Whether you’re a connoisseur or a casual consumer on the weekend, we all have our reasons for choosing our favourite brand of wine.  If we’re honest, most of the time it revolves around taste.  We choose a grape variety that we like and stick to it, or we study the tasting notes and awards labels to find a new recommendation.  How often do we think about the hidden ingredients: the efforts of the workers, the added chemicals and environmental impact of the vineyard?

Tim Hunt from Ethical Consumer investigates what it takes to create a kinder chardonnay and the brands and retailers who are pioneering this work.

Here in the UK, wine is the most popular alcoholic drink of choice, with 60% of us choosing wine over other beverages, and 30 million of us regularly partaking in a glass of this popular tipple. Around 600-800 grapes are squeezed into every 75cl bottle of wine and, for the farmers and growers, the UK is an important market.  Sadly, these grapes don’t contribute to our five a day, but there is no reason why our consumption and purchasing decisions can’t be used for good.

The issues behind wine production

Recent investigations into large vineyards in South Africa by International Labour Organisation (ILO), in 2015, and three Scandinavian public service broadcasters, in 2016, once again highlighted the poor conditions and lack of rights for many labourers.

Workers were found to be living in cramped conditions in cardboard houses, surviving on less than $4 a day and, in some areas, being paid with alcohol.  Workers were also provided with inadequate protection against the pesticides being used, many of which are banned in the west.

This practice is not limited to South Africa and paints a dark reality behind the expensive bottles and clever branding.

ethical wines

Would you like some pesticides with that?

The harmful effects of pesticides aren’t limited to countries outside the EU.  Using 60,000 tonnes of pesticides a year, France is Europe’s biggest user, with 80% of its fungicides used in vineyards.  A documentary from French TV channel France 2, in 2016, found traces of pesticides in hair samples from children schooled near vineyards and reported a link to rising levels of autism and attention deficit disorder.

The pesticide problem may feel far removed from the UK but the EXCELL laboratory in Bordeaux has shown that in a study of 300 French wines, 90% showed traces of chemicals used during production.  Although these were present in trace amounts, the accumulation effect hasn’t been fully investigated.

Organic and fairtrade

There’s a simple way to challenge the problems within the wine industry and that is to drive change through our wallets. To use our purchasing power to shift our consumption to organic and Fairtrade brands.

Switching to organic wines is the ultimate way to protect workers, the environment and yourself from the harmful effects of pesticides.  Organic vineyards must support biodiversity and enhance soil health, whilst minimising the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers.  They use cover crops to attract natural predators of the pest species and build better soils with composts and manure.  Producers are also restricted on sulphur dioxide levels, great news if you have an allergy to this chemical.  And, of course, the wine must include no genetically modified crops.

Fairtrade or locally supported

As well as buying organic brands, you can further ensure that workers are protected by switching to fairtrade wines.  Already, 27 million litres of fairtrade wine are sold every year, and half of that is to the UK.  28 of the 49 fairtrade certified producers are in South Africa, actively tackling the very real problems mentioned above.  When you buy Fairtrade wine you are ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their crops and that worker rights are protected.  Each organisation must also set up a Fairtrade Premium to help develop their local communities.

As well as supporting developing nations, you can also consider shopping closer to home to cut down on the carbon footprint of your wine.  British winemakers are doing pretty well on the awards front at the moment, particularly when it comes to sparkling wines – if you’re a fan of the bubbles.

best organic wine

Our pick of the best

Fancy trying something new? Meet two of the best ethical wine producers:

Chilean producer Emiliana has vineyards throughout Chile and produces 100% organic and Fairtrade wines.  Emiliana farms use chickens as natural predators for insects and they connect their farms to open spaces to encourage pests to move away.  Emiliana has strong green credentials too, working to actively increase the carbon content in their soil and shifting to renewable energy generation on site.  The Fairtrade Premium is given to a committee made entirely of workers to decide how best to spend the money to benefit their community.

We recommend the Adobe Reserva and Novas Gran Reserva wine as our best buy brands.

The Stellar winery has a large array of brands from Dig This! to Running Duck, Moonlight and their original Stellar wines.  As South Africa’s largest producer of fine organic wines, they source their grapes from a number of independent, Fairtrade-certified farms along the Atlantic coastline.  26% of the company is owned by the workers and a not-for-profit organisation funds development projects on the farms and in local communities.

We highly recommend the Stellar and Moonlight brands.

If you fancy experimenting with a range of different organic and Fairtrade wines, we recommend online retailers Vintage Roots and Vinceremos.  Both stock 100% organic wines but also a range of organic beers, ciders and spirits too.

Check out our full wine report for more information on the wine industry, including vegan brands.

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