In all my 30+ years of study and research about wine, the most recent decade has been the most vocal in the global conversations about sustainability and the environment in particular.
However, the environment and its impact on the vine and the vineyard is only one of the four pillars supporting sustainability. Sustainability is concerned also with people, culture and economic resources and the influence that they all bear on the winemaking and packaging.
A regular beacon of hope and reassurance has been the readiness and willingness to adapt, innovate and improve practices by grape grower, winemaker and marketeer. That customer experience of continuous improvement in choice and quality has been consistent, most noticeably over the past four decades, some of which are explored below.
This, the first of three blogs on sustainability focuses on the vineyard and the winery, effectively the farm and the kitchen for wine.
Currently, most topical in media coverage has been the vineyard and the impact of extreme climate changes that seem to recur almost annually as experienced by the summer of 2022. In particular, drought and forest fires in the northern hemisphere with the risk of reduced yield and income for grape growers and smoke damage to ripening grapes. Or, worst case scenario, where vineyards have been destroyed by forest fires entirely and require several years to re-establish and return to production, as was Australia’s experience following its forest fires in 2020. As many European countries and Britain experienced the stress of record-breaking temperatures and drought, we can better appreciate the heat and hydra stress vines and vegetation must endure.
What grows above ground is easy to examine, but what happens hidden underground is harder to observe. Delving deeper can unearth concerns with an imperative for better and more sustainable farming practices. Alarming reports well over a decade ago highlighted the damaging and interdependent practice of persistently using chemical fertilisers to boost yield of grapes, but which also promoted weed growth. The quick solution of using chemical weedkillers resulted in sterilising the soil of its natural life and organisms, requiring an ever-increasing spiral of using more fertiliser and necessary weedkiller as the soil could no longer support itself or vegetation unaided.
That alarm bell registered a response to ensure a sustainable future by an enlightened focus on natural and organic practices and phasing out the use of chemicals in the vineyard. Also, adapting a more holistic approach to work in tune with nature rather than against it saw in an increased interest in the century-old biodynamic philosophy and regime. I recall my early scepticism decades ago about one particular biodynamic practice that considered the various phases of the lunar cycle when the moon was on the wax or on the wane. My doubts changed when it was explained that if the moon’s gravitational pull can move vast oceans to cause the tides to ebb and flow, then it can have an impact on the flow of sap in the vine.
From sustainability in the great outdoors of the vineyard to the great indoors of the winery. Sustainable architecture for wineries is addressing consumption of energy and water, greenhouse gas emissions, raw material use and waste output. This has included building with reclaimed materials, installing skylights for natural light, planting more trees for shade and collecting water to filter and reuse. Also, there is growing interest in earth sheltering - wineries or cellars are built partially or completely underground where it’s naturally cooler and easier to manage temperatures.
Greater creativity and innovation continue in the building materials used. Château Marais in the Languedoc built their new winery a decade ago using bricks made of organic hemp straw with added lime. There were dual advantages of reduced carbon emissions from construction, while capturing carbon dioxide from their surroundings. The owners wanted a building that reflected their biodynamic practices in the vineyard.
To reduce energy resources (electricity, conveyors and pumps etc.), enlightened design of gravity-flow/fed wineries over several floors or levels instead of just one floor/level, allows gravity to move the grapes and wine to the next container or vat instead of engaging conveyors and pumps. This less interventionist approach from grape crusher or press to fermentation tank or barrel is gentler on the wine. Also, it requires less electricity and avoids the possibility of over-extraction or excessive tannins or oxidation from more forceful manual and mechanic handling. Gravity-flow/fed wineries are ideal for building into a hillside. Many wine regions are in hilly and mountainous terrains.
Wineries require huge amounts of water over the hectic weeks following the harvest for cleaning and scouring vats and floors to create sterile conditions for the winemaking. To minimize water consumption, eco-friendly wineries collect rainwater and recycle grey water by filtering it through a natural pond system.
The next blog will look at the Human Factor and what we can do to influence for the better.
Acknowledgements: Wine Spectator and Reuters.
Liam Campbell, Judge at international wine & drinks competitions.