Every segment of the wine trade must be sustainable.

Caroline Gilby MW went along to the Future of Wine conference in November, held by Sustainable Wine. She reports on how the issue is impacting the wine industry.

The Future of Wine conference, London
The Future of Wine conference, London

Sustainability must be embedded in the wine industry at all levels and done well it can provide cost savings as well as environmental benefits. This was the key message to delegates at November The Future of Wine conference, organised by Sustainable Wine and held in London. Delegates spoke under Chatham House rules, meaning they can’t be directly attributed, to ensure an open and frank discussion. 

Vineyards, water and pests

It's clear that sustainability is not simple and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For one Argentinian viticulturalist, water is the key concern as rivers are 50% lower than in the past and snow cover is disappearing. Positive action includes increasing organic matter in soil, drip irrigation and moving to higher sites, though this limited to 1800m, where frost risk increases. “We are organic to protect our soil biota, but we need a sustainable vision too,” she said. 

Sustainability is more than single issues and there may be unexpected impacts: stopping herbicides can mean more tractor work, soil compaction and diesel use. A Bordeaux producer demonstrated the importance of working together at a regional scale. The St Julien appellation has seen increased pressure from grape moths but stopped insecticide use by switching to pheromone traps, and there’s a joint effort to tackle grapevine yellows too. 

Increasing weather variability and more extreme weather events were concerns to producers from UK, Argentina and France, while insect pests expanding their range was a particular concern in the UK.

 A UK wine industry speaker saw the sustainability challenge in two parts: adaptation such moving to new areas or changing varieties, and mitigation covering how to reduce carbon footprint, eco-impact, consider carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity. The UK wine industry is currently developing a sustainability scheme and hopes to sign up 150 growers in its first few years. The speaker cautioned that there has to be market support too, as there is no point in producing sustainable grapes if no one wants to buy the output. There was some disagreement around the role of organic status in sustainability. One UK retailer stated that “Organic status captures 10 different sustainability metrics in one go,” whereas others mention frustrations over inconsistent rules from country to country, or pointed out that losing a crop in a bad year is also not sustainable. A Bordeaux source added, “Organic is only the tip of the iceberg. Sustainability also covers everything around wine.” 

Don’t forget the people

Social sustainability was a key topic, including a look at Fair Trade wine and its provision of jobs and fair working conditions and wages to vineyard workers. Several producers noted concerns about availability of seasonal labour for harvest and reliance on migrant workers, especially in the light of modern slavery concerns. Speakers highlighted the importance of being a sustainable employer and offering jobs to locals, as well as being a reliable long-term partner for suppliers. One speaker commented that social sustainability and creating more jobs by bottling at source was a key consideration for them in South Africa. 

Sustainability on the move 

Shipping, transport and packaging were core subjects given that one speaker estimated this accounts for 70% of the carbon footprint of wine. A New Zealand winery spokesman pointed out that his winery had been carbon neutral since its start, but its biggest saving in has been switching to UK bottling for the majority of its wine. “Environmental savings also give cost savings so it’s win-win," he said explaining that a 20-foot container holds two and a half times the volume of bulk wine compared to bottled product. UK burgundy glass is around 20g lighter than in New Zealand adding another small but real benefit. One packaging supplier asked why the industry is still selling wine in a package from the 19th century adding, “The Greta Thunberg generation won’t be drinking wine out of heavy glass bottles.” His solution is an innovative flat bottle made from recycled PET which saves an estimated 500g of CO2 over the lifecycle of each unit. 

Getting the sustainability message to consumers is still a challenge as they are, “Demanding but single-minded - plastic is the big enemy at present,” said one UK retailer, adding, “There is a balance between what consumers want and what is best in the supply chain and sometimes plastic can be that solution.” There is clearly an educational job to do and it’s important that consumers need to think about the whole product lifecycle, not just single issues. And there’s a cost and CO2 benefit too in lighter packaging choices as large retailers pay a levy per tonne of waste packaging. At a producer level, environmental sustainability can provide financial wins too through reducing waste; one major UK retailer highlighted savings of £750m ($965m) since launching their sustainability programme in 2007 through lean efficient manufacturing (not just wine). 

The final speaker from a leading UK consultancy explained that sustainability used to be seen as a cost to a business, but it has to be built into economic models because by 2050 it is estimated that humans will be using the resources of three planets each year. He sees a switch from the current linear “take-make-waste” to a circular economy of “take-make-take-make” as a way forward. 

In summary, as one UK winery stated, “We have to act now or in 30 years we will be talking about water and food, not sparkling wine.”

Caroline Gilby MW

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