them. I’ve used the example recently of the revered names of the Northern Rhône in this context. Today, I would argue, there are still faulty natural wines (as indeed there are faulty conventionally-made wines), but wine faults due to poorly made natural wines have decreased dramatically.
I have not yet mentioned one of the major issues relating to sustainable viticulture, water. Like any crop and any animal, vines need water to survive and thrive. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Too much rain can be as bad as too little, and a little too little can be a good thing (vines forced to seek water below the surface send down stronger and larger root systems). But wine requires a lot of water, both where irrigation is required and indeed in the winery. Water is used in vast quantities to cool vats during fermentation, and to clean winery equipment, wash bottles etc, in order to create a hygienic environment.
Of course, “natural” viticulture will usually receive no irrigation, not only because any rain will soak into healthy soils and will not run off, but equally because irrigation is one of many things which will not be allowed for people wishing to credibly describe their product as natural wine.
Another one of the main inputs most natural wine producers potentially need to address is electricity use, and I’m not suggesting all winemakers are doing so, but at least in most regions suitable for viticulture there are alternative ways of harvesting electricity (principally solar and wind, but hydro-electricity is also sustainable). I’d also argue that we have to look carefully at those claiming to be “sustainable” and who claim to be “carbon-zero”. Carbon offset schemes are currently under a great deal of scrutiny, in some cases calling into question that you can offset your emissions by planting trees on the other side of the world.
What needs to be done? As I have said, education is the key.
We need to get those people who are thinking about the environment and buying their more expensive organic veg and fruit to put that same degree of thought into purchasing wine. Yet the vast majority of consumers purchase wine as a commodity. Whether they would like to drink wine which is tastier, and potentially in some cases a little healthier (though connecting wine with health is clearly a no-go zone today), certainly wine which is more sustainable for the wider environment, they may not have the disposable income to do so. For many, wine is fuel, just like food, albeit fuel which can bring the pleasure, or the escape, of intoxication.
For the benefit of this segment of wine consumer, especially, we need perhaps to educate the producers of more industrial wine. Maybe the answer is for them to see the long-term effects of soil health that the systematic application of chemical treatments on the land is causing, to help them realise that what they are doing is not sustainable. It would also be good to get them on board with the idea that they can make their own contribution to our environmental crisis.
There may be some large-scale producers who have absolutely no intention of doing their bit, but it is good to remember that a well-known Bordeaux Château, or Southern Rhône estate, may be producing many hundreds of thousands of bottles, and any changes they could make would have a genuine impact for the good. And, of course, in those cases where there are shareholders to please, they will have a corporate social responsibility strategy, which may well connect with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (especially, but not exclusively, STG15, “Life on Land”).
In the UK there are an increasing number of retailers and importers who truly are taking these concerns seriously. This may not merely be in the wines they import. Companies like Littlewine try to ensure their shipping is carbon neutral (occasionally carbon negative) too. This is all admirable, but the proof of the pudding (that there is a market out there for these ideals) is in their success. It is incumbent on we who share those ideals to support such operations, as much as it is incumbent on them to keep pushing these ideas and beliefs out there, getting more and more consumers to think more about their purchasing habits.
Postscript Note: I hope that the more sceptical reader will have reached this far, though that might be optimistic. Occasionally I write a piece which is just intended to throw some ideas out there. To get people thinking a bit. I don’t claim expertise in all areas environmental, and I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. So, you may be able to pick holes in what I’ve written. That’s fine, I have no ego to damage. But I am convinced that as our “rulers” appear so inept at taking any meaningful measures to lessen the impending impacts of our climate catastrophe, despite all their COP26 bluster, it only remains for individuals to do what we can, following the mantra of successful sportsmen and women, that the sum of small, incremental, changes to our behaviours can still have a meaningful, even significant, result. Not everyone can take more direct action, or protest, but we are judged, ultimately, on how we live our lives. Thank you for listening.
I’ll leave with what may at first glance seem like a fairly random quotation I found in James Rebanks’s “English Pastoral” (Penguin, 2020). It comes from Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977).
“A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace.”
Yet it is our rejection of a “healthy farm culture” in favour of agro-industry which is ultimately putting our food security at risk. Perhaps somewhat less important, but important nevertheless to we wine lovers, it is also putting at risk the idea of wine as a thing of value, part of our own enduring culture, rather than a mere commodity to be consumed and forgotten. Alongside our planet, surely that culture is also of value and ought to be preserved?