Environmental consciousness in the wine world

by Katy Gaffney
Environmental consciousness in the wine world

At gastro tastings, dinner parties and the bar of a favourite restaurant over late-night glasses, this is a topic that’s recently become hard to avoid. Earlier this year, the issue became suddenly & painfully visible when catastrophic frosts ravaged vineyards across France. An early burst of warm weather coaxed vines into blossom, followed by a freak cold snap that decimated up to 80% of expected harvests in most of the country’s wine regions. The stories were heartbreaking, and the photos that illustrated them were unforgettable. At night, thousands of enormous candles were lit in rows between the vines in a last desperate attempt to fight off the frost, producing scenes of an intense and terrible beauty. 

In low-intervention wine, the beauty of the industry is also its biggest challenge. Producing wine in any capacity means being at the mercy of nature, of the seasons and the temperance of the weather. No amount of chemicals can save a vineyard that’s been burnt to the ground by wildfires, or decimated by frosts. However, for industrial producers there are artificial ways to cap the damage and remain afloat. Low-intervention producers are by contrast far more vulnerable to seasonal irregularities; often the only solution is to scrap the vintage, bottle a cider and call it a day.

It’s a Catch-22: some producers are choosing not to use harsh chemicals in order to preserve the health of the soil and be kinder to the earth. However, as the climate problems worsen, large industrial producers who choose to use chemicals are doing so in such quantities that these efforts are being suffocated, and low-intervention producers suffer the consequences despite making a concerted effort not to be part of the problem. 

In the aftermath, we’re left with the question: what can we do to help? It’s clear that the causes of climate deterioration extend far beyond wine production, or even agriculture as a whole, and personal responsibility is only half the battle. However, reducing Co2 emissions in whatever way we can is the best way to help on an individual level, and there’s something to be said for fighting off futility with the feeling that we’re doing our part. One way we can do this is by choosing wines that are packaged differently. 

Glass bottles have been used since the 17th century for storing and transporting wine. Throughout monumental changes to civilisation, the rise of democracies, industrial revolution and everything that came with it; this is one piece of technology we haven’t been able to improve. True, the machinery used to actually bottle the wine has become far more sophisticated, but the bottle itself remains essentially the same. 

Why is this? Well, on a superficial level, glass bottles can be quite beautiful. Perhaps not as beautiful as the painted ceramic jars and pots used in Ancient wine storage, but certainly more beautiful than plastic. On a more practical level, glass bottles with cork seals are perfect for aging. Which is great, when aging the wine is your main priority; but what of a simple, young table wine intended for immediate drinking? Or a mass-produced supermarket bestseller with little to no shelf life? The bottles in this case are nothing more than a vessel for transportation, which is a pretty short lifespan for something that needs a lot of raw materials to produce. On top of this, transporting glass bottles emits almost 10 times as much Co2 than Bag-In-Box (BIB) or pouches, and the recycling process isn’t perfect; plenty of glass still ends up in landfill despite being disposed of correctly. 

Let’s talk about Bag-In-Box. Wines packaged this way don’t historically have the best reputation, and yes: plastic has developed an image as the enemy of the eco-friendly. But let’s look at the statistics: according to a study done by the Norwegian & Swedish governments, glass bottles have a potential environmental impact of ten times the amount of Co2 per litre compared to that of BIB. In France, there’s no shame in buying ‘Cubi’ over glass bottles, and many also refill 5 Litre bottles at their local Co-op. Why, then, is there such stigma elsewhere? Quality’s definitely a factor, but more and more natural & biodynamic producers are choosing to use this format for efficiency alone. Less casualties during transport, larger-scale sales (and less back pain) for importers; it’s a win-win. 

Kegged wine has also become a talking point amongst bar & restaurant owners, even more so since natural wine exploded onto the bar scene. Vulnerable wines without added sulfites are much safer when kegged, since there’s barely any chance of spoilage. A keg of wine (120 glasses, approximately) is popped in the fridge upon delivery, and stays at a stable temperature until it’s emptied; each glass remains as fresh as the first. It’s almost completely zero waste, too: no air gets in, no wine is wasted, and the keg is returned to the supplier to be refilled. The cherry on top: a 96% reduction in carbon footprint over 20 years, compared with bottles. 

As wonderful as these options are for certain situations, there are of course times when only a glass bottle will do. It’ll be quite a while until Michelin-level restaurants are comfortable with filling a carafe from a Cubi of young Beaujolais, and there are moments that cry out for a beautifully aged bottle to add a sense of occasion. This isn’t an argument for fully reinventing our consumption, but rather for modifying it by making the right choices for the right situations to save the industry that we love.