The New Frontiers Of Sustainable Italian Wine

Organic, biodynamic, and PIWI are terms more and more commonly associated with Italian wine, but what’s behind them?

Part of the natural wine process: the production of native yeasts. Photo: Lorenzo Giacomella.

It is well known that, just as with food, Italian wine is appreciated in all corners of the world. Therefore, it is no surprise that wine exports are an important element in the Italian trade balance. In recent years, the market has benefited from a constant growth in consumption which brought Italian wine production to increase by 25% compared to the early part of the last decade. We are talking about revenue of about €7 million euros.

However, together with higher demand, producers have to meet the new consumers’ needs. People, in fact, expect more than ever environmental and social conditions to be met, both in production and marketing.

One only has to look at the shelves of Italy’s best-known supermarkets to realize how much the consumer’s eye is turned to new goods. In the world of wines and wine making, this translates into organic, biodynamic, fungus-resistant (or PIWI), and natural wines.

But what exactly are these products? And how, and to what extent, do they represent sustainable production and responsible consumption?

Organic and biodynamic Italian wine

Globally, almost seven hectares out of 10 in vineyards are cultivated organically. In Italy, the share jumps to an astonishing one out of four. Customers want products that respect the environment and that comply with the latest European regulations. Producers are answering.

In fact, the phenomenon follows a general trend outlined by the European agricultural regulations and it cannot help but grow in the years to come. The new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will incentivize even more organic production and other sustainable practices in order to reduce the massive environmental burdens carried by the present agrifood sector.

But also, we are learning that there is even more than organic wine. To those who are familiar, terms like biodynamic and PIWI are certainly not new. But for many, such terminology is often misunderstood and confused.

Biodynamics, for example, claims to go beyond organic production by employing the agricultural practices developed in the first decades of the century by a controversial figure: Rudolf Steiner. With his anthroposophical and spiritual vision, sometimes standing on pure credence or magic, Mr Steiner’s methods aim to treat the soil and the environment like a proper being. The approach is fascinating, but scientific evidence is lacking.

In many cases, following a biodynamic approach winemakers create ecosystems that mostly support themselves without any external additives. That is, the fertilizers are natural and produced within the own vineyard ecosystem resources by animals and other, more discussed, practices such as horn manure.

Recently, such practices have become very widespread in the Italian wine sector. Those who adopt biodynamic methods proclaim themselves as protectors of the environment and producers of good wine. However, despite the fact that many practices can be considered sustainable and ethical, biodynamic methods find strong skepticism in scientific circles.

As we said, biodynamic methods claim to go beyond biological practices. But while for organic cultivation, farmers comply with an accepted, strict and scientifically proven regulatory framework that prohibits, amongst others, the use of fertilizers, herbicides and chemical pesticides, biodynamic cultures may rely on esoteric and dubious practices (the already mentioned horn manure, for example).

Recently, a long contention has been solved in Italy regarding the inclusion of biodynamics into organic production that eventually, and fortunately, could not find its spot in the Italian regulatory framework for organic agriculture. But despite its extravagance, biodynamic methods still represent a way to to make wine that respects the environment. Is it a factor to justify a higher price? Maybe. Rather, a more appropriate question would be: for what are we willing to pay more when we buy a biodynamic product?

Fungus-resistent varieties, new PIWI wines

It’s a totally different story for PIWI wines. PIWI stands for pilzwiderstandfähig, the German word for fungus-resistant wine varieties. The more robust grapes are the result of a vine breeding method. Vines are developed in the vineyard without genetic engineering and present a high potential to be more sustainable than conventional varieties, even if organically produced.

The main benefits come from the lower requirement for fungicide treatments, a common shortcoming usually reported regarding organic production, and wine production in general. Through PIWI vines the environmental impacts over the entire life cycle of the vineyards are consistently reduced and some benefits might also be obtained from a nutritional point of view thanks to an improved phenolic composition. Science is investigating.

Finally, PIWI wines are commonly evaluated as equivalent or superior to the most known wines. However, no labels exist in the market for these varieties, and customers are still not confident with these kind of products. Most of the time they do not even know of their existence.

What about natural wines?

Together with the many (supposedly) sustainable wines, there is a niche that is slowly and silently extending its arms to fully embrace the Italian wine market: natural wine.

Picking up on Jana Godshall’s article on natural wine, they are gaining more space in the light of an ever-increasing demand for authentic products that are able to represent a territory through the taste, scent, and pleasure of a glass of fermented grape juice.

In Italy, the phenomenon is growing rapidly and it is more and more common to find natural wineries in major Italian wine producing areas. What makes natural wine different is indeed its rootedness in tradition, culture, community and a sustainable approach to production. All these are rooted in the French term terroir, the sense of place, a combination of climate, soil, tradition and terrain.

Another distinction is in the way wine is processed. While regular wine is usually cleaned by using isinglass, edible gelatin, ovalbumin, bentonite, tannin, and other substances for oenological use, natural wine usually doesn’t undergo any clarification process, no adjuvants or filtration. Also, no substances are added to correct imperfections in taste.

Consumers are expected to adapt to the product, rather than the other way round. With natural wines, homogenization does not take place and, in the end, wine is as it is expected to be: opaque, with remnants, unique and real.

Differently from organic production, natural wine does not have any disciplinary code nor labeling coding. Their production is more a handcrafted practice in the hands of small producers for a niche of enthusiasts. If you will ever find yourself in the world of natural wines you might be astonished by the variety of products and the community around it. It’s still an open debate if these wines are more or less sustainable and healthier than others.

The worst choice?

Now the difficult question: are conventional agriculture and wine the worst choice?

Well, contrary to many expectations there is not a straightforward answer. While my sympathy for natural, organic and PIWI wines, and winemakers, makes me inclined to support the position of all local production and alternatives to conventional methods, the phenomenon deserves a more critical look. And the answer is: it depends.

In recent studies, the adequacy of organic production to provide food to a global population is scientifically under investigation. Its validity as a healthier and more sustainable way to produce is tested, and the results are not as straightforward as you might think.

While on a small scale, and for most of the vineyards probably, conventional production tends to be more polluting and harmful, on a larger scale this differentiation between organic and conventional agriculture becomes feeble. In fact, if we look at ‘per unit’ impacts, organic systems might require more land, and cause more acidification and eutrophication resulting in a higher environmental impact.

The next time you buy a good bottle of wine, take into consideration what choice you have. Be aware that there are no simple answers when it comes to sustainable and healthy food and wine. Ask yourself what you really want, what are you willing to pay, and what are you actually paying if you go for alternatives to conventional wine. As it turns out, there even more reasons why you shouldn’t judge a wine by its bottle.