What Exactly Is 'Sustainable' Wine?

Defined as wine produced in an ecologically responsible manner (and if you’re talking biodynamic, with a good dose of organic, astrological knowhow), sustainable wine is infiltrating the drinks lists of London’s luxury restaurants.

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May 12 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Nick Harris

We all know about sustainable food by now. While it would be great to keep guzzling the planet's edible delights like it's our last living day, it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore the facts. Maybe we're not reflecting this in our eating habits just yet (we're slow learners and, let's face it, pretty greedy) but in the back of our minds, most of us know it's time to start reining it in.

But what about wine? Do grapes and vineyards really need to be pulled into the fight for sustainability? Conscience and all that "green" stuff seems to fly in the face of the luxurious joy proffered by a spectacular bottle of chardonnay.

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Bouillabaisse, which opens next month in London's undeniably luxurious Mayfair, would disagree. Founded by nobu's former director of operations Kurt Zdesar, the restaurant is taking a stand against waste with a menu of sustainable "coastal cuisine."

So far, so dining trend du jour, but what's interesting is the fact that the restaurant is intent on bringing not just sustainable seafood to the West End, but wine too.

"All wines will be from bona fide wine estates and not repackaged bulk wine with private labels," says Bouillabaisse's Barry McCaughley. "We have painstakingly sourced top-quality wine from authentic, conscious, quality-obsessed winemakers, which is easier said than done at the price-sensitive end of the list."

Far from turning their market off, McCaughley thinks top-end food and booze spenders favour restaurants with a sense of environmental responsibility. In the fine dining market, "sustainability, organic, and seasonal are almost expected," he says.

But what exactly makes a wine sustainable? Sloshing about in the proverbial cask you have the terms "sustainable," "biodynamic," "organic," and "natural"; all supposedly great for the planet but difficult to make sense of.

Part of this stems from the fact that sustainable wine is largely unregulated and as yet has no global standard. It's loosely defined as wine grown with an awareness of preservative and pesticide use, and in an economically and ecologically responsible manner.

Sustainable wine producers also consider bottling sources and the impact of farming to land surrounding vineyards. It's complete cycle production, with every stage of the winemaking journey accounted for. A Melbourne biochemist has even worked out how to turn wine waste into biofuel.

Much like unpasteurised cheese, such preservative-free wines take on the seasonal changes of their regions and remain wholly unregulated by the preservatives that usually create a formula taste.

"Winemakers who were the early leaders in turning back to more natural viticulture methods had noticed that their soil was dead or dying, their vines less resistant to pests and diseases. Beneficial insect and bird life had gone," explains Tulip Hambleton, director of Sustainable Wines UK. "Their wines were lacking in quality and longevity, and their reputations were at stake".

Other elements of wine production are also under scrutiny. McCaughley tells me Bouillabaisse is sourcing wines with reusable glass stoppers due to concerns over the sustainability of cork.

After its 70s heyday, biodynamic wine is also making a comeback, this time with an even more "earthly" approach. Farmed using the hyper organic methods set out by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, Tom Tanner of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) explains that these wines work from "lunar cycles, earth rhythms, and astrology to guarantee happy vines, and therefore happy drinkers."

Unsurprisingly, these cosmic ideas don't always attract your classic fine wine fan. Jay Rayner has expressed distaste for natural wines, saying a "farmyard" Prosecco from a recently opened west London eatery merely turned him into a "really big fan of traditional preservatives."

Much like unpasteurised cheese, these wines take on the seasonal changes of their regions and remain wholly unregulated by the preservatives that create a uniform taste. But for people who've spent their lives seeking out controlled, signature flavours in wine, this is sure to rattle a few cages.

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Despite the critics, the status of environmentally sound wine is growing. The UK Vineyard Association is five years into a sustainability policy that looks to overhaul wine wastage and the SRA has almost one thousand sustainability-certified restaurants in the UK, many of which match organic, locally sourced ingredients with wine.

"It's more of a modern market that has responded the most to sustainable wine," explains Hambleton. "More people start to understand and make the links between their own health and that of the environment."

It makes sense. Most of the restaurants on SRA's list are consciously forward-thinking establishments like The Modern Pantry and trendy Peckham Rye pub The Montpelier. If you're a traditional restaurant, finding a sustainable riesling to pair with the foie gras seems counterproductive.

Winemakers who were the early leaders in turning back to more natural viticulture methods had noticed that their soil was dead or dying, their vines less resistant to pests and diseases.

While the wine generation nursing a long-held obsession with the bouquet of a classic vino is less likely to open its mind to new production methods, the global popularity of sustainable wines is growing. New Zealand's wine output is over 90 percent sustainable and Sonoma County hopes to be the first to reach the 100-percent mark.

Most of us have downed a few glasses of Kiwi pinot or a red from Sonoma, but the lack of standardisation for sustainably produced wine means that we probably didn't realise it. California is trying to tackle this with the introduction of regulatory initiatives that would see all sustainable bottles certified as such.

"There's an increased commitment to not only sustainable wine growing," explains Allison Jordan, from California's Sustainable Wine Institute. "But to continuous improvement and transparency."

Sustainable wine certainly has some way to go before this transparency is achieved and it becomes fully accepted by the wine-drinking public, but with the health of the planet at stake, any progress is welcome.

Responsible drinking? Here's to getting responsibly drunk.