Part of the core of Wanderlust’s ethos is sourcing wines that are produced with sustainability in mind. Sustainable wines contain fewer chemicals, which are better for both you and the environment, and for many consumers, this is becoming an increasingly important consideration when it comes to what they buy.
In the second half of the 20th century, the use of chemicals increased significantly in order to control pests and diseases and produce a better harvest. The resulting environmental and health effects of this are a big concern to many, and many studies have suggested that there is a link between the use of pesticides and diseases amongst farmers and farm workers such as cancer.
Reducing the use of chemicals, therefore, contributes to improving the health of the farmers, the vines and the greater ecosystem as well. That’s why we care about sustainability, and all the wines that we stock use organically farmed or certified grapes.
What does sustainability actually mean?
Sustainability refers to a range of vineyard and wine production practices that are not only ecologically sound but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may be certified (organic or biodynamic) or non-certified.
Every vineyard site is different and to get the best results in the bottle, producers make decisions around certification based on how best to make their wine given the soil, climate and their surroundings. Converting a site to fully organic and biodynamic also needs to be done in stages over time so the land gets used to new practices.
Sustainability also takes into account how “green” a producer may be. This includes energy and water conservation, and the use of renewable resources.
There’s no exact definition for a sustainable wine, however, there are wine classifications that adhere to different levels of practices, which are considered sustainable.
Let’s start with organic. Organic wine means that the grapes used were certified as organically grown, without the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers. It also means that no additives were used, such as artificial preservatives. You can also get wine which is organically farmed – this means that organic practises have been followed but without formal certification of the vineyard as organic.
Biodynamic builds on organic, extending the ethos to the entire ecosystem around the vineyard. It includes unique methods of treatment of the soil and crops, and the planning of key activities around astrological cycles. It might sound a bit mad but the results certainly speak for themselves! A biodynamic wine is by definition organic, made from grapes that are farmed biodynamically.
Lastly, we have natural wines. Natural wines carry over the organic philosophy from the vineyard into the cellar. It’s all about low intervention and whilst there is no standard definition, it generally means that practices such as the addition of yeasts or rectification of sugars or acidity which are common in winemaking, are not followed.
Common Practises in Mass Made Wine
We love small producers who make wine with a sustainable and artisanal ethos. We don’t like mass made wine because you lose control over the basic elements of grape growing, harvesting, and winemaking in a drive for consistency and volume. Chemicals are often used on the vine and more than 80 are now commonly found in big brand mass produced wines. As tonnes of grapes are all blended together, the sense of place and identity from where they are grown is often lost.
Here are some common practises used in mass made wine that you won’t find in wines from our producers:
Addition of chemically derived yeast
Many wines are fermented with the grapes’ own natural yeast, but it’s common to see the addition of chemically derived yeasts at the point of fermentation to make sure all the tanks/batches come out the same. Part of the character of wine is that each site or bunch of grapes has natural yeasts on it’s skin which give different flavours and profiles in the finished wine. Mass producers don’t want that personality as they want the wine to taste the same in every bottle.
Chemicals sprayed onto the vines and grapes
Non-organically farmed and mass made wines can use chemicals: herbicides and fungicides in the vineyards and other additives during the processes which filter into the end product. Nearly all of the chemical additions found in non-organically farmed wine are from vineyard spraying/use. It is common to see pesticides and fungicides used in geographies that are wetter and lack breeze to take the moisture away – these areas are more naturally prone to fungal infections, just like areas close to rivers or lakes. You’ll find many fungicides and pesticides being used as a quick solution to the problem.
Lastly, they use machines to harvest the grapes and put them into big tubs. Because of the rough treatment some of the grapes get damaged. To prevent spoilage, the grapes get sprayed with chemicals like potassium metabisulphite.
Acidification of wine
Wine buffs talk a lot about acidity or in more basic terms, “crispness”, in their tasting notes. Acidity is extremely important as a balancing element of wine, not only as one of the key things we taste when we drink it but also to allow a wine to be stable and age.
It has now become relatively common practise to add powdered acid into the crushed grape juice during fermentation to boost its profile. Acidification is used in large scale wine production to give the balance needed if the grapes are poor quality and to offer extra stability for a longer shelf life.
Addition of sugar
Given that grapes are sweet, it might surprise you that sugar is added during fermentation, a process called chaptalisation. The addition of sugar boosts the wine’s final alcohol percentage.
Producers do this if the grapes are poor quality and they do not have enough sugar for the yeast to produce the minimum levels of alcohol needed by law, or if the harvested grapes are picked too early, underripe and overly sour. Adding sugar ensures that the wine is more balanced.
Chaptalisation is common in regions that are colder and where grapes may struggle to ripen. When they are harvested, the grapes contain lower sugar levels and higher acidity.
An important element we “taste” when drinking red wine is the presence of tannins. They are what makes your gums and tongue feel dry and are found in larger amounts in heavier red wines, made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Because of their importance in the profile of wine tasting, powdered tannin is sometimes added if the wine is produced is poorer than expected.
Changing the water levels in wine
If you are making millions of litres of wine, how could you get more after the grapes are picked? By adding water. It also allows producers to keep their wines under the maximum allowable tax bracket (15% in some countries). Whilst it’s a big no-no, it still goes on, particularly in hot countries where the grapes are riper and the juice is more concentrated.
The flip side to this is mass producers removing water from wine. They use an industrial process called reverse osmosis to increase the alcohol in the wine by removing water. This is simple if you have the right equipment; wine is forced against a membrane under high pressure and the smaller water molecules pass through the small holes in the membrane.
A note on pricing
Because all of our wines are made by small producers using organically farmed or certified grapes, you’ll notice this reflected in the price of our wines. They start around the £9 mark, with an average bottle price among our portfolio of between £12-15.
This was also covered by Matt Smith of Wildcard Wine Blog in his article: “sustainable and craft wines vs mass production” where he points out why there are health benefits and ethos in drinking wine from smaller producers who focus on the practice and quality of the wine, where they are just trying to make the best wine possible and make a living.
Organic fruits you can buy in the supermarket are always smaller, it is the chemicals that makes them grow unnaturally so large. Grapes are still fruit, so producers see less fruit weight produced per vine and therefore less juice per vine. This is why more natural, artisanal wines cost more money.
In summary, we work with producers that use grapes grown in a sustainable way with respect for the environment. The more the grape growers respect nature and rely on it rather than chemicals and industrial nasties, the better. That is our ethos and that is what you’ll expect from the producers we work with and the wines we import.