Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Some countries' wine is not as green as you think

Is this vineyard environmentally friendly? If it's not certified organic, how would I know? Answer: I wouldn't.
New Zealand has built its wine export business in the US on two things: a potent, tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc, and a green image.

At least one of those is true.

The American Association of Wine Economists released a simple statistical tweet yesterday, Organic Share of National Grape Area. It is what it sounds like: the percentage of organic vineyards for each country.

It's far from a perfect stat. First, it includes both table grapes and wine grapes. This helps some nations that take their foods seriously, while hurting the U.S.

Second, it's only certified organic vineyards. I can hear New Zealand's protest as I type this, "But we're sustainable." (Whatever that means.)

And third, it's not an indictment of any single grapegrower or winery. Just because Portugal has the lowest percentage of organic grapes of any major wine-producing nation doesn't mean there aren't some Portuguese vineyards doing all the right things for their customers and the Earth.

With those provisos out of the way, here are some shocking takeaways, after the table itself:

* Italy has easily the highest percentage (15.8) of organic vineyards of any major wine-producing country. Bravo! Wine producers there have told me it's a necessity today in the Italian market, but for some reason the country's wines overall don't yet have the organic image they deserve. But if you're looking for environmentally conscious wine, look to Italy.

* Austria has made a big commitment to green farming and it shows, as it comes in second on this list among major producers. It's a surprising contrast with Germany, which is known for food safety standards and would seem to have similar environmental challenges, and yet has 40% fewer organic vineyards proportionally than Austria.

* Let's applaud all the nations that cleared 10%, because there aren't many. Italy, Austria, Spain (that's unexpected; Spain doesn't push a green image) and France are joined by Bulgaria (surprising because they're making mostly cheap wines), the UK (not many vineyards and expensive wines, so it's doable) and Belgium (probably table grapes, but still, bravo.)

* Now let's look at countries that aren't so green after all. New Zealand isn't the worst at 4.3%, but this is the country that most aggressively pushes its green image. Yet Cyprus, Lebanon and Mexico have more organic vineyards. And though the Kiwis occasionally give a snide comment about the differences between them and their much larger neighbor in Oceania, Australia has almost the same percentage of organic vineyards at 4.2%. They just don't go around bragging about it.

* The South American giants, Argentina and Chile, are both very low on the list, with just 2.4 and 2.2% respectively. Both countries' exports are falling and this won't help, but perhaps an increase in organic farming could spearhead a turnaround.

* Georgia, 0.3%? 0.3%?? The Georgia image is a bunch of grapes stuffed into an amphorae and buried. Now pour some herbicide on that image. It's a particularly bad contrast with another former Soviet state, Bulgaria (11.2%).

* I'm not surprised the US is low at just 2.7%. Our table grape industry is highly industrial, and our wine industry has invested many more resources into trying to convince consumers that certification doesn't matter than into actually going green. I am surprised that China, the nation that supposedly doesn't care about the environment, has a higher percentage of organic vineyards (2.9%) than the U.S. China is also a major wine producer, the world's fifth-largest, just behind the U.S. in volume, but apparently ahead of us in environmental responsibility.

When I posted something briefly about this on Twitter, a winemaker complained to me, "But certification is difficult. There's so much paperwork." That hasn't stopped hundreds of wineries from filling out thousands of forms to be certified sustainable (whatever that means.) What's really hard is committing to organic farming.

Organic farming standards aren't perfect; they may not be as good as biodynamic standards. But they ARE standards that consumers interested in their health and the environment trust. Maybe organic farming is not appropriate for any individual vineyard. I can't judge your pest pressures.

And I have met plenty of very committed organic farmers in these uncommitted nations: more in California because I live here, but also in Chile and Argentina and South Africa. This is just a very big picture. For Italy, it's a pretty one.

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1 comment:

Bob Rossi said...

Very interesting information. I'm particularly pleased (or should I say surprised) that France's level is as high as it is, given the country's reputation for high use of chemicals in agriculture in general and wine production in particular. But in visits to wine regions in the eastern part of France over the last several years, there seemed to be more attention being paid to organic practices. I can't be sure which area it was (maybe the Drome) where we were told that they have a very high percentage of organic growers, both wine grapes and agriculture in general.