This feature was originally published on March 24th, 2017, but has since been updated
You may have heard about sustainable agriculture. But have you ever heard about sustainable champagne? Do you understand the difference between, sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming and wine making? Read on to learn more.
Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm, or a winegrower in our case, to produce food indefinitely, without causing severe or irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Sustainable growing methods are also used by a few champagne producers and are an interesting alternative to organic champagnes.
Champagne winegrowers introduced the principles of sustainable agriculture in 2004, by dramatically reducing the use of pesticides and replacing them with other eco-friendly measures.
Farming sustainably in Champagne follows these guidelines: no genetically modified material; prune vines intensively to get smaller yields but better fruits and avoid illnesses; use natural or wild yeast; no filtration or freezing; no animal clarifying agents.
Changes covered by the sustainability certification in Champagne include critical activities of preventing soil erosion, managing water supplies and runoff, constructing more efficient buildings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, glass and packaging.
So what does sustainability look like in a vineyard?
The sustainability certification in champagne called VDC [Viticulture Durable en Champagne, which is a regionalised certification standard from the French national called HVE – Haute Valeur Environnementale] covers 99 criteria.
Key focus areas are energy, biodiversity, and water management, all of which are measured by the carbon footprint. The certification also covers waste management (see did you know below), limited use of chemical treatments and soil regeneration. In the vineyards, biodiversity will be preserved using pesticides only in case of emergency (like at the doctor’s when using antibiotics). Growers will look at adding nutrients by planting non-competing crops like mustard seeds and alfalfa; cover crops will be planted on 30% of the vineyard surface to avoid water evaporation; instilling rainwater recuperation systems, solar panels and energy-efficient equipment for the cellar cooling systems.
There is no single national sustainability system for wine in France, but two programs bear mentioning – a sustainable agriculture system favored by a small group of wineries and a regional sustainability program in the Champagne region.
Haute Valeur Environnementale
The French Ministry of Agriculture developed the Haute Valeur Environementale (HVE) certification in 2001, a three-tiered system that encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phyto-sanitary strategy (i.e., measures for the control of plant diseases, reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management. Once an operation has attained the third and most stringent level of the certification process, it is deemed worthy of the title “High Environmental Value” (“Haute Valeur Environnementale” or HVE). The authorities recently established an official label that producers with this status can display on their products and marketing materials.
Viticulture Durable en Champagne
In the early 2000s, the Champagne trade association, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, hereinafter the Champagne Bureau, sponsored an environmental footprint assessment of the viticulture and winemaking in the region. In 2014, The Champagne Bureau launched its own “sustainable” winegrowing certification under the Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC) label, becoming the first French wine region to create its own sustainable label along the following certification requirements.
The Champagne Bureau (Comité Champagne) objective is to drive 100% sustainably certified winegrowers by 2030. In 2021, less than 25% of Champagne growers are VDC certified. This number should be higher in 2021.
100% of the grape waste is reused. The harvested leaves, skins and branches are used as compost. The seeds are sold to pharmaceutical companies. The left over juices from the third press (intense in dirt) are sold to liquor companies.
And how is this all different from organic and biodynamic wines?
The confusion is that many sustainable wineries also follow organic and biodynamic practices. But not all organic or biodynamic wines are sustainable.
Additionally, a winery does not need to be sustainably certified to use sustainable farming practices. As a matter of fact, some areas, such as Sicily, Tasmania, naturally don’t use pesticides and historically farm using sustainable practices.
Organic wine producers only use naturally produced grapes from healthy soils. Their harvesting methods are similar to those employed by farmers in the late 1800s and for consumers, this means that grapes are 100% free of pesticides, fertilizers and chemical fungicides. Also, any form of rotting and mildew that the grapes may be subjected to are treated and controlled using purely natural methods. Producing a 100% organic product is, however, difficult in the Champagne area because soil and weather conditions are conducive to the development of bacterias. Therefore, the vine quality depends on constant meticulous and costly maintenance. The alternative to 100% organic winegrowing is sustainable agriculture.
While traditional champagne estates would focus on wine making after harvest, spending less time in the vineyards, Boris Bression, from Champagne Bression-Lourdeaux, keeps active outdoors as well, with a focus on removing unwanted weeds and adding natural fertilisers to enrich the soil while the sap starts to go down and the vines slowly come to full winter rest. “We deliver a lot in October, we keep a close eye on the ongoing VAT fermentation, but we also need to keep up with vineyard work to prepare our soils for the next season.”
Biodynamics is a holistic farming practice that originated from Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Biodynamics takes organic farming to a spiritual level by considering the different phases of the moon (Yes, the moon!) “You harvest grapes when the moon is in a certain position, and it has a direct effect on the wine’s character and behavior. But organic stops at the farming level,” says Franck Pascal from Champagne Franck Pascal.
In order for vineyards and wineries to be certified biodynamic, they must meet the strict standards set by the Demeter Association, Inc., a nonprofit organization that certifies biodynamic practices. Wines that carry the Demeter certification (and thus are marked “Biodynamic,” “Demeter” or “Demeter Certified Biodynamic”) meet the minimum requirements for biodynamic farming, such as setting aside 10 percent of acreage for a “biodiversity preserve,” and shunning synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
In order to understand the usage of pesticides in Champagne, let’s briefly look back to the period following the Second World War. France embarked on an industrialized agriculture policy. It was imperative to produce as much as possible to rebuild the country’s economy. Champagne was no exception and between 1950 and 1980 the surface area planted with vines more than doubled, increasing from 11,000 to 24,600 hectares. But in the same period, champagne sales had multiplied by five. In order to keep up with this increasing demand, the inter-professional research center of the Champagne Bureau focused its activity on developing ways to increase yields and boost the economic growth. In their own vineyards they developed and tested higher producing clones and fertilizers with a high nitrogen content, as well as different herbicides and pesticides.
At SimplyChampagne, we select outstanding quality champagnes produced with sustainable growing methods. Our selection of champagnes is based on the quality of the wine and the way the producers treat their ecosystem from seed to transportation, including champagne processing. With independent winegrowers using a sustainable agriculture – viti- and viniculture –, we can provide our customers with an affordable product that is also environmentally friendly.