France’s “High Environmental Value” Certification : What does it mean and where could it take us ?

The French Ministry of Agriculture is trying out a new system of certification for agricultural operations to promote their engagement in environmentally respectful practices. The three-tiered system, originally introduced in 2011, encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phytosanitary strategy (read: reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management. Once an operation has attained the third and most stringent level of the certification process, it is deemed worthy of the title “High Environmental Value” (“Haute Valeur Environnementale” or HVE). The authorities are in the process of establishing an official label that producers with this status could display on their products and marketing materials, an advancement that the trade organization Vignerons Indépendants de France has been fighting for since 2013. They have begun to diffuse an unofficial label among their members crowned with HVE status, and have received much positive feedback about the system from members.

HVE-logo-1009x1024The “test-run” logo for the Haute Valeur Environnementale certification currently used by winemakers associated with the Vignerons Indépendants trade organization

But what is the relationship between the Haute Valeur Environnementale certification and being organic (in French, “Biologique” or “bio” for short)? Is it as rigorous? How much confidence can the consumer have in products made within one system or the other? Does the presence of this alternative pathway discourage producers from converting to organic?

100212_EU_Organic_Logo_IsoC

The official European Organic logo, on organic wine (since 2012) and wine produced from certified organic grapes (before 2012). 

These are complicated questions, but a recent conversation with a representative from Vignerons Indépendants shed some light on the situation.

It is important to note that the group Vignerons Indépendants is comprised of about 25% organic producers, and the popular image of wineries that are part of this organization is one of a relatively eco-conscious, small-scale producer. But in recent years, they have noticed a slowing in the organic-conversion trend, to the point that the numbers have stagnated. Producers are not backing out of organic, but not many are converting any more either. This suggests a saturation of the pool of potentially organic producers, either because those who were interested have already converted, the cost-benefit analysis no longer seems favorable to would-be converts, or a decrease in the perceived demand for organic products. All of which are important factors to consider in the analysis of HVE versus organic.

  • The two certifications are different, but each has its pros and cons. HVE is less strict in terms of the elimination of chemical inputs in the vineyard, but it emphasizes other points, such as the promotion of biodiversity, which, while it can be an important value for organic producers, is left out of the regulations and thus can easily be glossed over. This biodiversity element is particularly important, as we tend to forget that vineyards are a monoculture as nefarious as the rest, and we have lost much of the savoir faire, commonplace only a few generations ago, about maintaining biodiversity in a way that benefits all of the crops and animals, as well as the surrounding environment.
  • Organic certification is clearly not a panacea, as its requirements to not suit every producer, nor every consumer. Haute Valeur Environnementale provides an alternative pathway, more adaptable, perhaps, than traditional organic certification, which still moves in an environmentally friendly direction and promotes a more environmentally conscious agricultural approach.
  • Though it is hard to believe for those of us living in a world where Whole Foods has popularized what was once shunned as a crunchy granola lifestyle, there still exists a fair amount of hostility towards organic agriculture, and particularly towards organic wine. Many winemakers report that advertising as organic can close more doors than it opens – despite major advances, the organic label has not been able to entirely shed its reputation of faulty, unclean wines that are garishly overpriced. Organic wine remains a niche market, with certain customers who seek it out specifically, but also with others who’s primary requirement is that their wine be “ABO” (anything but organic). HVE thus opens an alternative route for winemakers to put their environmental concerns into action and be recognized for it (as opposed to converting to organic and not advertising it, which many do, but seems like a sort of defeat if some producers still feel the need to hide such an accomplishment and major investment), without attaching themselves to the still partially stigmatized organic label.
  • There are several drawbacks to the HVE system that, paradoxically, work in its favor in an important way. It is new and relatively unknown – it is gaining a reputation among producers, but because no label exists, the consumer is left out of the loop about this relatively complicated-seeming certification. BUT, the fact that this certification is essentially unknown forces producers to redirect their discourse. Instead of talking up their list of environmental labels that they can stick onto their labels, they are naturally driven to orient their rhetoric towards their actual practices and philosophy, a more human and authentic approach that tends to be highly effective in selling wine to buyers with an interest in environmental values.
  • That said, will the imminent creation of an official label diminish this effect? Perhaps a little bit, but the process will be a long one, and in the meantime producers will have, ideally, honed their practice- and principle-based discourse and built up a customer base that shares their environmentally respectful values. And the positive effects of the label outweigh the negative, as its “recognizability” will ultimately help to legitimize the approach, and if, like the organic label, adds value to the product, this increased value may become another motivation for producers to participate in the certification process.

No one is claiming that HVE is a perfect solution (but what is? Organic certainly has its limitations as well), but it is definitely a step in the right direction. It is a worth keeping watch on how the system evolves with the introduction of the official label (though whether there are already so many logos that the consumer is lost and no longer finds meaning in any of the is certainly a subject for debate), and other countries should be closely watching this system as a potential model for environmental certification systems on their own soil, learning from and improving on this French test run as it grows and evolves.

actu_Logos

A sampling of the profusion of environmental logos seen on French products, from http://eco-industries.poitou-charentes.fr/thematiques-et-projets.php?p=eco-conception&annee=2013

For more information (unfortunately, all in French), see the following links :

http://agriculture.gouv.fr/Certification-environnementale-exploitations

http://www.anfovi.com/innovation_et_technologie/haute_valeur_environnementale_hve/actualit%C3%A9s_hve.Anfovi

http://www.anfovi.com/innovation_et_technologie/certification_haute_valeur_environnementale_hve/certification_haute_valeur_environnementale_hve.Anfovi

And a French document detailing 50 different environmental logos :
http://www.ademe.fr/sites/default/files/assets/documents/14-10_7706_logos_environnementaux.pdf

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WAC 2014 Recap Series : Legislation and the definition of wine’s “natural state”

How much does legislation influence our perception of what a product should be?  Wine represents a particularly fine example of this surreptitious legal sway over our intellect, particularly in France, where its production has been closely regulated since the end of the 19th century.

The evolution of this legislation was the subject of a presentation at WAC 2014 by Alain Chatelet, of the DFCCRF (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes – General council on competition, consumption and the repression of fraud).

The story begins in 1889, when the French “Griffe law” defined wine as a product of the fermentation of fresh grapes, and nothing else.  Good ol’ strawberry wine?  Not so fast – if it is made from strawberries, it is, by definition, not a wine, at least under French jurisdiction.  A few years later, a French law banned any practices that served to modify the “natural state” of a wine.  The intention here was not to establish some early grain of the natural wine movement, but rather to protect the consumer against fraud.  At the time, all products that strayed from the most straightforward fermented grape juice could be, and probably were, the result of an attempt to cheat and swindle the buyer into buying something [cheaper] that wasn’t really “wine.”  The only practices that were allowed, were coupage (blending with a different wine to ameliorate the quality), freezing or partial freezing of grapes, pasteurization, chaptalization (addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic degree in the final wine), fining, and the addition of cultured yeasts, tannins, plaster (since outlawed), or sulfur dioxide.  Acidification of must using tartaric acid was allowed, but the acidification of final wines was strictly prohibited.  Why the distinction?  In part because the practice of adding acid directly to wines was seen as overly articficial (indeed, a transformation of the acid occurs with the microbial activity of fermentation, and acidified wines are much easier to pick out than wines that were made from acidified musts).  But more importantly, this rule was a protection against an increasingly globalized economy.  By eliminating the recourse to wine acidification, the French government was effectively preventing the possibility of a southward expansion of the wine industry, because grapes couldn’t be planted where it was too hot if they were to avoid producing wines severely lacking in acidity.

Thus the initial regulation of oenological practices was based on two underlying objectives: to protect consumers from fraud and to protect the established French wine industry from competition by new growing regions.  The goal of winemaking was to produce a drinkable, sellable product, but the technology was more limited than it is today, thus leaving few choices when it came to oenological practices. But the law still shaped how people defined what could and could not be considered “wine,” a trend that continues to our present day.

When the laws governing winemaking within the European Community were first created in 1978, they picked up the same principle of the law passed in 1907 – that winemaking practices should preserve a wine’s “natural state.” A few more products were added to the “safe” list, in accordance with technological developments of the time, but in general the rules of the game didn’t change.

But in the 30 years that followed, not only did the rules change, the underlying principle also evolved to fit the new drivers in the industry present by 2008.  Now, the EU stressed the imperative of preserving the “essential and natural” characteristics of a wine.  This leaves us with not one but two ambiguous terms in the definition, leaving the interpretation and application of this principle rather nebulous. A 2009 modification authorized 50 oenological practices in the European Community (click here to download the full document: Commission Regulation (EC) No.  606/2009). 15 of these are additives, and will soon be required to be marked on labels as such, and the remainder are “oenological techniques,” which do not have to be indicated.  But there are 80 products that have been in discussion since 1999, and these products have yet to be pegged as “additives” or not, highlighting the delicate nature of defining what “belongs” in a wine (even if it is a conventional wine). Of particular interest are products that could be potential allergens, for example those that containing milk, eggs or gluten, which have been an important focus of labeling laws across the globe in recent years.

Thus we see, in this brief legislative timeline, the evolution of the legal definitions of wine and what is considered appropriate oenological practice. The natural wine debates aside, this history accentuates the more fundamental discussion about what should be allowed to go into a wine at all, and where we draw the lines between the “essential” nature of a wine and an artificial wine-like concoction.  The labeling solution is an interesting one, as it allows for a fudge-factor.  The government is going to decide what can be added to wines to maintain its “essential and natural” characteristics, but the labeling of approved additives allows the consumer to decide for himself if he is willing to accept the EU definition of a “real” wine.  If he feels that certain additives cause a wine to stray too far from its native state, he can choose to avoid wines that contain them. Whether or not consumers are willing to play such an active role in defining the nature of wine remains, of course, to be seen.