Devil’s Advocate: Carbon Footprints and Taxes are Going to Change How We Drink

Robert Joseph considers the ways in which consumers may be driven to buy more locally-produced wines, with lower alcoholic strengths.

Reading time: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph with horns
Robert Joseph with horns

I drink wine for the same reason I drink beer and spirits: pleasure. If it doesn’t taste good, and provide some kind of buzz, I’d rather drink water – or a non-alcoholic alternative. That goes for bretty natural wine, sugary, caramel-oaky cheap reds – or some big name 2013 Cru Classé Bordeaux.

If other people get their pleasure from these, so be it.

Two conversations last week put this question into another perspective – in the short term, particularly for me as someone living in the UK, but possibly for those in other countries too.

Sustainability as a purchase argument

First there was the session at the IBWSS conference in London where Paul Lansley, CEO of the UK bottler, Broadland Drinks raised the issue of sustainability. The very worst option in terms of carbon footprint, Lansley said, was wine shipped to Britain in bottle from Australia. Second best – for Britons - was English wine in bag-in-box or PET, and best of all – because of the reduced shipping - would be stuff like the Three Mills ‘British Made Wine’, his company produces by fermenting imported grape concentrate.

Lansley’s prescription may, indeed, be good for the planet (and his business), but it isn’t going to work for me. Whatever the success of English sparkling wine, the still examples are heftily priced and, to be honest, still rarely as enjoyable as far cheaper efforts from elsewhere. And, as readers may imagine, Lansley’s UK-fermented ‘wine’ doesn’t score highly enough on my personal pleasure scale to be worth drinking even at its admittedly attractively low price. But the point he makes about the environmental cost of wine shipping will have increasing resonance – especially as other countries take note of Systembolaget’s move to post the carbon footprint of every bottle it sells. Consumers may increasingly say “if my country doesn’t produce the stuff I want, I’ll get it from the the one closest to where I live.”

Lower alcohol and lower tax

The cheapness of some of the Three Mills ‘wines’ is partly explained by an alcohol level of 8% which, since recent changes in UK legislation, is subject to lower excise duty.

I tasted another lower-strength wine - fermented from the juice of freshly-picked grapes in Moldova  – a few days later at the WBWE exhibition in Amsterdam. It was a Pinot Grigio weighing in with an ABV of 10.4%. What method had the producer used to reduce the strength? I wondered. “Oh, came the answer, “We just picked a bit earlier.” And that was precisely how the wine tasted: unripely green and weedy. “We made it specifically for the UK,” he said, and I quietly hoped that no British buyer would inflict it on their customers.

The UK may be leading the way in linking taxes to alcohol and, in any case, there is a growing awareness of wine strength that, coupled with ever-warmer seasons is creating a boom for the makers of machines that remove alcohol from wine. Using a spinning cone to take a red or white from 15% down to 13.9% became commonplace in the US where, until 2017, there was a lower tax on wines at under 14%. Now that figure has been hiked to 16%, but the procedure hasn’t changed, if only because consumers have become used to drinking wine at the – relatively – lower alcohol levels.

Insights Wine

In the 1980s and 1990s, the United Kingdom was the world’s most valuable and influential export market for wine. Largely as a result of increased competition from other countries, more recently exacerbated by Brexit, it has lost that role. A new tax regime will make it even less attractive to exporters. Robert Joseph reports.

Reading time: 5m 30s

Lightweight 8.5%

Today, there is no advantage in most countries outside the UK of having a wine at 10% rather than 14%, but there is the magic figure of 8.5% that is just as applicable in the Netherlands where I tasted that green Pinot Grigio as in the US. Get your wine beneath that threshold and you are in a less onerous tax bracket. And that is a target a growing number of producers are finding of increasing interest.

Until the beginning of 2023, partial dealcoholisation was effectively banned in the EU for quality wines. That rule has now been relaxed, though individual PDOs and GIs can maintain restrictions.

For some, wines with an ABV of under 8.5% would qualify as ‘low-alcohol’. For others, this is a term whose use is legally limited to wines at under 1.2%; there is no internationally accepted definition. But, just as shoppers in the UK who take the trouble to read the labels, are now increasingly seeing bottles with middleweight ABVs of 10%, I’m betting that these will soon be joined by a growing number of lightweight 8.5% efforts.

Trendy pleasures

As I said at the beginning of this post, the only thing that matters to me, personally, is how pleasurable an experience any of these beverages are going to deliver, and I’m keeping an open mind.

I won’t be deterred from drinking at least the occasional estate-bottled wine from the Margaret River or Clare Valley, but I’ll I’ll take an increasing interest in the carbon footprint of the wines I drink and am involved with. And I’ll go out of my way to taste as many 8.5% and 10% wines as I can.

Because, I honestly believe that anyone who doubts that these trends are going to change the wine industry quite significantly is like a spectator at a football match who’s more interested in catching up on their emails than following what’s happening on the pitch.

Academic Papers Wine

Warning labels, advertising bans and price changes could upend the European wine industry. Frederik Nikolai Schulz and Jon Hanf from Hochschule Geisenheim University report on current developments in European alcohol policy.

Reading time: 5m



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