Why should we talk about sustainable vineyards?

23 Feb 2024

Francesco Sottile, Slow Food Board member, gives a great analysis of the viticulture world, looking at the current climate crisis and the environmental situation vineyards faced in 2023 and what they could expect this year.


The magnitude of the present climate crisis

Within a general framework in which agriculture and environment have been deliberately pitted against one another, it is more complex than ever these days to speak about sustainability and the reduction of the use of pesticides. As has been said on more than one occasion, this is the wrong route to follow, for if environmental protection and agricultural production fail to join forces, it will never be possible to set into motion ecological conversion, so urgently needed today. The magnitude of the present climate crisis was unimaginable just ten years ago, and if we resort to cheap tricks to cover up the responsibilities of factory farming models now, we will have to steel ourselves for even more complex effects in the future.

For winegrowing, 2023 was a year in which environmental conditions put a strain on vine-dressers. Strangled by a combination of drought and fungal infections, they faced an unprecedented challenge. There is no evidence to show that the ones who relied on synthetic chemicals solved the problem more easily than others—quite the contrary. This year, 2024, promises to be one of worrying uncertainty: it is raining less and less, here has been no snow, average temperatures are high, and some vineyards look as if they have not had the rest they need.

Is it still possible to imagine a wine supply chain without recourse to pesticides?

In this context, is there any point today in talking about sustainable vineyards? Is it still possible to imagine a wine supply chain without recourse to pesticides? The numbers are certainly there to help us weigh up the situation. The fact is that, apace with knowledge and expertise, organic winegrowing has increased in the last 20 years by more than 10% a year worldwide, and Europe is playing a decisive role, accounting for more than 25% of world organic wine production. Spain, France and Italy have made hefty investments in the sector, a policy that has been warmly welcomed by the markets.

This means that a different model does exist (it will be there for all to see at BolognaFiere during the Slow Wine Fair from 25 to 27 February) and sustainable wine-growing based on the principles of agroecology is tangible proof of the fact. If we really do wish to reverse the climate disaster, it is on this model that we must found our future vision, supporting vine-dressers who mindfully stop using pesticides and herbicides and turn to nature instead, respecting the soil and valorizing biodiversity; who put their trust in native grape varieties long abandoned because they failed to meet technological standards but which still display an exceptional capacity to adapt to the environment. There is thus no need to resort to innovations—such as the latest GMOs developed in laboratories—and risk forcing vine-dressers to make a leap in the dark, thereby endangering the biodiversity that has been preserved with such difficulty for decades.

The model is called Agroecology

But first and foremost, agroecology means biodiversity, in terms not only of choice of grape varieties but also of rejecting the monoculture that risks seriously jeopardizing ecological balance. Hedges and multifunctional systems, fruit trees, spontaneous vegetation – these are all vital tools that enable vine-dressers to consolidate the presence of wild fauna and useful insects, strategic for organic pest control in the vineyard—all to the benefit of sustainability and agroecology.

Strategic vision thus begins in the vineyard and ends in the cellar, where technology has to combine with respect for nature in a process that assimilates the local area, embraces it and accompanies it into every glass. This is the system that allows agroecology first to help vine-dressers, then consolidates it in the cellar, where the production season really ends. Dropping synthetic chemicals is the only way to invest in the future.

If we wish to acknowledge the fragility of our vine-dressers and support them in this moment in time, we have to give them the tools they need to be on the side of the angels, ensuring that agriculture and environment are on the same scale and combine to counter the climate crisis with authentic agroecological models.

Francesco Sottile, Slow Food Board Member

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