Organic wine, biodynamic processes, HVE and VDC certification. These terms are increasingly prevalent in the wine industry, as those farming the land see the imperative to return to practices that work in harmony with nature, whilst merchants recognise the growing consumer desire to buy responsibly.
Sip co-founder and resident expert, Peter Crawford, has spent more than his fair share of time in Champagne (around 50 visits at last counting) and even owns his own small parcel of land. So, who better to unravel the terminology and outline his views on the sustainable future of Champagne?
The first thing to say, is that not all certification and labelling in the wine industry is created equal. What’s labelled ‘organic wine’ in one country or by one organisation, may not qualify for another. However, as we are purely focussed on Champagne here at Sip, we’ll direct our attention to this region alone. The second thing I’d like to point out is that I do not favour Champagnes that are organic, biodynamic, HVE or VDC certified. I choose the cuvées we stock on their merit alone; it just so happens that many of the growers we work with are at the forefront of natural winemaking techniques and happen to create exceptional Champagne in an ecological way.
What is organic wine? Is biodynamic farming better? And does it mean it’s sustainable?
Organic processes in winemaking largely focus on grapes being chemical free with as few synthetic materials added in the wine as possible. Biodynamic winemaking goes a little further, with producers embracing the principles of the father of biodynamics, Dr Rudolf Steiner, who advocated pseudo-scientific methods that eschewed the use of pesticides in winemaking in favour of compost, and advised planting to a calendar that follows astrological configurations. When we say sustainable viticulture, we are talking about a holistic approach that takes into account care for the land alongside waste reduction and limiting environmental or social harms in the winemaking process.
There is no single sustainable classification system for wine in France, but two programmes bear mentioning – a sustainable agriculture system favoured by a small group of wineries and a regional sustainability programme specific to the Champagne region.
Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE)
The French Ministry of Agriculture developed the Haute Valeur Environnementale or HVE certification in 2001. It’s a three-tiered system that encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phyto-sanitary strategy (i.e. measures for the control of plant diseases, reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertiliser inputs, and improving water management. There are three levels a producer can attain, and only once they reach the top tier are they able to emblazon their bottles with the label ‘Haute Valeur Environnementale’.
The main criticism directed at HVE is that it is too lax in elimination of chemical inputs in the vineyard. But, it does actively promote biodiversity, which, in my eyes, is one of the fundamental issues faced by the Champagne region.
Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC)
In the early part of the noughties the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, sponsored an environmental assessment of viticulture and winemaking in the region and developed an action plan off the back of this. It highlighted the following key points that needed addressing:
- Reduction of environmental risks to human health, particularly those arising from the use of agricultural inputs
- The preservation and enhancement of terroir, biodiversity and landscapes
- Accountability for and management of water, wastewater, by-products and waste
- Confronting the energy/climate challenge
Further to this, in 2014, the Champagne Bureau – becoming increasingly worried about temperature rises in a typically ‘cool-climate’ region – launched its own sustainable winegrowing certification scheme, under the Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC) label.
To be eligible for a VDC certificate, a company must comply with 60 critical standards, 31 major standards and 20 out of 34 minor standards. It takes approximately three years to acquire certification and is re-checked every 18 months. It’s tough and, much like with a Michelin star, there is no resting on your laurels! As of 2019 approximately 15% of the land in Champagne had been certified, so there is still some way to go to meet the Comité’s ambitious target of 100% certified producers by 2030.
Whilst 15% may seem quite poor and, it is fair to say that Champagne has typically lagged behind other winemaking areas when it comes to organics and biodynamics, it is important to point out that the Champagne region sits at the very edge of viable winemaking. So, to create a sustainable harvest and work with HVE/VDC methods is far more challenging than in other warmer regions of France. As such, it’s important that we are not too critical of Champagne growers who are not presently certified; in my experience, all the producers we work with care greatly about the local environment and many who are currently lacking official certification are either on their way to accreditation or are finding the balance between working sustainably without sacrificing the quality of their end product.
That being said, if you want to back some champions of sustainability and add some of the best organic Champagne on the market to your cellar, then take a look at our new Organic Champagne Exploration Case.