Winemakers look to the past in drive for a greener future
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Winemakers are looking to technologies ancient and modern to shrink their environmental footprint. Some in the business are reaching back to pre-industrial practices — from horse-drawn ploughs and sailboats to naturally cool cellars rather than air-conditioned warehouses — to make their vintages more environmentally friendly.
Winemaking dates back thousands of years, but in recent decades wineries have increasingly come to rely on pesticides to cultivate their vines, tractors to plough the soil and modern ships to export glass bottles.
But with mounting demand for sustainable and natural food, some winemakers are turning to cleaner technologies. This includes recycling sprayers that suck back excess pesticides for reuse and electric tractors with solar panels, along with new science on how to nourish the land organically. They are also taking inspiration from the past.
“Before, we were farmers and we were working the vineyards with horses,” says Nicolas Potel, owner of Domaine de Bellene vineyard in Burgundy, France. “Only in the last few dozen years we have this big issue with the mechanisation of working the vineyards, spraying the vineyards, cutting — all this activity is making CO2 and using chemicals.”
Mr Potel is building a new winery to abandon his energy-guzzling 1970s warehouse. The building, which he hopes to complete in two years, will use an underground cellar to keep the wine cold and a grass-topped roof that absorbs heat and collects rainwater. He is also scouting for land to install solar panels, which will be able to power the electric tractors he plans to buy.
Illahe Vineyards in Oregon has also taken cues from history. It uses draught horses to plough the land, a kiln to make clay wine containers and human cycling power to pump grape juice. Once a year, the family owners travel three days by stagecoach and canoe to deliver a few hundred bottles to Portland.
Yet cost largely dictates how green wineries can be. Even Illahe must balance sustainability with economics, and still uses tractors, fungicide to combat mildew and trucks to distribute wine.
Producers and industry experts say the market for sustainable wine is growing, but data are limited, mainly because there is no single definition. But a 2018 report from consultancy Wine Intelligence noted that “wines offering a sustainability and environmental connection have the best chance of success within the alternative wine category, as lower-alcohol and non-alcoholic wines struggle for attention”.
While consumers increasingly look for eco-friendly wine, they want quality and reasonable prices, says Gilles Brianceau, director of Inno’vin, a network that promotes innovation, based in Bordeaux. “If you don’t take into account the environment, you risk losing your market. But if your price is too high, you also risk losing your market.”
This is where new science and technology can help wineries narrow the broad-spectrum spraying and ploughing of recent decades, and cut costs.
“Modern science has taught us to be less harsh,” says Sian Liwicki, owner of Bothy Vineyard in Oxfordshire.
Ms Liwicki and her husband bought the vineyard 17 years ago, when the “total weedkiller attitude” was prevalent. Now they take soil and leaf samples to decide when herbicides are needed, so as to protect wildlife. They also installed a boiler partly heated by wood chips and use a renewables-only energy utility. Digging a cellar, however, was too expensive. “It sometimes does feel like you’ve got to pay for the privilege of being green,” Ms Liwicki says.
Often there are longer-term savings, however. Moss Wood Wines in Margaret River, Australia, invested in a sprayer that recycles fungicide. It is more expensive to maintain but will gradually reduce Moss Wood’s fungicide needs, says owner Keith Mugford.
There are also attempts to shrink the environmental cost of wine once it leaves the vineyard. Some of these may prove harder to take mainstream. One idea is to return to wind-powered sailing. The French company TOWT ships nearly 30,000 bottles a year around Europe on old cargo sailboats and created a label that allows buyers to track the bottle’s voyage and CO2 savings. However, while wine will not perish from delays, deliveries will be smaller, slower and less predictable.
Another idea is to replace glass bottles with lighter, recycled or reusable materials. Restaurants and bars are increasingly selling wine from kegs. Cardboard wine boxes are also more sustainable — although they look less appealing on the table.
UK-based Garçon Wines hopes to ease the transition with a flat recycled plastic bottle released this year. It is modelled on the classic Bordeaux shape, but the company says it takes up to 40 per cent less space and is 87 per cent lighter.
Yet wine connoisseurs may not be ready for such big changes. “Moss Wood is an expensive wine, and I think it will be a while before customers will want to buy Moss Wood in anything other than a glass bottle,” Mr Mugford says. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t change.”