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Long read: Organic wine, climate crisis and what it means for brand identity

Published:  04 November, 2021

With COP26 pressing the urgency for action on climate crisis, Denomination’s CEO Rowena Curlewis stresses the need for producers to build change into their business strategies and examines what this means for packaging and identity.

The case for organic wine is growing, but will producers and consumers stick to their guns when the stakes are high? A recently released report from OIV showed that 63 countries worldwide now have at least 1000ha of organically managed vineyards and that there is currently a high growth rate of 8% of vineyards converting to organic. This same report indicates that there is an expectation for the organic trend to fluctuate, with movement in “both upward and downwards direction, since the conversion of a vineyard to organic cultivation is often complex and requires considerable amount of adaption”.

The wine industry has a responsibility to implement organic strategies into its viticulture and winemaking processes, and businesses and brands need to stand firm and stick their heels into the ground to make these changes. The case for going organic should not be driven by trend, so much as seen as necessity to protect the environment and decrease the industry’s carbon footprint. This necessity is first and foremost reflected in current climate changes which, as we have seen this past year, have dramatically impacted wine production.

Take the wine production in Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example, where winemakers have harvested the same grapes for generations – spring frosts and summer rains radically impacting the viticulture are affecting the produce, fundamentally changing the quality and taste of wine in these regions. This is a huge challenge for winemakers whose products are defined by their origins and traditions, not to mention the consumer market for these wines. With climate change effecting the yields of crops so dramatically, it is tempting for businesses to put aside their goal to go climate neutral and organic certified.

But if you don’t build climate change into your strategy as a wine producer, you are in for a rude awakening. Wine is an industry which totally relies on the climate – water to grow the grapes, sun to ripen them, cold weather to kill off pests over the winter. Climate crisis alerts are coming thick and fast signalling the lack of biodiversity – key to a vineyard’s self-regulating ecosystem. Maintaining a healthy relationship with the environment is not only key for the planet but also the longevity of businesses that rely on climate being consistent with the way they produce wine.

Organic is the way forward, and winemakers should be looking at how to couple this with other carbon reduction measures in the vineyard. The transition to reduced-carbon viticulture can be speedily made on the way to organic. What does this mean in practice? More bushes or hedgerows for biodiversity, planting weeds and wildflowers (not removing them), including ponds and other shallow waterbodies packed with aquatic plants in vineyard design. All of this helps in the sequestration of carbon as well as increasing biodiversity, ultimately leading to a lower carbon footprint per bottle.

Producing wine organically is a responsibility the industry has on the environment. The global changes we are seeing already will only increase in urgency and wine producers will be forced to adapt to these climate changes. Winemakers will also need to be prepared for changes in government regulation which, due to the rate of climate crisis, will become tighter and more restrictive on the industry in the following years.

The wine industry faces far greater financial struggles if businesses don’t do this – if climate change isn’t a central focus of your business, your vines aren’t a central focus – it’s that simple.

Organic wine

The standards as to what constitutes ‘organic’ vary from country to country. To be labelled organically certified you need third party certification that the grapes used in the production of wine are 100% organically grown and free from the use of chemicals. Differences between different certification bodies often comes down to how many sulphites can be added to the wine. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture barely allows the use of sulphites whereas the EU allows for up to 100 parts per million of sulphites.

Rather than seeing these regulations as an obstacle for wine production and wine business, these restrictions can encourage innovation and experimentation in winemaking. With sustainability as a goal for businesses in this industry, winemakers will have to be more flexible in their growing and production processes. This will help winemakers prepare for a future where going organic might be a necessity for all.

Packaging and identifying organic wine

The difference in regulations for certifying organic wine can be confusing, especially from a consumer perspective. This demonstrates the need for clear packaging and brand identity. A vineyard that uses some organic products or farming techniques may not have the governing body’s seal of approval but still might market the wine as made with ‘organically grown grapes’. These nuances can be hard to grasp, and make it harder for a consumer, wanting to make conscious-buying decisions, to enter the market confidently.

The market for organic swelled significantly during the pandemic as people drank more premium wine due to the desire to improve health, quality of life and the environment.

However, in order to continue this trend, winemakers will need to market organic in a way that reaches a wider consumer base – one that goes beyond its niche. This requires brand clarity and education. It also means differentiating from ‘biodynamic’ and ‘natural’ wines. The more transparency around these terms and behind wine production processes, the more trust people will place in these brands, thus cultivating a desire to purchase organic.

Trust is key and sadly there has been a fair amount of greenwashing that can be off-putting and damage the market for organic. Winemakers who elude their consumers and fail to be transparent will suffer more in the long run.

Raising awareness

Denomination has seen a significant increase in the number of organic brands that we are creating. Recognising the change in consumer purchasing behaviours and attitudes, combined with retailers across the globe committing to organic and climate positive brands, organic briefs are flooding in. From the likes of No Evil, Barefoot, Il Villagio and Farm Hand, to the latest El Cuidador from Spain, launched in September. The name El Cuidador, meaning the carer or keeper, speaks to the attitudes behind organic viticulture.

Brands shouldn’t just talk about their green story, they must walk the walk in every way. Using green credentials but also implementing real actions will attract more consumers and in turn, put more pressure on other wineries to also up their game. This can only be positive, for our industry and for the world.