Green Wine: Carbon Neutral, Organic and Biodynamic Wine

Green wine is nothing new. Most people are familiar with organic products of all kinds including wine. Some may even be familiar with biodynamic wine. But in the last two years another category has emerged, carbon-neutral wine.

Like organic and biodynamic wine, making carbon-neutral wine requires changes in the vineyard. Unlike these approaches, carbon neutrality not only affects processes and equipment used in the vineyard, but how the wine is packaged and distributed. In fact, whether or not you believe in global warming, as more winemakers, distributors, retailers and yes, even critics jump on the carbon-neutrality bandwagon, wine lovers should be prepared for drastic changes in the wine industry.

Organic and Biodynamic Wine

organic produce

Organic and biodynamic wine has been around for quite some time and many world-class estates and wineries such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy, Michel Chapoutier and JL Chave in the Rhone, Araujo, Harlan and Quintessa in California, Domaines Zind-Humbrecht and Marcel Deiss in Alsace, Foradori in Northern Italy and many others have become committed organic / biodynamic properties over the past decade.

Put simply, both approaches are about working in the vineyard and in the winery to produce wines that are as natural, true to their terroirs and healthy as humanly possible. How is this achieved? In part, by the elimination of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers in the vineyard with the goal of restoring to the vineyard its natural complexity and ability to fight diseases and promote the proper growth of the vine.

The biodynamic approach goes a step further by using homeopathic agents to encourage aeration and healthy bacterial stimulation of the soil. It also emphasizes using the cycle of the moon to schedule work in the vineyard and the vinifying of wine. Mysticism or ancient wisdom, many winemakers and tasters agree that organic / biodynamic wines are cleaner, purer, more aromatic, livelier and more complex than wines made in the chemically-supported manner.

Carbon-Neutral Wine Makes a Dramatic Entrance

However, these approaches do not address global warming. The importance of global warming has increased of late, prompting a spate of carbon-neutral wineries in the last two years. In September 2006, Grove Mills in New Zealand became the first carbon-neutral winery. Followed soon after by Elderton Wines of Australia and Backsberg Estate in South Africa.

In April 2007, Parducci Winery, part of the Mendocino Wine Company (California) became the first U.S. winery to achieve carbon-neutral status. Since then, 15 wineries in Oregon have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2010.

So, why the sudden interest?

Al Gore

Al Gore and “An Inconvenient Truth” aside, 2006 was a big year for climate science. The wine industry also showed much interest in global warming’s effects on wine, holding several conferences on the subject.

A study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” in July 2006 concluded that global warming could spell disaster for much of the multibillion-dollar U.S. wine industry. According to the study, regions capable of producing premium wine grapes could shrink and shift to other areas of the country.

Specifically, areas suitable for growing premium wine grapes could be reduced by 50%, and possibly as much as 81% by the end of the century. California would be especially hard hit, with Napa Valley eliminated from wine production altogether. However, climate change might open up some new areas for grape cultivation, particularly in the Pacific north-west and the north-eastern states. Unfortunately, rainfall which can damage the grapes, is higher in these areas and is unlikely to decrease with climate change, making wine more expensive to produce.

However, the main problem according to the study, would be the increase in frequency of extremely hot days. Grapes used in premium wines need a consistent climate. When temperatures exceed about 95°F they have problems maintaining photosynthesis and the sugars in the grapes can break down. Technology may help. For example, it might be possible to bioengineer grapes to withstand higher temperatures or rainfall.

But, it should be noted that genetic modification not unlike global warming is a very controversial subject. Millions of dollars have already been spent to introduce a cactus gene into a Chardonnay grape. Researchers expect to have a Chardonnay grape adapted to higher temperatures in 30 years.

According to other studies, a similar fate awaits countries like Spain. In 2006, excessive heat ruined vineyards in southern Spain, forcing wine-makers to move to the cooler climes of the Pyrenees. Others tried to fight the heat by shading their crops and developing heat-resistant grapes.

But even heat-resistant crops need water. Water, already a scarce resource in much of the world, will be increasingly restricted in the future (made worse if a region restricts irrigation). This will make it all but impossible to grow grapes in some hot-climate areas. It could also make vineyards susceptible to new types of pests and diseases.

Global warming, an opportunity?

Winemakers in northern Spain may not be complaining, however. According to Wine Spectator, hot weather in 2003 helped the Priorat and Ribera del Duero regions to get wine scores above 90. Although many winemakers believe global warming is a fact, many also see it as an opportunity.

Several influential French winemakers have a similar opinion. For example, at the 2008 Climate Change and Wine conference in Barcelona, Bruno Prats, former owner of Cos d’Estournel a 2nd growth chateau, commented that the last 10 vintages were the best ever and the warmer weather provided an advantage. Warm weather is beneficial for certain types of wine, especially Cabernet Sauvignon the mainstay of the Medoc. Despite Bordeaux’s reputation for producing outstanding Cabernet blends, it is actually on the cold side for this grape variety.

This point of view is ironic considering French pride in their wine. As temperatures increase, French wine will become more like California wine, something French winemakers criticize for being un-balanced (i.e. too high in alcohol and too low in acidity) and incapable of aging. In addition, warmer weather may be helpful for the ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is also detrimental to early-ripening varieties like Merlot and Pinot Noir.

Viticulture may survive in these hot regions, but what is produced will not likely resemble what winemakers in these regions have crafted for hundreds of years and what many wine lovers have come to enjoy. No more Tempranillo in Rioja. Perhaps a grape variety that does better in warmer climates like Petit Verdot or Grenache.

Maybe, California winemakers can buy land in China. Warming temperatures have brought land just north of Bejing into play as a viticultural zone. Or they can buy land in other “lucky” regions like Chile, Argentina, Tasmania and New Zealand.

The Southern Hemisphere is dominated by oceans, which mitigate the effects of global warming. Much of the land down under won’t suffer the temperature shifts that could make life difficult in more established wine regions in the Northern Hemisphere. In each of these regions, it is possible to plant vineyards at elevations 100 meters (328 feet) higher than current plantings. Or they have cool coastal vineyard regions or the ability to move their viticultural zones south, toward Antarctica.

The Path to Carbon Neutrality

Winery Operation

When individuals think about going green, solar power, wind power, converting from incandescent to fluorescent lighting are all par for the course. Wineries are no different. However, unlike an individual, a winery cannot reduce its carbon emissions to zero, since releasing carbon dioxide is part of the fermentation process (i.e. yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol, and releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct). Therefore, wineries must employ “Carbon Merchants.”

Carbon merchants such as Maryland-based or 3 Phases Energy Services in California essentially charge a fee to the winery based on how much carbon it produces. That money then goes to planting enough trees to pull the same amount of carbon from the air, since trees absorb carbon dioxide as part of the process of photosynthesis. A single, large sugar maple tree can remove up to 450 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

However, green wine estates do have advantages the typical person does not. Like other farms, they can produce their own fuel for use in company vehicles. The fuel can be biodiesel (from soybeans for example), or ethanol. Backsberg Estate in South Africa, sets aside 10% of its land to grow Eucalyptus trees for ethanol (much more efficient than using corn, especially if genetically modified).

Green wine estates also have animals whose waste can be turned into methane gas with the help of a methane digester. This can be used to produce heat, for example.

Bottling and Packaging

The heavier the wine bottle, the more energy is consumed to transport it, and therefore the larger the carbon emissions. Similarly, if it takes a certain amount of energy to produce a given quantity of glass, the more bottles created from the same quantity of glass, the less energy required to produce each bottle. Thus, reducing the weight of the bottle reduces the environmental impact of this form of packaging at every stage.

Carbon-neutral wineries like Grove Mills and Parducci Winery use lightweight glass bottles, but there are alternatives. Tetrapak (i.e. bag in box), or Plastic (PET) bottles for example, are very lightweight but have a cheap connotation. So from a marketing standpoint you might not want to use them unless you also sold cheap wine.

But, lightweight glass bottles also have an image problem. In the wine industry, heavy bottles are associated with value. In fact, makers of premium wine are often the worst offenders. Green wine makers Harlan and Araujo (mentioned as organic / biodynamic wine estates) are good examples of wine packaged in fat, heavy bottles.

Premium winemakers argue that the packaging is appropriate given the value of the product, and the fact that they produce them in low volumes. In addition, a heavy bottle is less likely to break, and is necessary for long-term wine aging.

But, the point is moot if wineries can’t get their hands on lightweight bottles because suppliers won’t provide them. According to Harper’s magazine, the UK’s first forum on lightweight wine bottles, organized by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), turned into a mud-slinging match.

Wine importers accused the glass people of “arrogance” in not being willing to supply the lightweight bottles that are now so much in demand from both producers and retailers since the wine trade became more aware of the need to limit its carbon footprint.

“They say this is what we have and so this is what you will buy”, according to David Cox, head of Brown Forman in Europe. He threatened to turn to alternative packaging such as plastic (PET) bottles and Tetrapak if the glass manufacturers would not cooperate with the demand for lighter glass bottles.

Hey, there’s always bulk shipping. That is, ship the wine unbottled in bulk, and bottle it at its final destination. This would negate the need to transport glass bottles half way round the world. In fact, the bottles would hardly need to move.

Instead of shipping bottles from Australia to the UK, where the bottles will eventually need to be broken down to be recycled, the wine can be bottled in the UK, and when the wine is finished, the bottles can simply be collected and re-used, without having to be melted down or shipped anywhere. Thus each market would have its own re-usable bottles. No more “Mis en Bouteille au Chateau” on your nice bottle of Bordeaux?

Not likely. For many wine regions, bottling at source is mandatory. Rioja, Alsace and Port to name a few. It’s a politically charged issue because bottling in the final market is essentially outsourcing bottling jobs. For poor countries like South Africa, it’s not an appealing solution. Nevertheless, many big producers are getting in on bulk shipping to save shipping costs and improve their profit margins.


Three-Masted Merchant Ship

There’s nothing new about wine shipped around the world. But, for the first time since the late 1800’s, wine is being shipped by sail from France’s Languedoc region to Ireland. The company responsible, “Compagnie de Transport Maritime a la Voile”.

The ship itself, the first of seven planned to be working by 2013, is the 52-metre (170-feet) three-masted barque Belem, the last French merchant sailing vessel to be built. Launched in 1896, its job was to bring chocolate from Belem in Brazil, to France.

The wine is delivered to Bordeaux by barge using the Canal du Midi and Canal du Garonne that run across southern France. From there it is shipped under sail to Ireland. Delivery time is about four days. The ship brings back to France an equivalent tonnage of crushed glass for recycling into wine bottles at two factories, one in Bordeaux and one in Beziers.

The first shipment to Dublin was about 60,000 bottles, and each bottle carried a label with a stylised ship logo and the slogan, “Carried by sailing ship, a better deal for the planet”.