Hard-hit by climate change, winemakers turn to sustainability to ride the storms

Grapes rot on the vine as Tuscany's famed wine and olive oil industry suffers from a heatwave and drought, in Greve in Chianti, Italy, July 29, 2022. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini
  • Extreme weather events hit the global wine industry hard because grapes are extremely sensitive to the changes in temperature and season.
  • France saw its smallest harvest since 1957 last year, costing around $2 billion in sales.
  • Many winemakers are innovating to reduce water use, and turning to regenerative agriculture and agroforestry.
  • But the industry is very fragmented and it's a challenge to share data and best practice.
  • The Sustainable Wine Roundtable is looking to develop a global sustainability reference standard

September 14 - Winemaking has always been affected by the weather and climate – it’s inherent in the phrase “a good vintage”. The quality of the wine can be affected by too much rain or not enough, temperatures that are too high or too low.

But recent extreme weather events around the world – from droughts and heatwaves to floods and prolonged, heavy rainfall – mean that sustainability is becoming ever more important to the sector.

“All seriously minded wine regions in the world today are entirely focused on sustainability. They have to be,” says Clare Tooley, a California-based Master of Wine working at Boisset’s Collection, which makes wine in Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, the South of France and California.

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France saw its smallest harvest since 1957 last year, which cost the industry around $2 billion in sales. One vineyard in Champagne produced nothing because of too much rain and a heatwave; normally it would send up to 50,000 bottles to market.

The California wildfires of 2020, and similar events from Australia to Argentina, from Portugal to Provence, Italy and Greece, not only destroy vines. The smoke from the fires can also ruin grapes up to 100 miles away, making the wine they produce undrinkable.

A farm worker puts a tag identifying what type of grape it is on a Novavine drought-resistant grapevine after it was planted at a farm in Woodland, California, U.S. April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, viable wine-growing regions could shrink by more than half. Wine is an important indicator of the impacts of climate change because wine grapes are extremely sensitive to the changes in temperature and season that come with climate change. It could also help other agricultural sectors to adapt, in part because of its diversity – more than 1,100 different varieties are grown today, under a wide range of conditions — and partly because harvest data stretches back centuries.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” says the study’s co-author, Benjamin Cook from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

But the industry’s diversity – geographically and historically – means that adaptation strategies look very different in different wine-growing regions. “New Zealand has been pioneering, partly because their smaller scale and relatively newcomer status has supported it,” says Tooley. “The ‘older’ territories, like France and Italy for example, have had to adapt and modify systems and farming practices that have been in place for centuries.”

Meanwhile, some of the obvious solutions, like increasing irrigation, are needed at a time when climate change has led to massive water shortages, making it more difficult to introduce them. “Water usage is probably the most pressing issue here in the U.S., but also in Australia, South America, South Africa and parts of Europe,” says Tooley. Winemakers are using a range of methods to reduce water use, including dry farming, controlled irrigation, water sensors and the use of less thirsty clones and rootstocks.

Some have resorted to spraying grapes with “sunscreen” – made from white clay – or using treated wastewater for irrigation.

In New World wine areas, growers have the option of planting more heat-resistant grape varieties or moving nearer to coasts, where it is cooler. In closely defined appellation areas such as Bordeaux or Barolo, however, moving is not an option. And in some regions irrigation is heavily regulated, says Linda Johnson-Bell, founder of the Wine and Climate Change Institute. “Many regions are running out of water and we are seeing the world’s wine map change,” she adds.

Wine making is now becoming more established in England and Wales, for example, with even countries such as Scotland and Denmark growing grapes. “We’re getting a longer growing season. Ten to 15 years ago, you could not guarantee a mature harvest in the UK, but now you can,” she points out.

Vineyards including Clos des Quarterons in France's Loire Valley have geese roaming the estate, fertilising the soil and eating pests and weeds

Many vineyards are turning to traditional methods of production, including regenerative agriculture and agroforestry. While many vineyards feature nothing but vines, a growing number are now using cover crops, such as grasses, legumes and brassicas like mustard and rapeseed, in between the rows of vines to reduce soil erosion, supply nutrients and ensure soil is aerated, as well as creating a habitat for birds and insects. Vineyards such as Umbria’s Di Filippo vineyard and Clos de Quarterons in the Loire Valley, have geese roaming the estate, fertilising the soil and eating pests and weeds.

Moët Hennessy, one of the biggest names in the wine sector, organised the first World Living Soils Forum in Provence earlier this year, and has phased out herbicides in its own vineyards as well as helping its contracted growers to become more sustainable. Another industry giant, Pernod Ricard, plans to develop regenerative agriculture pilot schemes in eight wine regions by 2025. Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouët, for example, has embarked on a four-year programme to trial regenerative viticulture in Cognac and Champagne. It is piloting climate-resistant grape varieties, cover crops and the use of precision farming technology to optimise soil and vine health and increase biodiversity.

“We see regenerative agriculture being as much about people as it is about the land,” the company says. “By supporting our farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture practices, we are encouraging a holistic approach that focuses on the entire farming ecosystem – the terroir, the soil, the wildlife and plants, and of course the people who work the land. We can have a real impact on mitigating climate change, protecting ecosystems, enhancing biodiversity, restoring the soil and improving livelihoods throughout the world.”

Other techniques and technologies to reduce the industry’s footprint include the use of drones and artificial intelligence, drip irrigation systems and real-time soil sensors.

Wineries are even redesigning cellars to make them more sustainable – using gravity instead of pumps to move the crushed grapes to flow into tanks, reviving a practice that goes back centuries. Chateau Montrose in Bordeaux powers its winemaking process using solar panels and geothermal energy. Packaging, distribution and shipping are also areas with a lot of potential to cut back on CO2 emissions.

Moët Hennessy’s Chateau Galoupet estate’s premium wine is sold in flat bottles made from recycled plastic.

“As an industry we are still heavily reliant on antiquated vessels – let’s face it, glass bottles are heavy,” says Tooley. “The industry has seen a significant increase in bulk wine shipment for bottling in country of destination rather than (where they are produced). Packaging innovations such as lightweight, recyclable, degradable (paper bottles), cans, pouches, bag-in-box and refill containers continues to evolve.”

Moët Hennessy’s Chateau Galoupet estate in Provence is the first to sell a premium wine in flat bottles made from recycled plastic. The bottles not only have a lower carbon footprint than glass ones, they also take up 40% less space on a truck and are a 10th of the weight of glass bottles, which makes them easier and more efficient to transport.

“There is a lot of good work taking place around the world,” says Richard Bampfield, a master of wine, and co-founder of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable (SWR). “But wine’s Achilles’ heel is the fact that it is so fragmented. There are dozens of countries producing wine and lots of regions, often acting unilaterally, rather than on a national basis. There are hundreds of thousands of grape growers and wine producers. It’s a challenge sharing data and getting people to cooperate.”

The SWR claims to be the only global, independent roundtable to include the whole wine value chain, and it aims to develop a global sustainability reference standard “that learns from the existing regional and local initiatives, building on the best from each”, according to Toby Webb, executive director of the SWR. The goal is for the SWR to become a global, multi stakeholder platform that will allow the wine community to take its place as a sustainability leader.

“Creating a great wine legacy is a multi-generational endeavour. It always has been,” says Tooley of Boisset’s Collection . “At the very heart of the fine wine world is an understanding that we are simply stewards at any given moment, that the greatest wine will be made by our grandchildren and great grandchildren, and that our duty therefore is to protect what we have inherited and strive to bequeath a healthy future. Sustainability is all we do.”

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Mike Scott is a former Financial Times journalist who is now a freelance writer specialising in business and sustainability. He has written for The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, Forbes, Fortune and Bloomberg.