There is a small but significant difference between sustainable and ethical production. The former, which is the current buzzword, concerns itself with environmental factors. And of course, it’s imperative that we question producers about the impact of their carbon footprint (and what they are doing about it). But we should also be looking at the societal impact too. After all, wine is a pleasure to drink, so why would we want to taint it with unpleasant practices?
These days, certifications such as Fairtrade, B Corp and Fair for Life rate companies on aspects of their social responsibility, from sustainable wages to community impact, training opportunities and even how good communication is between those on the ground and in head office.
Walter Carol is export director for La Riojana, the largest Fairtrade winery and co-op in Argentina: ‘Tilimuqui is a little town in the middle of the desert, where our growers live and work. It’s 40 degrees in the summer and they didn’t have running water in their houses. Two miles from town they have a pump but it’s broken.’
Carol is describing the moment when La Riojana decided on what was to be its first Fairtrade Premium project. This is an additional sum of money, on top of the selling price of Fairtrade wines, that the Fairtrade Foundation gives to farmers and workers so that they can democratically decide on how best to spend it.
Needing 100,000 US dollars to install the pump, Co-op (the supermarket, which listed two La Riojana wines at the time) offered to match the premium of around $1 a case. The money was raised in eight months.
‘Once we had the water facility installed, we knew the town well enough to know there was only one school, a primary school, and one teacher was going through three classrooms that were divided by a screen,’ says Carol. ‘After primary school, the only option for the children was to start working at the vineyards and so with little money and nothing else to do, you get couples at 18 or 19 years old with children.’
And so, La Riojana set out plans for a second project: a secondary school. ‘It started with 30 children and now has 550 students from 10 different villages. It’s completely free, has a kitchen, dining room and experimental field with olives, grapes, sheep and chickens,’ he says. ‘It’s created a whole circle, because now we have buses going in and out, kiosks and restaurants in the village.’
Reflecting on why ethical practices matter as much as sustainability, Carol says the following: ‘Fairtrade is an opportunity for people to do something on their own but for that you need basics: water, education and health.’
The burden for change, however, shouldn’t just be shouldered by those on the frontline. Based in the UK, Thomson and Scott produce de-alcoholised wines under the ‘Noughty’ label, sourcing grapes from producers in Germany and South Africa.
‘The first thing we did was get our outside investors to agree to us changing our shareholder agreement to say our ethics would play a part alongside profit,’ says Amanda Thomson, CEO and founder of Thomson and Scott, which is also a B-Corp certified business.
‘I noticed how little effort people in the wine business were putting into it [sustainability and ethics], so I thought that [becoming B Corp] would make us an incredible role model. Each year we become more successful and have a bigger impact; it gives us a much bigger platform.’
The B-Corp certification takes into consideration five pillars – governance, workers, community, environment and customers – and its holistic approach speaks to Thomson’s principles and informs all her decisions, including who she works with.
‘We have to look at each thing continually,’ says Thomson. ‘Had I found incredible partners who could make incredible wines for me and tick other boxes but didn’t have those same goals, I wouldn’t have launched and scaled with them.’
‘I want to leave the world a better place,’ she adds. And don’t we all?
Here are four recommended wines that are fairly traded or certified for following the best ethical practices.
Four top ethical wines to try
Weinert, Carrascal, Malbec, Argentina
Pouring this out might have you checking the label to ensure it’s the right bottle; a dark cherry red rather than the quintessential Malbec purple. Dark cherry, plum and violets on the nose with rounded tannins. A softer style of Malbec but just as juicy and easy to drink. This is Fair for Life certified.
KWV, The Mentors, Chenin Blanc, South Africa
KWV has several certifications, including from the global fair trade body FLO-CERT and the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WEITA). Barrel fermentation with nine months of lees contact and then an additional nine months of maturation in oak adds a lovely texture and creaminess to this Chenin Blanc. The nose is bursting with stone fruit, lime, white florals and minerality, which all come through on the palate alongside fresh acidity and lots of personality.
Chateau Maris, Les Planels, Cru La Livinière, France
This Syrah from the Languedoc comes from the first vineyard in Europe to obtain B-Corp status. It is reportedly one of the five most environmentally friendly wineries in the world, and is another reason that La Livinière is now an appellation to know. Full in body, colour and flavour, it has notes of black fruits, liquorice, spice and chocolate.
Familia Deicas, Atlántico Sur Albariño, Canelones, Uruguay
As in Galicia, the grapes for this Uruguayan wine are grown near the coast to ensure freshness. Time in tank with lees that have been stirred occasionally give this refreshing wine an additional layer of texture and interest. Riper citrus fruits on the nose, such as mandarin and tangerine, sit alongside white stone fruit. The producer has certification from a SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit).
Aleesha Hansel is an ambassador for the Fairtrade Foundation.