John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Jan 20th, 2018

Sustainability & Chile
By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week I take a look at a fashionable concept: sustainability. What exactly does sustainability mean? Who audits and grants sustainable certification? How is it different from an organic certification? Where do you find certified sustainable wines? The subject is timely considering the VINTAGES January 20th release theme, Sustainable Chile. It’s a rather substantial and impressive offering of some 15 wines from certified sustainable wineries, out of which the WineAlign crü has selected the ones not-to-be-missed, including one rare  ‘quadruple’ alignment we all loved. Almost all are under $25 (and many under $20), reaffirming Chile’s status as a junction of quality and value, and increasingly, sustainable winegrowing. David will lead next week on the rest of the release.

Going Sustainable

I’m willing to bet there’s considerable confusion around the concept of sustainability. It is, after all, a conspicuously vague term that sounds virtuous enough, but invites wide interpretation. Yet while it’s true that sustainability considers a broad range of issues related to all businesses, the foundational concepts are universal, and in the specific case of the wine industry, very concrete aspects of production are examined and measured against established standards.

But let’s start first with organics, surely better understood. Many consumers already have a general handle on what ‘certified organic’ means thanks to the growing interest in organic products across the entire spectrum of consumer goods, and the awareness that mainstream popularity brings. Despite dozens (hundreds) of organizations worldwide offering organic certification, the general idea of harsh chemical-free, environmentally-friendly ‘green’ production is easy to grasp.

Ducks at organic Matetic Vineyard-7276

Ducks at organic Matetic Vineyard

In the wine business, that means essentially the elimination of most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in vineyards, and the use of a limited list of approved processing agents in the winery, including reduced sulfites. There are plenty of variations in the details between certification bodies, and sorting out what’s allowed in each is an onerous admin task. But at least the top-down concept is fairly clear and most would consider it a good move for our planet. Check out the European Union’s Ecocert organic certification standards for a picture of what is covered.

Biodynamics is even more tightly defined and restrictive. It’s a more extreme form of farming, beginning with, but moving several steps beyond organics. A holistic view of the production cycle is encouraged, one in which all inputs are considered including non-tangibles like energy, gravity and other natural forces that can be harnessed. Biodiversity is also key. In the winery, the goal, put simply, is “nothing added, nothing taken out, nothing changed”. The ultimate goal is to make the entire production cycle self-sustaining, so that nothing need enter or leave the farm gate (except perhaps the final product).

Biodiversity at Viña Koyle-6903

Biodiversity at Viña Koyle

There are only two associations that grant biodynamic certification, Demeter (worldwide for a wide range of agricultural products and cosmetics) and Biodyvin (wine only, in France, Germany Italy, Portugal and Switzerland), so the standards are clear for anyone who wishes to look them up.

So where does ‘sustainable’ fit in?

Sustainability overlaps with aspects of organic and biodynamic standards, but also covers a much wider scope of business practices, delving into social and economic questions. The concept of sustainability is often traced back to a report published by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987 entitled “Our Common Future”. In the report, sustainable development was defined as “economic growth that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The definition is purposefully vague, and since then, almost every imaginable business sector has created its own definition of sustainability, some sectors with multiple interpretations, and even on down to individual companies’ definitions. It’s the very flexibility of the concept that is both sustainability’s greatest strength and weakness.

It’s a weakness because the specific path to achieving sustainability varies on an almost case-by-case basis. Unlike organics or biodynamics, where what’s permitted and prohibited is clearly defined and more or less universal, sustainability is necessarily more fluid and flexible, with standards varying by industry and by individual company. It’s no surprise then that most consumers don’t really understand what it means, or figure that it’s just opportunistic green washing with no real substance.

Confusion notwithstanding, flexibility is sustainability’s greatest strength. If you take the broad definition of the UN cited above, it’s evident that each industry must develop it’s own path to sustainability. What’s sustainable in one sector won’t necessarily be (indeed likely isn’t) in another. And in the wine business, what’s sustainable in sun-drenched, drought-stricken Australia or California is evidently not the same as cool, damp northern Europe, or the Niagara Peninsula.

For the record, the OIV’s (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin) definition of sustainable viticulture (2004) is: a global strategy on the scale of the grape production and processing systems, incorporating at the same time the economic sustainability of structures and territories, producing quality products, considering requirements of precision in sustainable viticulture, risks to the environment, product safety and consumer health, and valuing of heritage, historical, cultural, ecological, and aesthetic aspects”.

It’s certainly more specific and gets to the heart of all definitions of genuine sustainability, which cover three fundamental principles – what’s commonly called the “triple bottom line”. These are: environmentally friendly, socially equitable, and economically viable.

The Environment

The first principle, as you likely imagined, is the environmental dimension. Indiscriminately pillaging the earth’s resources to exhaustion or otherwise ruining them is manifestly not a sustainable strategy – it’s biting the proverbial hand that feeds you. Like with organics and biodynamics, the health of the planet now and for future generations is a cornerstone of the philosophy.

Sustainability in the wine industry means sensible resource management, like reducing water and energy use and your overall carbon footprint, recycling all possible materials, integrated pest management, eliminating pure monocultures and favouring native biodiversity, sustaining wildlife, and not poisoning your vineyards with nasty synthetic chemicals, among other sensible and logical long-term strategies.

LFE 900 Project Vineyards w volcanic peaks behind-7011

LFE 900 Project Vineyards with volcanic peaks behind

In an era of ever-more erratic and extreme climate, droughts, floods, radical heat and cold, pests and disease (and diseases resistance), and greater general environmental awareness and concern, there is growing demand for, and need of, truly sustainable agriculture.

In terms of chemical use, sustainable standards are not as restrictive as organic standards. So they can ‘cheat’, you say? Yes, they can.

But consider this scenario: it’s a cold and rainy season with high disease pressure, and it’s looking alarmingly like your grapes might rot and fall off the vine. The organic or biodynamic producer who doesn’t want to lose their certification has limited options. Writing off the vintage is painful for any winery, so you have to get out and protect your grapes. There are (so far), no organically-certified anti-fungal sprays that get right into the vine’s system (‘systemics’).

That leaves you only natural ‘contact’ products as options, like copper and sulphur that work superficially, and only in the places where they are sprayed (make contact). That means that if it rains again you’ll have to get back out and re-apply. And unless you’re farming with a horse, that in turn means more diesel burned by your tractor, more pollution, and more soil compaction (bad). And elemental copper, while naturally occurring, is still a toxic metal in high doses that does not break down, and accumulates in soils. In the end, you may salvage the harvest, but with a heavy environmental toll.

Sustainable codes offer more flexibility. While the aim is to eliminate synthetics and systemics, in extreme cases like the one above, the application of a product that works its way into the plant system and continues working, and does not require continual re-application, clearly has advantages. Four or five applications might work instead of 15 contact sprays. And there are now much more gentle systemic products that dissipate from the environment much, much faster than heavy metals. So what’s better for the environment?

Don’t get me wrong – I have much respect for organics/biodynamic producers. In an ideal world, a winery would be both sustainable and organic or biodynamic, as are, say, Emiliana, Cono Sur and Matetic in Chile, where the climate is rather clement. Indeed I’d say that in some parts of the world where organics is ‘easy’ it should almost be mandatory. But I’m also aware that organics is not necessarily always the best environmental choice.

Social Responsibility

The second important aspect of sustainability is social responsibility. This is where the concept goes beyond the scope of either organics or biodynamics. Organic auditors are agnostic towards the people who make certification possible, and biodynamics deals only indirectly with issues of worker well being under its overall wellness philosophy. But there’s nothing specific in the biodynamic certification standards, say, for adequate worker’s housing, or improved safety and productivity through regular training, or the support of local schools attended by the children of company employees.

Simply put, for a business to be considered sustainable, human beings, too, must be considered among the planet’s natural resources. Thus the workers who allow your business to run must also be sensibly managed and cared for along with their families. All sustainability codes evaluate the treatment of workers, especially in the areas of health and safety, awarding points for action plans and preventative measures, among many other considerations, down to ensuring there’s potable water available to all.


The third aspect of sustainability that neither organics nor biodynamics touches even indirectly is the economic sustainability of an enterprise. Your laudable green action plan will have little long-term impact on planetary well being if you’re out of business. And nor will your employees’ lives be bettered if they’re out of work. Under sustainable codes, myriad practices are encouraged that, in addition to considering environmental and social impact, also provide for economic sustainability.

And Speaking of Economics

Mentioning sustainability a decade or two ago would have scared off most profit-focused CEOs. The fear was of course increased costs. And they were probably justified. Yet that has changed. Thanks to developments in science and technology, sustainability is well within reach today, and is even designed to increase profits. Advancements in ‘precision farming’, energy savings strategies, water management, recycling, vineyard products, you name it, it’s never been more efficient and affordable to be sustainable. Sustainability encourages practices that reduce expenses (why pay for irrigation water when you can use recycled water treated on site, for example), while probably also increasing product quality.

Sustainable Means Evolving

The last notable aspect of sustainability certifications is the requirement for constant improvement. Under most codes, wineries must demonstrate improvement in their sustainability practices from year to year in order to renew their certification. If you reduced your wastewater or energy consumption by 10% this year for example, next year it should be even lower if you want to maintain your certification. Wineries are encouraged to use their own baselines to determine the areas with the greatest potential for improvement, where action can have the most impact on sustainability.

The Need for Certification

Sustainable certifications are, like organic or biodynamic, voluntary. It’s clear that certification is unnecessary in many cases. Small, family run-wineries for example hardly need dwell on ethical treatment of employees, while protecting one’s resources is common sense and the goal of economic survival is a given.

But for larger-scale corporate operations there is a need for accountability. Government legislation covering environmental protection and employee health and safety standards is a good starting point, but sustainable codes encourage companies to go further. Several wine regions (New Zealand, Sonoma County and Chile among them) have set themselves the admirable goal of being 100% sustainable in the very near future. It seems that cost savings, environmental benefits, consumer demand and brand distinction are powerful drivers for certification. Market research reveals positive associations with certified sustainable wines, and, “the more sustainable a brand is perceived, the more meaningful it becomes to consumers and the more they are attracted to it”. (Orchard & Vine, 2015)

Achieving Sustainable Certification in Chile

Chile’s Certified Sustainable code was created and is managed by several independent bodies. The trade body Vinos de Chile (Wines of Chile) is responsible for governance, updating, and administration of the Code through the Vinos de Chile R+D Consortium. Audits and certification decisions are the responsibility of independent certification agencies authorized by Vinos de Chile.

Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile

On a practical level, achieving sustainable certification begins with a checklist. In Chile the list covers 228 assessment topics in the areas of vineyard, winery/production, and corporate. Some assessment topics are designated “critical control points” and must be addressed, others are suggested but not mandatory. Each CCP has a minimum passing score, and maximum point scores range from 4 to 12 depending on the importance of the topic. A minimum score of 60% (measured against industry-established standards) must be achieved in all CCPs. The self-assessment once complete is submitted to Vino de Chile. If all is in order then a 3rd party audit is carried out. Independent agencies will verify the scores for each topic, checking receipts, action plans and other proofs of compliance before the registered Certified Sustainable Wines of Chile certification is granted.

Click for a succinct review of the Chilean Code of Sustainability, first created in 2009 and implemented in 2011. It is constantly evolving and being updated, part of the fluidity and adaptability of the sustainable concept.

Other Certified Sustainable Wine Regions

Many countries have established voluntary certified sustainability codes for wine production. I’d count the United States (California, Oregon and Washington), New Zealand, and South Africa among the leaders of sustainability in the new world, along with Chile. As mentioned above, the specifics of each code differ. That’s precisely what would be expected from areas so climatically and culturally diverse.  But all are based on the triple bottom line concept, and all schemes operate on 3rd party audits.

The wines recommended below are all from certified sustainable wineries in Chile – they are delicious and come with a clean and green conscience.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES January 20th:

Sustainable Chilean White & Sparkling

Emiliana Organic Brut Sparkling, Charmat Method, Casablanca Valley ($17.95)
Michael Godel – This first ever sparkling from Emiliana is 80 per cent chardonnay and (20) pinot noir with three months on its lees. Aromas felt in waves of natural, fresh-air and cool springs make this Casablanca Valley sparkler feel fresh and inviting. The palate takes it to a very citrus place. Great value and fresh as there is.…

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John Szabo, MS

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