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What are herbicides in vineyards? – Ask Decanter

What do herbicides have to do with the wine world? We explain the basics and also highlight some of the growing debate on the use of these products.

Herbicides remain widely used in vineyards, but some winemakers have long eschewed them and other producers have sought to either limit their application or cease using them altogether in recent years, often as part of sustainability initiatives.

What are herbicides?

When it comes to vineyard management, not all farming practices are created equal.

Estate owners have many decisions to make when it comes to how and with which products their vineyards will be treated, and the decisions go far beyond simply conventional versus organic and biodynamic.

Conventional vineyard treatments can be broken down into three major categories: insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. A ‘pesticide’ is an overarching term for chemicals that are used to kill insects, weeds, fungus, and more.

Why are herbicides used in vineyards?

As the name implies, herbicides are generally used to kill weeds, grass and other flora surrounding vines.  

This is mainly because these other plants might compete with the vines for water and nutrients.

They can also reduce labour costs, as noted by a 2018 study that nevertheless explored possible consequences of herbicide use on vineyard ecosystems.

The use of herbicides is most commonly associated with conventional farming – that is to say, it is used by growers who are not following organic or biodynamic regimens.

It is worth noting, however, that many organic farmers do treat their vines against pests and disease, but with other approved sprays, such as those that are based on copper or sulphur. The pros and cons of these particular sprays is an entirely different discussion.

Alternatives to herbicides can also include mechanical weeding or even bringing in farm animals to help keep weeds under control. At some wineries, you might see sheep roaming between vineyard rows for this reason.

One new study in the Crop Protection journal has suggested mechanical weeding is more expensive than some herbicide use. 

Snapshot: Debate around glyphosate 

Of all the herbicides out there, those containing the active ingredient glyphosate have attracted a significant amount of controversy.

Concerns have ranged from health impacts on vineyard workers to environmental issues.

In January 2020, though, the US Environmental Protection Agency said it hadn’t found any evidence that glyphosate posed risks to human health.

In the EU, glyphosate is currently authorised for use in the bloc until December 2022, having received a five-year licence in 2017.

Officials at the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have this month (23 September) launched fresh consultations on glyphosate as part of a long-running review process.

Some wine regions have taken matters into their own hands. Bans on glyphosate have been announced by the Prosecco DOC and DOCG councils in recent years, for example. 

France’s health and environmental protection agency (Anses) also announced new measures in October 2020, including a ban on using glyphosate between vineyard rows unless the terrain means that mechanical weeding is impossible. 

Box-out copy by Chris Mercer

How do you know if wines have been made using herbicides?

The best option for those looking to avoid wines produced with chemical herbicides is to seek out designations that eschew the use of these products. For example, this could be wines that are certified organic and/or biodynamic.

But it can be tricky; not all wineries that practice organic farming will necessarily have sought certification, for instance.

Some producers may talk about their philosophy on bottle labels. If you are unsure whether or not a wine in question has been produced using organic or biodynamic farming practices, ask your local retailer or research the producer’s distributor page online.

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