This may sound like an odd question: Have you ever bought a wine because it was sustainable? Me neither. I'd bet most of you have little clue what the term signifies in relation to fermented grape juice. But, from where I sit, this much is clear: The wine industry thinks it's the Next Big Thing.
"Sustainability" is pervasive in countless self-congratulatory press releases I receive from wineries the world over. It's the topic of conferences, research papers and consumer surveys. Many in the industry believe it's not enough for wine today to taste good and come at a fair price; it's got to be virtuous to distinguish itself from the competition.
Personally, I'm not sure, much as I applaud the movement – and there's much to applaud. Wineries committed to the cause are planting native trees, shrubs and grasses in and around vineyards, in some cases going so far as to create new wetlands, all to foster biodiversity. They're filtering and reclaiming waste water and monitoring soil moisture to irrigate only when needed. Though not necessarily organic in the strict sense, they're committing to reducing inorganic fertilizers and pesticides to the bare minimum in order to spare the soil and health of their vineyard workers.
Many are installing solar panels and windmills to generate clean energy. At Jackson Family Wines, the huge California-based company that includes such brands as Kendall-Jackson and Matanzas Creek, for example, on-site solar energy across nine wineries has offset more than 1,400 homes' worth of annual electricity use. The same winery, which employs a full-time "director of sustainability," has increased minimum base pay for full-time employees to $15 (U.S.) an hour, which beats the average Canadian minimum hourly wage of less than $12.
The list goes on, and various independent certification agencies have sprung up much as they have in the worlds of organic and biodynamic farming. New Zealand, for example, has its own body called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (you'll see a silver-fern logo on back labels of certified wines).
The S-word has become something of a winegrowing religion in that environmentally conscious nation, which is why I've focused on New Zealand selections below, all certified sustainable. As of last year, 98 per cent of the country's vineyard area was certified sustainable. But the list of virtuous vintners adopting some, if not all, of the concept's principles includes such champions as Montes in Chile, Tinhorn Creek and Burrowing Owl in British Columbia, Southbrook in Ontario and L'Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia.
It's great for the environment, workers and in many cases profits, too. But do consumers care? Probably a lot less than the industry as a whole would hope for. The problem lies with the cumbersome word itself, I think. Frankly, it's vague, at least in relation to wine. With fishing or forestry, there's simple clarity to the concept. "Sustainable" fishing basically means harvesting only species that are not under threat of extinction. For example: the pollock in a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, which bears the sustainability seal of the international Marine Stewardship Council (yes, even McDonald's has jumped on the bandwagon). Wine, though? It's made from grapes, and in recent years such countries as Australia, France, the United States and even New Zealand have wrestled with gluts rather than shortages. Wine grapes are about as endangered as overpriced restaurant entrées.
It's going to take a lot of campaigning to persuade consumers that fermented fruit is not an inherently renewable resource. Or maybe it's just going to take a lot of very good sustainably certified wine to get us on board, paired with a sizzling-hot Filet-O-Fish, of course.
Pencarrow Pinot Noir 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
So much going on for the money, and that's saying a lot where pinot noir is concerned. Medium-bodied and concentrated, with blackberry and blueberry-jam fruit, woodsy smoke, beetroot and pepper. It's all set against lightly dusty tannins for structure. Remarkably balanced. Available in Ontario.
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 20 Cash Block Sauvignon Blanc 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $32.95
The aroma is big on herbs and, less so, an inviting smoky quality reminiscent of spent forest fire. On the palate, it seems lean at first thanks to the vibrant greenery, then the fleshy texture supplies weight, carrying notes of grass, jalapeno, lemongrass, succulent pineapple and peach. Perfect for medium-weight fish on the grill, such as halibut or sea bass, or pan-seared trout. Available in Ontario.
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-bodied and juicy, with tropical-fruit and peach characters carried on a weighty mid-palate. So juicy it somehow tastes wetter than most wines, odd as that may sound. Gently chalky, with a stony-mineral nuance. Available in Ontario at the above price, $29.99 in British Columbia (on sale for $27.99 till June 3), various prices in Alberta.
Old Coach Road Sauvignon Blanc 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Here's a cooler-fruit version of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It's from Nelson, a small region to the northwest of the big Marlborough zone on the South Island. It's zippy, peppery and razor-sharp with lime-like acidity – a wine-world answer to the margarita cocktail, only without the sugar. It would sing with fish tacos. Available in Ontario.
Nautilus Chardonnay 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $27.95
A full-bodied, lavish chardonnay done right. Fermented with indigenous yeast, it's ripe and buttery, redolent of pineapple, with caramel and vanilla flavours lifted by good acidity and a toasty-charred essence on the long finish. A Californian chardonnay of this calibre could easily fetch $45. Available in Ontario.
Pask Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Merlot Malbec 2013, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Medium-bodied, very dry and Médoc-like, showing well-proportioned characters of blackcurrant, mint, cedar and black olive. Elegant and almost French, if that isn't a redundancy. Beats most Bordeaux for the money. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in Manitoba.
Marisco The King's Thorn Pinot Gris 2016, New Zealand
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Medium-bodied and fleshy, almost but not quite off-dry, with ripe pear and a nuance of gingery spice. Think of it as full-figured pinot grigio. Available in Ontario.