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What Makes the Willamette Valley One of the Most Sustainable Wine Regions?

Williamette Valley sustainable wine practices

Can wines be sustainable?

It’s no secret that some practices within the modern wine industry can have a detrimental impact on the environment, from pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the shipping process to water usage during the growing season.

In fact, while French vineyards occupy only 3% of the country’s agricultural land, they are responsible for 20% of France’s pesticide use. It is statistics like these that Willamette Valley’s viticulture practices are looking to reverse.

How sustainable is your favourite vino?

While wine lovers may understandably assume that the production of wine has a limited effect on the environment, this is unfortunately not always the case. In fact, most vineyards are highly dependent on preventive spraying using herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, with the intention of controlling disease and keeping away pests.

This approach can have potentially negative effects on both human health and the environment, much more so than in days gone by when wine growers had more of an understanding of what their vines actually needed and when. By sacrificing long-term sustainability for short-term economic gains, the modern wine industry is stressing the land and depleting its resources.

Thankfully, as consumers are beginning to demand more environmental responsibility, many wine growers are turning to sustainable practices.

Confused about sustainable wine terminology? Here’s a breakdown

Let’s look at some of the more common terms and practices that are used in sustainable viticulture:

  • Natural wine: This term typically refers to wines that are made with organic grapes, though it can also refer to wines that are made without added sulphites or other chemicals. By carefully considering soil health, water usage, and biodiversity, natural winemakers can produce wines that are not only produced in an environmentally conscientious way but also offer the potential for unique, complex flavors.
  • Organic wine: USDA organic wine must be made with grapes that are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. Organic wines are usually seen as some of the purest and most natural wines, due to the absence of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers combined with a greater focus on soil and water conservation, in their production.
  • Biodynamic wine: Biodynamic farming practices are based on the belief that vineyards are an integral part of the natural ecosystem, and as such they need to be integrated into their local environment. Biodynamic wines are cultivated using a holistic approach that balances the needs of the vineyard ecosystem with those of the winery. Biodynamic viticulture seeks to promote biodiversity and holism, and it usually involves farming without synthetic chemicals or pesticides.
  • Sustainable wine: Sustainable wines are produced using practices that are socially and environmentally responsible, such as limiting the use of pesticides and taking care to minimize water usage. Sustainable winegrowing practices focus on long-term health and viability, meaning that they help support local communities and economies while also protecting the environment.
Willamette Valley Vineyards
DC_Colombia | iStock (Source)

Why are sustainable wine practices good for both the environment and the economy?

Sustainable wine practices are much more than just a good environmental choice; they are an opportunity to preserve and invest in the future. Sustainable vineyard and winery practices conserve water, energy, and soil while protecting air and water quality, creating meaningful employee relations, and fostering local community ties.

Winemaking that focuses on preserving ecosystems not only sustains the health of wildlife habitats but also bolsters the future economic vitality of vineyards and wineries. As winemakers around the world strive to create their perfect vintages, many are taking a holistic and sustainable approach.

Rather than solely considering their vines, they are now looking at the entire environment in which they exist, with the aim of restoring natural balance and encouraging biodiversity. This is being achieved through measures such as:

  • cordoning off sensitive ecosystems to prevent insecticides and herbicides from entering
  • creating wildlife sanctuaries in vineyards
  • employing integrated pest management techniques, such as planting pest-resistant species of vines or using organic pesticides
  • planting cover crops to help maintain soil health and reduce erosion.

Such sustainable winegrowing practices have the potential not only to drastically reduce the environmental impacts and increase the energy efficiency of viticulture but also to produce truly unique and delicious wines.

How are Willamette Valley winemakers leading change?

As one of the preeminent wine-producing regions in the world, the Willamette Valley takes seriously its responsibility to uphold sustainable practices that not only protect the area’s natural resources but also support the local community and economy.

From reducing environmental impact to creating healthier communities, sustainable practices in the Willamette Valley are essential components in producing some of the best wines in the world. In 1997, an independent coalition of Willamette Valley winegrowers set in motion a bold mission: to create a certification process that ensures vineyards and wineries adhere to the highest standards of sustainable agriculture practices.

This project, known as the Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certification, is now embraced around the globe by the International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC), which sets an international standard for sustainable farming practices. To be certified sustainable under the LIVE program, vineyards and wineries in the Willamette Valley must demonstrate a commitment to protecting natural resources, fostering biodiversity, and strengthening their local communities.

By meeting stringent standards of sustainable farming, water conservation, and biodiversity, LIVE-certified sustainable wine growers and winemakers in the Willamette Valley (and beyond) are renowned not only for the quality of their wines but also for their commitment to protecting the natural environment. And by spearheading this initiative, the Willamette Valley wine industry is doing its part to safeguard our planet while emphasizing social accountability.

Willamette valley vineyard in spring
RobertCrum | Getty Images

Excited to try sustainable wine in the Willamette Valley? Here’s 4 winery to try:

  • Youngberg Hill

McMinnville’s Youngberg Hill winery is a true embodiment of sustainable farming practices. Since 2003, this winery has embraced organic agricultural techniques and since 2011 it has ventured into the world of biodynamic farming. By “dry-farming” that is, not relying on irrigation, Youngberg Hill’s wines give an honest and pure replication of their terroir.

Achieving the “Sustainable” certification from the Oregon Wine Institute in 2010, Youngberg Hill focuses on conserving natural resources and keeping its ecosystem healthy.

  • Domaine Roy & fils

Dundee winemakers Domaine Roy & fils possess an inspiring vision of stewardship, one that pays homage to the timeless and intergenerational wisdom of Oregon winemakers. Their approach to winemaking is all about creating a perfect harmony with their land, striving for minimalism while never compromising on the quality and flavor of the wine – each vintage has its own unique character that reflects the signature terroir.

Their commitment to organic farming, combined with their passion for preserving the traditions of previous generations, makes Domaine Roy & fils’ wines something truly special.

  • iOTA

Their commitment to environmental stewardship is something that iOTA Cellars takes seriously. From weaving buffer zones of trees to prevent soil erosion to using sustainable and organic practices like non-irrigated vines and a cover crop of mixed grasses and legumes, every measure taken speaks to respectful coexistence between their grapevines and their surroundings. Demonstrating their commitment to protecting nature while still growing premium grapes, iOTA Cellars shows us what sustainable wine can look like.

  • Winderlea Vineyard and Winery

At Winderlea, sustainable wine production is more than just a philosophy; it’s a commitment to excellence. The approach of founders Bill Sweat and Donna Morris honors vineyards as living things. By carefully evaluating the characteristics of each site and harvest, they strive to create beautiful and age-worthy wines that are both elegant and sensuous.

With a focus on making limited-production pinot noir and chardonnay that show the very best characteristics of each vineyard, with minimal intervention, Dundee Hills’ own Winderlea Vineyard and Winery provides something special to wine lovers everywhere.

Final thoughts

The negatives associated with traditional wine production can seem insurmountable, but Willamette Valley’s sustainable wineries are showing us that with a little innovation and commitment, responsible wine cultivation is not only possible but can also lead to incredible wines.

To protect the industry as well as preserve the environment for future generations, it’s more important than ever to support sustainably farmed wines and the winemakers who are making them. Taking a wine tour through the Willamette Valley is a perfect way to explore the many sustainable wineries in the region.

At Wine History Tours, we take environmental conservation and education seriously and are committed to showcasing the very best of sustainable wine-growing in the Willamette Valley. Whether you’re a seasoned oenophile or a curious novice, a private tour aboard our luxury hyrbid SUV is the perfect way to sustainably explore this stunning part of Oregon. Visit our website today to learn more about our wine tours and book your adventure!​

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