Can wineries not just reduce their impact on climate, but go further and help to reverse the curve of temperature increase?
It’s a goal so ambitious as to seem impossible, but the good news is that the wine sector can do it — and the very good news is that it can be done with technical solutions that are already available. One Italian cooperative is already doing it. Called carbon sequestration, it involves drawing carbon into the soil.
This is what emerged at the conference "Good wines for the earth" organized on 11 October by Cantine Vitevis, an Italian cooperative born in 2015 from the merger of the Castelnuovo del Garda, Gambellara, Colli Vicentini and Valleogra wineries.
Vitevis currently has 1,350 members who own 2,800 ha of vineyards in the provinces of Verona, Vicenza and Padua covering over 49 denominations in northeastern Italy.
The annual production is 50,000 tons of grapes from which over 12m bottles are produced for a turnover that in 2021reached €65m.
In summary, it is one of the big Italian cooperative wineries and like all cooperatives it has some peculiarities.
- First, its activities involve a large number of winegrowing members. It has, therefore, a link with the territory in which it operates which is not only economic but also social in a broader sense.
- Second, its activities involve a large surface area compared with the average private estate. The average vineyard area owned by each winegrower member is small — in the case of Vitevis it’s just 2.07 ha — so for many members the production of grapes is not the main source of income but a supplement.
With the creation of Vitevis, it was decided to improve environmental sustainability to safeguard, above all, the territories and the people who work in the vineyard and in the cellar.
Step one: understanding the vineyard
The first fundamental step was that of the digitization of the field registers in which all the operations carried out in the vineyard are reported. It might seem like a trivial intervention, but it is the necessary condition to be able to intervene in the management and control of production processes.
The importance of computerized recording of activities in the vineyard should not be underestimated. But it must necessarily be performed by the winegrower, who normally has a limited digital culture. Constant training and technical assistance work is therefore necessary to make record keeping as simple as possible.
Thanks to the digitization of field registers and under the cooperative management guidance, Vitevis was able to implement various environmental sustainability projects over the years, from gaining quality system certifications, to applying precision agriculture with the use of a satellite system, to optimize irrigation and fertilization. Other measure included an energy diagnosis, resulting in the reduction of energy consumption, plus an installation of photovoltaic panels.
Finally, in 2022, the Equalitas Certification, developed by the Italian Federation of Denominations of Origin and by Unione Italiana Vini, which establishes the level of sustainability of the winery by defining the standards for the company/organisation, the finished wine product, and the territory.
The last project, and the one that directly concerns the subject of this article, is the ISO 14064-2:2019 certification which provides the specification with guidance at the project level for quantification, monitoring and reporting of greenhouse gas emission reductions or removal enhancements.
The project was carried out with the consultancy of the company Agatheia — Noi compensiamo (We compensate) — which had already accomplished the same certification for the Arnaldo Caprai winery, leader in the Sagrantino di Montefalco area.
And the results?
Basically, it was a question of re-setting the processes for the management of 700 hectares of vineyards starting from the indications obtained through the SQNPI certification and measuring the balance between the CO2 emitted and that captured in the soil.
The result was a generation of credits for 4,719 tons of CO2 equivalent in the three years envisaged for obtaining the certification: 1,487 tons in 2018, 1,640 tons in 2019 and 1,592 tons in 2020. An average of 2,25 tons of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year.
Working on vineyard management therefore produces more relevant results in terms of environmental impact than the simple use of more environmentally friendly materials, such as lighter bottles.
What are these “magical” agronomic practices that allow more CO2 to be added into the soil than that which is emitted for cultivation?
But what are these “magical” agronomic practices that allow more CO2 to be added into the soil than that which is emitted for cultivation?
- Reduction of tillage through precision farming that allows you to intervene in the vineyard only when it is necessary and not according to the calendar: this reduces CO2 emissions from agricultural machinery.
- Minimum plowing or no plowing: in addition to reducing CO2 emissions due to reduce use of machinery (see above), this technique avoids the release of CO2 stored in the soil caused by ploughing.
- Use of organic fertilizers instead of those produced with synthetic chemistry since production process of the latter have a higher carbon footprint.
- Grassing between the rows with nitrogen-fixing agents (field beans) and/or medicinal herbs which increase the vitality of the soil: CO2 emissions are reduced both due to the lower need for fertilizers and because the grass cover reduces CO2 emissions present in the soil.
- Use of pruning waste to bring additional organic matter to the soil.
- The addition of organic matter to the soil, in addition to storing CO2, leads to an increase in the vitality of the soil which improves water management, a problem that is becoming more and more relevant year after year due to the increase in the frequency of meteorological events extremes (long periods of drought and heavy rains concentrated in a short time).
In fact, soil rich in organic matter can filter larger quantities of water and hold it for longer before releasing it slowly.
Economically sustainable as well
The advantages are not only in terms of environmental sustainability, but also of economic sustainability, since the reduction of intervention in the vineyard reduces management costs. The production of grapes per hectare decreases in the first years, but then returns to the same levels of vineyards managed in the traditional way once the plant comes into equilibrium with the soil.
It is worth noting that these agronomic practices are already known and successfully used in other agricultural sectors; therefore, the ability of viticulture to store C02 in the soil requires more of a cultural change than a technical one. In this, cooperatives can play a crucial role both directly and indirectly, because they involve a large number of winegrowing members and because the relevant role they play in their territory make them a reference example for other winegrowers outside the cooperative as well.
The way forward
The idea of doing better by doing less is counterintuitive compared to the traditional vision of work in the countryside, especially in the cooperative environment where until a few years ago the productivity approach dominated. This is why it is important to carry out projects such as the one created by Vitevis, which objectively demonstrate both the environmental and economic feasibility of a business vision that focuses on the environmental sustainability.
Doing better by doing less...
It is no longer a question of looking for solutions with a lower environmental impact to be applied to traditional production processes, such as the use of lighter bottles. It is a matter of rethinking environmental sustainability, with the aim of making a positive contribution to solve climate change.
The example of Vitevis demonstrates that this objective cannot be achieved simply with punctual interventions, while the adoption of an integrated and continuous management approach is needed.
The goal of the Scandinavian wine monopolies to contribute to the reversal of the climate curve suddenly doesn’t sound so impossible — and will create market opportunities for those wine producers who have both the skill and the willingness to change their approach to wine making.