Green Green Wine

Canadian vintners are turning over a new leaf, producing great wine that happens to be sustainable.

TRADITIONALLY DRENCHED IN pesticides and fertilizers, Canada’s wineries are quietly shedding their bad environmental reputation, and opting for a deeper shade of green.

TRADITIONALLY DRENCHED IN pesticides and fertilizers, Canada’s wineries are quietly shedding their bad environmental reputation, and opting for a deeper shade of green.

Stephen Cipes, owner of BC’s Summerhill Pyramid Winery, believes it’s much more than a marketing ploy. “When I started in 1987, we wore protective suits and goggles to spray,” he recalls. “I was aghast that my children were exposed to those chemicals, which also washed into the lake. I immediately sought ways to operate in a more environmental way.” After eliminating the use of pesticides, and with plans to install geothermal and solar energy systems, Summerhill Winery is now the largest organic winery in the country.

Canada’s wine industry has blossomed over the past two decades, with sales skyrocketing from $5-million in 1990 to $130-million in 2006. Today, about 140 wineries in British Columbia, 120 in Ontario, 30 in Quebec and a smattering in other provinces make a wide spectrum of world-class reds and whites, including the flagship ice wine. And the growth continues.

To help wineries green their operations, the Wine Council of Ontario developed a proactive environmental program that supports research and management and pollution prevention. The BC Grapegrowers Association and the BC Wine Institute play a similar role in Western Canada.

A small but growing number of Canadian vineyards are now certified organic, which means that they have operated for three years without insecticides, herbicides or other non-allowed chemicals. The main problems are controlling weeds and pests, such as leaf hoppers and powdery mildew. “The answer is not in applying chemicals,” explains Heike Koch, co-owner of Frogpond Farm Winery, the only winery in Ontario certified organic for its vineyards and wine. “[It’s] in being preventative and growing healthier, hardier vines that are more resistant to mould and bugs.” Frogpond deals with leaf hoppers by having a balanced environment where many insect species thrive, including some that eat leaf hoppers. “We fertilize much less using a sea kelp mixture,” says Koch. “We don’t irrigate.”

Many other Canadian wineries use creative agricultural techniques for natural vineyard maintenance. Niagara’s Featherstone Estate Winery, for example, plants a mixture of legumes, brassica and rye grass between the grape rows to prevent weeds and soil parasites. The strategy returns nitrogen and organic material to the soil and reduces erosion by wind or water. The winery also allows about 40 sheep to graze in its vineyard. The flock eats the vines’ bottom leaves and exposes grapes to the sun and wind so that they ripen better and are more resistant to mould. Plus, a trained Harris’ hawk named Amadeus patrols the Featherstone vineyards, guarding against pesky birds that eat or damage the grapes. Amadeus has reduced the need for noise bangers, which are an understandable nuisance to neighbours and workers.

Technology also plays a role in the wine industry’s conversion toward sustainability. The latest sprayers, for example, reduce the amount of spray that is used and re-capture what doesn’t stick to the plants. Many wineries are harvesting by hand to prevent heavy machinery from compacting the soil and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Others are composting pomace (the skins, pulp, seeds and stems left after pressing) to be used as nutrients for the soil. Some of the compost is used to make “compost tea,” which is sprayed onto the vines to naturally control pests.

At the Osoyoos LaRose vineyard in Oliver, BC, a tractor with a blade-like contraption “hoes” the soil under the grape vines. “This year, we’re not using weed killer,” says LaRose winemaker Pascal Madevon. Previously, insecticide for leaf hoppers was sprayed regularly over the entire vineyard. Now, an eco-friendly chemical is applied only where and when it is necessary.

Water use for irrigation is a major environmental concern for Canada’s wine industry, particularly in the drier regions of Southern BC. But many wineries are coming up with creative solutions to deal with this ongoing problem. “Because our island suffers summer droughts, we must be extremely careful with water,” says Keith Watt of Morning Bay Vineyard & Estate Winery on Pender Island. To avoid lowering the water table by using a well, the winery dug a pond that fills during the winter rains. Morning Bay’s method of drip irrigation greatly decreases consumption by delivering an exact amount of water slowly and directly to the roots of grape vines.

Probably the biggest issue for organic wines is sulphites, a preservative that almost every winemaker uses to prevent oxidation and spoilage caused by bacteria. A small concentration occurs naturally, usually less than 10 parts per million (ppm). In the US, the addition of any further sulphites – beyond what is naturally occurring – means that the wine cannot be certified as organic. This has greatly impeded progress of the American organic wine industry.

In June 2009, Canada began following the European practice of allowing organic wine to contain a limited amount of sulphites – 100 ppm total sulphites. “The new standard means we will see many more organic wines in the future,” explains Dwight Brown, a consultant to the Pacific Agricultural Certification Society.

Canadian wineries are also moving to reduce the environmental footprints of their buildings and operations, including initiatives to reduce the amount of air-conditioning used to keep wine cool and at a constant temperature. Stratus Vineyards, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, was the first winery in Canada to receive silver-level LEED certification. The winery creatively uses gravity flow so that the fermenting grape juice is never pumped using an external power source. As an example of innovative building methods, BC’s Morning Bay was built partially into the side of a slope, using heavy concrete in order to provide thermal mass. No cooling system is needed and only one office is heated in winter.

“Sustainability is vital,” says Magdalena Kaiser-Smit, director of public relations for the Wine Council of Canada. “The wine industry is intimately connected to the natural environment; it is dependent on soil, water, sunshine and good management.” As Canada’s wineries are demonstrating, good management also includes innovation, and going green is a great way for the industry to uncork ingenuity.

For updates on the blossoming organic wine industry, plus a list of organic wineries world-wide, visit the Organic Wine Journal online.

Hans Tammemagi is a writer and an adjunct professor at the School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria. His most recent book is Air: Our Planet’s Ailing Atmosphere