Climate Change, Finding Sustainable Italian Wines and Why you should Care #ItalianFWT

Collage of hands and soil, vines in spring and workers picking wine grapes

Climate Change, Finding Sustainable Italian Wines and Why you should Care #ItalianFWT

Climate change and sustainability.  If you love wine, you really can’t be a climate change denier.  I have spoken with too many winemakers who are seeing the changes in their vineyards.  They watch bud break as well as harvests coming earlier.  In some regions, they are dealing with increased pressure from fires and the possibility of smoke taint, with some losing entire vintages. We watched this in Australia early this year and parts of California are dealing with this right now.  Vineyards are looking at planting new varieties, geared toward the new climate that they see moving into their area.

This month the Italian Food Wine and Travel Group are tackling climate change and sustainability.  It’s a big subject, even if we are just focusing on Italy. We are led by Katarina of Grapevine Adventures. You can read her invitation post An Invitation To Look Closer at Aspects of Sustainability to Better Tackle the Climate Change. I look forward to reading all the viewpoints and insights that my colleagues will bring.  Scroll to the bottom to find links to their pieces on the subject.

We will be gathering on Twitter on Saturday September 5th at 8 am PDT.  Just follow and use #ItalianFWT to join the conversation.

If we just talk about climate change…(this is the “why you should care” part)

World map with dried cracking due to climate change
Picture the wine regions that climate change will affect Photo by Onur Adbobe Stock

I recently attended a session called “Wine and a Changing Climate: Will the terroir model of today survive”. It was presented by Roger C. Bohmrich MW at the Society of Wine Educators Virtual Conference earlier this month.

He points out that some regions may benefit from climate change, like Bordeaux and much of Germany, while other regions will suffer as more and more of their vineyards become too warm to sustain their traditional varieties of grapes.  Italy is one of those places.

Defining Sustainable wines

But there is more to this. Sustainability doesn’t have a universal definition, but Sandra Taylor at “Discover Sustainable Wine” gives one that is easier to wrap your head around.

“Very simply it means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sandra Taylor, from Discover Sustainable Wine

There are 3 parts to this; environmental, economic, and social.  We need to take care of the environment, produce a quality product, and be socially responsible.  There are programs out there for certification, that vary on their focus and the area they cover.

Looking through the wines I have tasted recently

I looked through several wines that I had recently tasted from Italy to see where they were in addressing sustainability.  To do this, I went directly to each of their websites.

The first I looked at was Banfi.  Banfi is a large company, and if you can get these larger companies on board it is helpful, since they employ so many people and ship so much wine.

Banfi has an entire sustainability page where they note specifically their use of the Lightweight bottle, the bio-bed, Variable flowrate irrigation, corporate social responsibility, and certification from the vineyard to the bottle.

They did a bit of research in 2008 and 2009 on this.  Reducing the weight of the bottle saves in multiple ways, obviously the shipping weight per bottle is less, which saves energy and there is less glass in the end.  In addition, there is a savings on the energy needed to make each bottle.  They first reduced from 570 g bottles to 400 g, then in 2014 reduced again to 360 g bottles.  ( you can read more at https://www.banfi.it/en/sustainability/lightweight-bottle.php )

Under Corporate Social Responsibility they discus Eco-balance Low input farming.  Reducing the greenhouse effect, maintaining biodiversity and working on erosion control. 

I expected the “Social Responsibility” to contain something about workers, but it did not.  It instead covered things like erosion control and reducing the greenhouse effect.

I moved on to other wineries I had recently tasted.  I recently had a lovely Moscato d’Asti from Saracco.  While they did not have a page devoted to sustainability, they did have a paragraph regarding their vineyards that included this.

“On their 50 hectares grapes are grown sustainably in harmony with nature and with attention to changes to the climate throughout the year.”

(from the Saracco website)

That was it.  3 other brands that I recently tried, had nothing on any form of sustainability.  Everything they had to say was on quality and tradition.  They did not even link back to tradition in farming and respect for the land. Well, that felt a bit tragic, so I dug deeper into wines I had a month or so ago and remembered Caiarossa.

Caiarossa is a vineyard and winery on the Tuscan Coast. I had tasted a wine from them for a piece on Super Tuscans. They employ biodynamics here and look at the property in a holistic way, which includes the men and women who work on the land, although there are not full details on their vineyard staff. They have been Demeter certified since 1999, and embrace the idea of “…creating a harmonious bond between Nature and Man. …by creating a full resonance with the rhythms of the universe, we manage to fully amplify their effects.”

Okay, I feel a little better about my Italian wine drinking.

My expectations

Perhaps as a consumer, I am pushing boundaries, expecting wineries to share, not just notes on the quality of their wine, but also on the ways, they are making the world a better place, or at least not making it worse.

I was feeling a bit sad about my choices of wine recently.  I am good about researching wineries in the US based on their practices, but with fewer options on imported wine, I don’t research my purchases in advance as much as I evidently should.

What’s happening in Italy?

I went in search of information on wineries who are actively working toward sustainability in Italy and there is a great deal of hope.

Italian consumers are also looking for transparency, and the Ministry of Agriculture is working to create a standard for sustainability in wine.  If this goes through, Italy could be the first country to set such a standard.

The ministry of agriculture in Italy is working with Equalitas as they create their sustainability program. 

Equalitas has set a standard that requires biodiversity in soil, water and lichen.  They set a standard for both carbon and water footprints.  They cover working practices for both agriculture as well as winery and bottling practices.  They deal with economic practices financially for the business and for employee programs as well as dealing with suppliers. There are social practices for workers’ rights and training as well as community relations.  Finally, there are policies for transparency.  The certification is set fo4 3 years and is monitored within that period.  ( source)

Currently Equalitas, which was founded in 2016, has 17 certified sustainable wineries. I do not know about you, but that number seems pretty low to me.  They are a young organization, so I look forward to them growing.

Italy is a leader in organic wine. From 2013 to 2018 the organic vineyard acreage in Italy increased by 57% (source Nomisma Wine Monitor).  So there is that! 

In addition there are other organizations like VIVA under the CCPB, under the ministry of the environment.  As well as SQNPI under the Ministry of Agricultural Policies. (source)

But figuring out if a wine is sustainable by its label?  That’s a bit tougher. 

My friend Lynn Gowdy, of Savor the Harvest, wrote a piece on how you can find details on Italian wine labels which is a great reference. “The Important thing you don’t know about Italian wine labels” So, there is a start there.  Look for “Vino Biologico” on the label or look for the Agricoltura UE leaf or Ecogruppo Italia logos on the back label.  Agricoltura UE has the Euro Leaf logo (a bright green background with a leaf outlined with stars) which certifies that the product meets the regulations for Organic farming in the EU.  Ecogruppo Italia is a certification body for Eco-sustainable production. 

These are ways you can check the label, if you are in the market or wine shop already shopping.   The best Idea?  Do your research ahead of time. In the meantime, let’s talk about some of the means to combating climate change that are out there for wineries.

Fighting Climate change with regenerative agriculture.

The concept of climate change porta lmagic
The idea behind regenerative agriculture Image by Marcoaliaksandr Adobe Stock

So what can a winery do about climate change?  Well, as we mentioned with Banfi, lighter packaging can decrease the carbon footprint.  In addition, farming methods can decrease a winery’s carbon footprint.  That might be by less mechanical passes in the vineyard, or alternative methods of power, like solar.

Regenerative farming is being discussed quite a bit these days.  Most people utilizing the techniques of biodynamics refer to it as regenerative farming.  In combating climate change, this is idea of creating healthy soil that absorbs carbon. (source).

Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles recently joined a pilot program to become Regeneratively Organic Certified (ROC).  Their vineyard is already Demeter Certified for biodynamics as well as certified organic.  So why did they feel the need to jump on this new bandwagon?  Regenerative is by the very name, beyond “sustainable”.  This is not about just staying par for the course, it is able to improve the ecosystem. It encompasses soil health, animal welfare, and social welfare.  Tablas Creek wrote a great article about why they felt the need to jump on board with this certification.  You can read it here. They also released a beautiful video that will explain the idea behind the certification quickly.

That’s what I was really looking for, something beyond the status quo, something that is not just looking to keep us from falling over the edge, but something that might tip the scales the other way.

Beyond the soil, let’s talk about the people

This gets to the “Social” part.  The recent uproar over Settimio Passalacqua, the agriculture magnate in Southern Italy who was arrested for systematic exploitation of migrant workers.  This dramatically affected his daughter Valentina Passalacqua whose winery in Puglia was on the rise and was being imported to the US through several companies, who have dropped her label, waiting for her to be proven innocent. She works independently of her father and says she is outraged by these types of exploitation practices.  She is listed, however, as having a 25% share in one of the companies and as recently as mid-October 2019 attended a shareholders meeting.

Just before this story on her father broke, I had tasted one of her wines and did a piece on it.  I watched her videos with her out harvesting with her crew.  I was enchanted. The comradery felt genuine.  It did not show the whole picture though.  (I encourage you to read the article in “The Morning Claret” if you are interested in further details)

The point I guess is, that people are holding companies accountable for unfair treatment of workers.  For consumers and distributors you need to be transparent.  They need to be sure that you are treating your workers fairly. More and more people are buying less blindly.  Like me.  But currently it’s not easy.

Why this is important and what you can do

The planet is warming and is on course to get warmer.  Climate change is real and ass we look to the future, we must do something about it.  People, workers are being taken advantage of. That has got to change.  We make individual choices, as well as look to the businesses we support to make good choices.  Ideally, we just support those willing to go the extra mile, because they hold the same ideals we do. 

It’s not easy.  Certifications are individual also.  Some more respectable and trustworthy than others.  Then there are small businesses and producers, who may not be able to invest in the certification. 

We need to do our homework.  Again, it’s not easy.  I often am writing a piece and need to investigate a region and I get what is available.  But more and more I try to research before purchasing, so I can find those brands, or better yet, those small wineries, who are doing things right or working to get better at protecting the land, our planet, and our fellow man.  We ask the questions and increase the demand for products we trust and believe in.  We won’t always succeed, but together, bit by bit we can get better.

The Italian Food Wine and Travel Group #Italian FWT

After all this digging, there are so many questions I still have and I’m sure we all have. I look forward to reading the work of my colleagues from the Italian Food Wine and Travel Group. If you are reading this in time, join us on twitter on Saturday, September 5th at 11 am EDT or 8 am PST. Just follow and used #ItalianFWT to join in the conversation. I’ll be there with my coffee! You can read my colleagues’ work below!

On Saturday, 5 September we will discuss more in-depth sustainability and climate change in the Twitter chat of the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel writers’ group. Join us on Saturday at 11 am EST / 17.00 CEST to learn more about Sustainability to Better Tackle the Climate Change.

Get into the sustainability vibe…

Resources

Additional resources

I highly recommend taking a peek at Discover Sustainable Wine. Sandra Taylor has written some insightful pieces on the subject of sustainability in wine. 

Other great pieces I found, include:

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.

When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.

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Robin Renken
[email protected]
6 Comments
  • advinetures
    Posted at 15:11h, 05 September Reply

    A great article on such an important topic! Like you, every winemaker we’ve interviewed has noticed change. Some are going to benefit but all agree things are changing. They are all also great stewards of the land and understand the value of sustainable farming. I really hope more people make a conscious effort to support those that are doing things right.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 15:36h, 05 September

      I find that when I am buying wines from outside the country, I don’t look as closely at sustainability. Sometimes, it’s all I can do to find a wine from a specific region. But, I am determined to make a more concerted effort to research wineries who are working to be sustainable in their approach.

  • Nicole Ruiz Hudson
    Posted at 11:00h, 06 September Reply

    These are definitely difficult questions and it is difficult for even the most aware consumers to navigate these issues, as you point out. I do think it’s going to become more and more important for wineries to share more information about their practices with the public as people demand to know more — as they should.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 13:22h, 06 September

      I agree Nicole. It was pointed out during the conversation that this can be difficult for small wineries. The certifications can be cost-prohibitive to implement as well as the fees to join for small wineries. As to the transparency question, that will be easier, if they have and maintain a website. Luckily this is becoming the norm, but for many, this is still a barrier.
      Hopefully, consumers will continue to want to know more, and wineries and companies will step up to meet the demand.

  • Deanna
    Posted at 21:02h, 07 September Reply

    Very interesting point you bring up regarding social responsibility and the fair treatment of workers. One the one hand, it may be assumed that it is included in the organic, sustainable conversation. But often times I don’t see it called out specifically. Others have suggested that the price is an indicator of whether workers are being paid a fair wage. Perhaps there will be new certifications in the future, not unlike fair trade for coffee.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 21:16h, 07 September

      That’s a really interesting. I had not thought about fair trade as in coffee or tea. You are right, price can often be an indicator in other categories and that can be the case with wine also. SIP certified in California was the first program I had come across that I had come across that took workers into consideration. I’m sure there are others. I do find that I look for it to be addressed on websites now that I am more aware.

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