Bringing nature into the conversation


Host Jane Anson with our guests on stage at our inaugural Sustainability Forum in the BAFTA building. To Jane's right, the four guests are seated: Eva Fricke, Dean Hewitson, Alberto Graci (who is speaking) and Eric Kohler.

In late June, we invited a number of our producers to London to our inaugural Sustainability Forum. In the gleaming rooms of the BAFTA building, we gathered to discuss ideas around sustainability in the wine industry. Here, we bring you the highlights from a morning packed with insight and inspiration.  

Built on 325 years of history, Berry Bros. & Rudd is no stranger to taking the long view. Today, in the face of the climate crisis, we acutely feel the importance of making decisions for the benefit of future generations. This is the sentiment behind our inaugural Sustainability Forum, hosted in the BAFTA building just around the corner from our St James’s home.  

We brought over 40 producers together to discuss and share ideas around the theme of sustainability in the wine industry. To inspire one another and explore new lines of thought – to challenge and be challenged. We’re constantly learning more about our environmental impact, and we believe it’s of utmost importance to bring others on the journey with us – because it’s only through a collective effort that we’ll find meaningful solutions.  

We’re proud to work with many winemakers around the world who are already leading the charge towards a more sustainable future. Over the course of a morning, a few of these winemakers joined Jane Anson on stage to discuss what sustainability means to them, and how they apply it in the vineyard. Below, you’ll find a few highlights from a fascinating morning.  

“We are artists of agriculture”  

Eva Fricke is one of the most exciting producers of the Rheingau – as well as Germany more widely. She has been crafting taut, bone-dry Rieslings since 2011, quickly establishing herself as one of the region’s most preeminent winemakers. Unlike many producers, Eva doesn’t come from a winemaking background. This gave her a blank slate to work from, and organic and biodynamic practices have been woven into her philosophy from the very beginning.  

As our first speaker, Eva focused on the need to understand organic viticulture. She believes it is the task of the winemaker to show that an organic approach is the future – that a healthy ecosystem can be the base of a healthy economy. A little demystification is needed. Historically, she says, organic philosophies have been seen as somewhat esoteric, but this approach needs to become the new normal.  

“A healthy natural environment that is able to withstand the challenges of climate change – that’s also a healthy environment for yourself, your staff and the people who drink your wines.” She stresses that trying to achieve perfection is unfeasible. But winemakers have the unique privilege of offering an appealing product – wine has a romance around it that a product like, say, potatoes doesn’t.  

“We are artists of agriculture,” she says. “We have a chance to reach the consumer. They listen to us. We can show that we can make a difference. It’s our responsibility to do so.”  

Custodians of the river 

Over in the Barossa Valley, Australia, Dean Hewitson makes a broad range of wines from Mourvèdre, Shiraz, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc – among other grape varieties. The estate is blessed by its proximity to the Para River, and Dean is fully aware of the importance of such a location and the need to look after it.  

The Hewitson winery is located in the town of Nuriootpa, through which the river flows. The town takes its name from an Aboriginal word meaning “meeting place”, and it was here that different tribes came together to trade. The river flows with cultural heritage, and to Dean, this roots the estate in a sense of history. He views himself as merely the custodian of an ancient piece of land. 

This deep respect for nature informs his approach to winemaking. He is inspired by a symbiotic relationship with nature – from recycling rainwater to use in the vineyard to harnessing the power of solar energy. Soil health is of great importance – both in terms of vine quality and bolstering biodiversity. It’s a labour of love, years in the making. 

He tells us how they re-planted a native species of tree – the river red gum – that had been chopped down in recent decades: “you could see their stumps”. They set about trying to identify what tree it was and its particular sub-species, then spent hundreds of dollars buying little seedlings and planting them at the edge of the vineyard where it borders the river. These trees are particularly well suited to long periods of drought, but also during rain floods, the roots are able to survive in water. 

In doing so, Dean and his team have helped to restore the estate’s river flats to how they used to be before colonial settlement. Today, these flourishing trees offer a thriving bank of biodiversity at the fringes of the Hewitson estate.  

Nature is an exchange

For over two decades, Thibault Liger-Belair has been making an exciting range of red wines from his domaine in Nuits-St Georges, the Côte de Nuits. Although the aristocratic Liger-Belair family have been involved in the Burgundian wine industry for 300 years, Thibault is the first in his line to get stuck into the actual work of winemaking. He describes himself as a manual man who always wanted to do something with his hands.  

Pursuing his own path afforded Thibault a blank canvas. He made a lot of mistakes, he admits, but he learned a lot through the process, and he was able to apply an organic approach from the start. In the following years, he became increasingly interested in biodynamics, and achieved certification in 2009. But he withdrew from the process in 2012, telling us it was too dogmatic.  

Today, he follows his own nature-based philosophy in the vineyard. He takes the elements of biodynamics that make sense to him, particularly the practices that bolster soil health, and eschews the more dogmatic principles. It is his passion for soil that comes to the fore. He speaks with conviction about the connections at the heart of an ecosystem. “There’s a natural communication between vine and soil. All you have to do is give back to the soil.”  

Like his fellow speakers, reciprocity is a theme that recurs throughout the conversation. It appears to be a foundational concept for these winemakers, a guiding star. “When you work with nature, it’s always an exchange,” he says. “When you take something, you have to give it back. In the wine industry, sometimes we take more than we need.” 

A volcanic paradise  

Alberto Graci is renowned for elegant, expressive wines made on the black-sanded slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. This is notoriously a challenging terrain. One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Etna erupts around 50 times a year.  

But conversely, Alberto thinks of Etna as a kind of paradise: hot and cold, a meeting place between the Eurasian and African plates. The terrain befits the metaphor. This is a dynamic place of ever-shifting boundaries, destruction and regeneration, ash-cloaked hills brimming with fertile life. Any divine entity would be at home here.  

This constant metamorphosis results in contemporary soils full of energy – a gift, in the right hands. Alberto emphasises that winemaking on Etna is a craft of “humility and sacrifice”. Humility is about understanding one’s place in the natural system and working in harmony with it. This holistic philosophy is one that the farmer understands intimately, particularly in Sicily with its humble roots, Alberto believes.  

He explains it with great poetry: “Every small thing – where we live, and what we do – it makes a portrait. Every leaf is part of a tree, and every tree part of a forest. Even if you’re just a leaf, you have to think about the whole forest.”  

When we think about the forest, sacrifices must be made. But Alberto believes that these are short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. When we prioritise nature, we all stand to win – as a unified whole. 

The conversation continues 

In the space of a few hours, we heard from our speakers on a range of pertinent themes. Some of these topics will be covered in following articles, such as the future of glass and its importance in a luxury industry; new technologies in the vineyard; and the concept of circularity in the winery and economy. 

It was inspiring to hear the producers speak about their experiences of finding a balance between winemaking and the natural environment, and it gave us hope that there is a bright future ahead of us – that solutions are within reach. What’s clear is that we need to establish a new normal, and bring organic practices and philosophies into the mainstream. 

We’re only just scraping the surface. The conversation continues every day.