This is the third of a 5-part series of posts covering the most common certifications found on wine labels by guest writer John Szabo MS. Read Part I on Organic Certifications and Part II on Biodynamics.

Sustainable is yet another category of certification, growing worldwide, which takes an even broader view. As the word implies, and like organic and biodynamic farms, sustainably-run winegrowing operations consider the environmental impact of their actions. But the philosophy expands to also encompass social and economic aspects of wine production.

In short, sustainable winegrowing is a comprehensive set of practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable. Sustainable does not mean organic (or biodynamic), though many sustainable wineries are also organically/biodynamically certified. But water and energy conservation practices are emphasized, along with maintaining healthy soil, and protecting air and water quality, and preserving local ecosystems and wildlife habitat.

Additionally, wineries are encouraged to enhance relations with employees and communities, and improve the economic vitality of vineyards and wineries. Examples of such programs include re-investing a percentage of company profits in community infrastructure, building schools or community centers, for example, or providing medical coverage to employees and their families, or continuing education.

Sustainable viticulture, hence, has been defined as a “global strategy on the scale of the grape production and processing systems, incorporating at the same time the economic sustainability of structures and territories, producing quality products, considering requirements of precision in sustainable viticulture, risks to the environment, product safety and consumer health, and valuing of heritage, historical, cultural, ecological, and aesthetic aspects.”

Strictly speaking, however, virtually nothing that is allowed in conventional farming and winemaking is expressly forbidden, even if reduction is encouraged. Maximums for sulphite additions, for example, follow guidelines for conventional wines.

Sustainable certification schemes exist mostly outside of Europe, where organic/biodynamic certifications are more common. Most new world growing regions have implemented some form of certification, Notably California, Oregon, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and British Columbia, among others. New Zealand, Chile and Sonoma county have even pledged to make their wine industries 100% sustainably certified in the coming years.

For the most part, these are all voluntary certification programs, self-assessed, and only rarely with third-party auditing. Each association provides educational tools to growers and winemakers to increase adoption of sustainable practices and to measure and demonstrate ongoing improvement. Partners from government, academia, and community and environmental groups contribute resources and expertise, and help to identify strengths and opportunities for improvement, and set goals to increase use of sustainable practices.

There is of course significant variation in the details of what is assessed and how from association to association, and how progress is measured. Of all the certifications discussed in this series, “Sustainable” is at once the most comprehensive and laudable, and the most loose and unclear. Since “Sustainable” is not a government-regulated term, the claim from any association around the world can appear on wines sold in Canada.

Detractors of sustainable certification consider it “the easy way out” of full organic or biodynamic certification, a way to greenwash their business without having to adhere to strict regulations. But wineries that take it seriously make a genuine effort to reduce not just their environmental footprint, but also to improve the lives of their employees and communities, while ensuring their own financial survival, which is of course in the interest of employees. A biodynamically and sustainably certified operation would be the ultimate combo.

At Phantom Creek, we are working towards organic and biodynamic certification under the guidance of Olivier Humbrecht MW. Olivier initiated Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s transition to organic and biodynamic practices in 1997, and is now the President of Biodyvin. Led by the tireless efforts of John Pires and Ryan McKibbon, our farming does not include any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. We have also completed an Environmental Farm Plan as part of our sustainability initiatives.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.


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