Italy Emerges as a Global Leader in the Sustainable Wine Movement
By Jim Clarke
When assessing progress in the wine industry, the typical approach is to look back, to see how things evolved from the past to present. A subtle but important shift in that pattern involves the increased importance of sustainability—and how, as suppliers increasingly aim to think and be “green,” their focus is as much on the future as the past.
Today, Italian regions and producers are taking bold steps to redefine what sustainability looks like in both vineyards and wineries, addressing new challenges and finding innovative solutions to ensure that Italian wine will thrive responsibly for centuries to come.
While American wineries are certainly more eco-conscious than ever, like many industry trends, Europe’s “green” wine wave is significantly ahead. In fact, three countries represent approximately 90% of the world’s organic vineyards. “Italy is the leading country in Europe for organic vineyards,” says Matilde Poggi, President of the Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers (FIVI). “About 17% of the vineyards in Italy are organic.
Countries like Spain and France are around 10 or 11%.” Italy’s 17% doesn’t include vineyards under conversion to organic, a three-year process. According to the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, organic vineyard acreage today is double what it was in 2012.
The Commission also points out that many Italian winegrowers follow organic principles but forgo certification, either because of the cost or lack of time; the bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through, either within Italy or, for exports, with the FDA, can be too much trouble for small farmers and wineries.
“There’s an inherent naturalness to farming in Italy,” says Italian Trade Commissioner Maurizio Forte, “by virtue of having a climate with more hours of sunlight, good air circulation, and overall ideal conditions for healthy grapes. We are also fortunate to have hundreds of indigenous grape varieties that have had hundreds if not thousands of years to adapt to their environment. I would be remiss not to point out that many wineries pursue sustainability not only in the vineyards but in all phases of winemaking.”
Sustainability: A Bigger Picture
While organics and natural winemaking tend to focus on the vineyards and what goes into the product, sustainability is in some respects less stringent, but overall more holistic, encompassing wine production but also ecological concerns at the local and global level, plus labor and social concerns.
“We can’t deny that the problem of sustainability must include all the things related to energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water management,” says Michele Manelli, a Board member for the Equalitas certification program, “but that has to be all along our value chain, not just what we do in the field.”
Organics, for example, is not concerned with a winery’s carbon footprint, but limiting or offsetting greenhouse gases plays a substantial role in sustainability. So, too, does worker welfare, and even the welfare of neighbors, looking at how vineyard and winery practices might have repercussions for the surrounding community. Water use, respect of local traditions and archaeological heritage, limiting pesticide use—all of these factors are taken under consideration.
And, as with organics, Italy is committed to leading the way in sustainability. The Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land, and Sea created a certification program, VIVA, in 2011; it divides these elements up into Air, Water, Vineyards, and Territory. Federdoc, the National Confederation of Consorzi for all wine appellations in Italy, created the aforementioned Equalitas program after cooperating on a 2014 research report, making it a concrete example of Italian winemakers coming together despite their diverse wine offerings and opinions.
Addressing all these points calls for a variety of approaches. Some wineries install solar energy panels; others are improving the efficiency of their irrigation systems, or reducing the weight of their bottles to reduce shipping costs and carbon emissions. As a report in the Annals of Agrarian Science put it: “Sustainable wine growing reaches from the vineyard to the bottom shelf in the supermarket.”
Regional Effort, from the Alps to Sicily
Climate also impacts the specific adjustments. “In northern Italy it can rain a lot,” says agronomist Marco Tonni of the SATA Agronomic Studio, “and this means you must manage the grasses growing inside the vineyard, because it improves the soil’s capacity to bear the machinery. It’s also very good for biodiversity, for the roots, for the carbon footprint because the grasses capture CO2 and transform it into organic substances and sequester it in the soil.”
These improvements do not come at a cost to wine quality, either: “Grasses are also a way to improve the quality of the wine because you have lower humidity in the air, a lower problem of fungi and botrytis, and better quality of grapes. They mature earlier and the vines are not too vigorous.”
Regional sustainability efforts, like SOStain, developed by some of the most well-known wineries in Sicily, are working together with the national organizations to innovate and adapt ideas to local growing conditions. Water management is more pressing there than in the north, for example. Meanwhile, in diverse areas, the Casa Clima project is helping wineries themselves become more sustainable, working with bioconstruction materials, renewable energy, and climate-friendly construction techniques.
Modern techniques are penetrating even the most established of Italy’s wine regions. Chianti Classico Consorzio President Giovanni Manetti says the push there dates back to “Chianti Classico 2000” with a research project begun in the late 1980s. Today, 30% of Chianti Classico is certified organic, and 35% of their members reported using alternative energy sources such as solar power or biomass.
It’s easy to talk about modern techniques, but really, a lot of the work, especially in the vineyard, amounts to rediscovering the ways of the past. “We have a 16th century book from an agronomist,” says Tonni, “advising a noble on how to work in agriculture. It’s incredible. There are many things very similar to what [EU scientists] say today. There is an incredible quantity of information that we have from our work today that’s very similar to 500 years ago. It’s very beautiful.”
Whatever approach each winery or each region takes, modern solar panels or ancient vineyard practices, the Italian wine industry has taken the values of sustainability to heart. And amidst the nation’s famous diversity, they are unified in wanting their vineyards to prosper into the future.