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I’ll be the first to admit that I love a sneaky vino. But aside from the grape varietal or region of origin I don’t put much thought to what goes into my glass, or the wider impact it might have on the environment.
The idea of organics, fair trade, and conscious consuming have become the norm when it comes to purchasing what will ultimately end up on our plate. This wider ideological shift is now making its way into our Friday night drinks. According to the Australian organic market report, organic grape production went up 120% between 2011 and 2014.
So what is natural wine? Why does it matter? And does our beverage choice have a further reaching footprint than we might have imagined?
I'm just Steiner understand it all!
When it comes to alternative wine choices, the word natural is often thrown around. It's an umbrella term that needs a bit of clarification to be better understood. Organic wine, like organic fruit, is made from grapes that are free from synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Biodynamic wine, on the other hand, is like organic wine's straight edge cousin. Based on principles developed in the1920's by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner (of whom the Steiner school system is based on), biodynamic farming is a "holistic understanding of agricultural processes" – Rudolph Steiner.
There is a focus on being a closed circuit, self-sustaining environment – farmers work with nature instead of against it. Crops are planted in accordance with the lunar calendar, little to no mechanics are used, pests are dealt with by luring them away with hormones, manually removing them, or adding in cover crops that entice insects that will prey on the problem pests.
All in all there is a focus on using both flora and fauna to sustain and ensure the flourishing of the land with minimal intervention.
Am I drinking arsenic?
In Australia, there are fifty-eight additives permitted in wine and the wine making process. These additives are used to filter, fine, and balance the wine. In the words of sustainable, organic wine purveyor, Joel Amos, of drnks.com, "wine processing and additives take place to make the wine appear pristine".
But he thinks this production heavy wine lacks soul and comes at a more substantial cost the to the environment, "imagine a world where production is homogenized into the same boring, generic product. Now stop imagining, because it's basically real life. But with organic and natural wine there's a real story. The people behind the booze and the genuine agricultural element that is presented – that's what I love".
Amos also puts forward the idea that as winemakers have less opportunity to tamper with the wine after the fermentation process, they must take better care of it in the initial stages. Choice produce must be used, equipment must be immaculately clean, and everything needs be tended to with utmost care.
I spoke to James Hird of Sydney's Rootstock Festival – a not for profit sustainable food and wine festival. He thinks the wine additive issue is with the consumers right to choose, "Currently only known allergens are required to be listed on the label. When we choose orange juice we are told if its had sugar, water, preservatives, colour added or has been condensed, etc. Most consumers are aware of their preference be it reconstituted, freshly squeezed with or without additions. Wine, however, is exempt from most of these labelling constraints".
Natural wines will often come with less of these additives. They may be unfiltered and have residual turbidity (cloudiness), the pristine element is replaced with a focus on good, honest wine.
"It's one of the purest forms of alcohol that exists", said Amos, just before he remarks that some wines contain arsenic. "I'm no scientist, but there are wines out there that literally have poison added to them. I'd suggest wine with nothing added to it would be better for your health. Call me crazy," he says.
Hird adds in, "there has been a dialogue in the wine industry in recent years between producers around topics such as natural wine, sustainability, conventional wine, real wine, etc. all these labels whilst generating an interesting diatribe do little to offer consumers insight into what's in their glass - Certainly, more often than not there is more than fermented grapes and a little sulphur in a bottle of wine".
Does a glass have a footprint?
Wine made using minimal machinery pumps less CO2 into the environment; Amos says some winemakers use no electricity at all and there can be no arguing that this approach isn't better for the natural world. One Australian vineyard, Tamburlaine, takes this idea a step further and is now the country's first carbon neutral wine producer.
Certified organic at their vineyard in the Hunter Valley and certified biodynamic at their Orange location, Tamburlaine pride themselves on being the closest you possibly can to carbon neutral. As the biggest producer of organic wine in Australia, they are attempting to re-define wine. "Our approach, we term 'contemporary organics', is a result of our enthusiasm to re-define winemaking, through experimenting with modern best practice in vineyard management ensuring the lowest environmental pollution, carbon footprint and without accepting pesticide residues. We work to incorporate practical and sustainable strategies that continue to produce brilliant wine - with body and soul," says Ayla Wilton, a spokesperson for the vineyard.
Ayla walked me through what the process of carbon offsetting means to the vineyard, "we use solar panels on the vineyards, compost our food scraps and put it all into the worm farm, we recycle our water, and insulate the warehouse for the wine with hay instead of electricity. Through every step of the wine production, we ask the question 'are we doing this the most sustainable way possible?'. When we can't reduce a process anymore, we buy carbon offsets to bring it down".
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There's a strong ethos of no off-farm pollution. Ayla says, "we keep our problems to ourselves and deal with them ourselves. When you think about spraying pesticides or chemicals on fruit, it's not only being absorbed by the fruit and the soil, it ends up in the rainwater, and streams, in air pollution and through the town. Because we never spray our grapes, we don't pollute our land or the land around us, we keep our environment clean".
Tamburlaine's managing director and chief wine-maker Mark Davidson says the decision to go carbon-neutral was a no brainer, "To offset the CO2 emissions through purchasing verified carbon offsets (which are not prohibitively expensive) means an organisation can talk confidently about its environmental footprint and sustainability. The money going to the projects that provide the offsets encourages these and other organisations worldwide to continue to use technology to build in practices which deliver ongoing pollution reduction".
The concept of organic food tasting, and being better for you is one that is steadily creeping into the dominant nutrition doctrine. However, the move to judge our alcoholic choices on this new set of ideas must surely mean a step in the right direction. Next time you reach for a glass of gris it's worth considering not only what you're consuming but was is sustainably produced?