“You should have written us a letter.” A completely black-clad nun looks at us, somewhat suspiciously. “That’s a bit difficult from the sea,” we explain. We are standing in front of the Solan Monastery in the Languedoc, a two-hour drive from Marseille. Seventeen orthodox sisters grow grapes to produce their own wine, with respect for mother nature. It would be a great starting point for our search for sustainable wine, if they let us in…
After a short conclave the nuns receive us with homemade delicacies. The sisters explain that they are guided by faith, also in viticulture. “Preserving God’s creation drives us.” A beautiful philosophy, but how does it work in practice?
“We do not use chemical pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizer. Their production depletes the earth, and its use poisons plants and soil. Nature has its own ways of luring or repelling insects and enriching the soil. For example, we plant herbs. The smells and substances they emit are advantageous for the vines. This way we keep harmful insects at bay and we attract birds that eat parasites.”
By cleverly using the properties of different plants, trees and herbs, the nuns aim to achieve a natural balance. But that does not happen by itself. The sisters admit that it is very labor-intense. Thankfully, they can rely on volunteers to help them make wine this way.
Traditions and Principles
The average wine producer mainly wants to make a profit. To find out if this can be done with sustainably produced wine, we visit the family business Domaine de La Gasqui, near Avignon. Owner Jean Feraud shares the family history with us. “My grandfather planted some of these vines. When I took over the estate from my father, chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer became in vogue. But I never started using them.”
Did the convenience and higher revenues not attract him? “No, we mainly saw health risks for ourselves. The poison also kills many good soil organisms. Moreover, it ends up in the groundwater, and therefore in our food chain.” Can he compete with winemakers who do use chemical aids? “It is mainly more work. At the harvest we only pick the ripe grapes, we leave the rest to ripe a bit further. It renders a better wine. We also keep a close eye on our vines: only when we see mold or an insect infestation, we spray with natural products. In the long term this is better for the yield, because the soil remains healthy. To differentiate our wines and help our business, we use the Agriculture Biologique logo.” Jean’s method may be safer in many ways, his vineyard still has enemies: wild boar from the nearby forest. Last year they ate half of the grapes!
Jean continues the tour on his estate indoors. He explains the entire wine-making process from grape to bottle. The entire process is done in-house: from pressing of grapes, ripening, filling the bottles to the labelling and packaging. We’re glad to see that only natural cork is used as stoppers, a sustainable solution we documented in Portugal. Of course, we cannot leave before we taste some of Jean’s fine wines. Delicious!
Next stop: Château Margüi, in the heart of Provence. When the current owner purchased the castle fifteen years ago, the surrounding soil lay fallow. “The soil was suitable for organic agriculture because pesticides and herbicides had never been used”, our hostess Elodie Morel explains. He saw a chance for success in both the domestic and the export markets: “The Agriculture Biologique logo on our bottles makes our wines more attractive.”
These owners don’t seem to focus only on financial gain, but care about nature at least as much. Elodie explains that the company is experimenting to work even more naturally. “We only use a quarter of the permitted quantities of pesticides. Cows and sheep help with the fertilization. And every second strip between the vines is green. There is room for insects and other plants that are good for the soil. We would prefer that everything is coordinated, as with permaculture. But we are not that far yet.”
Also here we are toured around the entire wine making process. Elodie explains that the organic certification not only provides strict rules for the growing of the grapes, but also to the additives that may be used during the making of the wine. “The use of sulphite, a conservation additive, is restricted”. In the tasting room / shop, awards that Château Margüi has won over the years prove that they have succeeded in combining organic wine-making with great taste.
It has become clear to us that organic wine is significantly better for nature and health, but to what extent is it really sustainable? We ask Pietro Zucchetti, director of the Italian Permaculture Institute. His estate in Piedmont’s Scagnello, was set up according to permaculture principles. “Organic farming is a step in the right direction, but still based on a monoculture. Planting the same crops close together makes them vulnerable. Fungi, insects and diseases can spread quickly.”
Pietro leads us around his estate. “The ecological design principles which define permaculture are based on cooperation with nature. A smart combination of plants makes artificial additives unnecessary. This creates a productive, shock-resistant and therefore sustainable system.” Pietro shows that his grapes are surrounded by rosemary, sage and lavender. “The herbs retain water and repel insects. And as soon as these roses show a fungal infection, I spray the vines with a mix of algae or compost. The management of pests is an integral part of the design of the vineyard.”
The location is tailored to the environment. The forest behind the estate stops the rising warm air. The grapes have been planted on the western slope of the hill, making them benefit from the less intense afternoon and evening sun. A channel runs between the vines that divides the rainwater over the entire hill. The whole system is ingenious; clearly a lot of thought and work was put into it.
A votre santé!
Manual work and care for health and nature are the main themes that emerge from our tour in search of sustainable wine. As a result, organic wines are often somewhat more expensive. In addition, producers have to pay for the organic certification. Anyone who buys organic wine therefore indirectly invests in nature and people.
While organic farming certainly is a significant step in the right direction, more needs to be done to make wine truly sustainable. Permaculture can help further reduce the need for additives as well as increase biodiversity. The use of renewable energy in production and transport, recycled packaging materials and natural additives such as ink, glue and cork can further reduce the environmental impact. Finally, we believe the cooperative way of working would be the best choice in terms of fair labor and thus social sustainability. Nevertheless, by buying organic wine, as a consumer you give wine farmers an important signal: work more sustainably. Cheers!