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#21: A deep dive into | HOW SUSTAINABLE IS WINE? 🪴
A few changes going forward, and diving deep into whether wine can (or rather, how it can) be a sustainable delicacy in the years to come.
It’s been a while, I know. A new job, not having to study wine formally and a new puppy in tow has made the last month a lot of life changes, all positive and bright.
With a little less time than I’d like to fulfil my many side interests, Dosage is going to wind down to a little more infrequently for the next while to help me build out other channels and, well, relax too. I promise more new issues ideas are on post its around my desk. And with a bit of time to reflect and energise, I’m buzzed about a few changes in gear that are coming.
Now, back in the room. Sustainability it is! 🌱 This has been sitting in drafts for a while and has grown and grown in content. Which is probably about two months of writing in one issue, anyhoo…
What’s the carbon footprint of wine looking like?
Surprisingly (and thankfully), not bad - all things considered. Looking to Our World in Data, there’s an estimated 2kg CO2 produced for every 1kg finished wine product (expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2eq for short).
It’s a rough rule of thumb, and this is going to vary a lot by supplier and where you’re drinking said wine. With chocolate at a 47 kg CO2eq per kg produced and coffee at 29kg CO2eq per kg, as vices go, we ain’t doing bad. Not a direct or justifiable extrapolation, but it’s just below tofu and tomatoes in terms of CO2eq. It’s only time before that becomes a terrible pun on a B+M mug akin to “I lOvE cOoKiNG wItH wInE sOmEtImEs i pUt It In ThE fOoD”.
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But if you’re looking to get more specific, there’s a lot of variables and unknowns ahead of you. The transport from origin to decanting is the obvious one. But the year of the harvest also has a large impact based on how much manual labour, pesticides or grapes were yielded by the climate, as studies have shown. In other nerdy news that I’ve dug out, an organic Chianti is looking like one of the most eco-friendly options to drink post bottling. Like with all academia, we’re limited to what has been studied and published to date. But does give hope to try out a fabulous Italian number, no? A Chianti Classico is generally the way to go for good quality, since you’re asking.
What does standout with wine though, is how much can still be improved.
If you scroll back up to the carbon equivalent chart packaging’s a big clincher here. Almost half of the CO2 is down to the glass that’s been the most favoured option historically in the industry. While glass is recyclable, it’s a huge resource to produce - and we know not all of that ends up recycled fully, despite waves toward a circular economy.
Glass bottles are excellent vessels to mature a wine worth maturing in. The cork will gradually leach oxygen to help wines develop, and smoothen out some bitter notes. But it ain’t going to do much for your day to day wines, let alone ones to glug ASAP. 70% of the wine consumed in the world is destined for near immediate consumption, and there’s no advantage to keeping it in your cellar, as that’s probably as good as it gets when you buy it. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for example will lose those juicy fresh tropical notes in most cases, and simmer down to a hazy boiled cabbage flavour.
Cartons, cans and boxes of wines are growing in the market as sustainable alternatives. A rant for another article, as they’re by no means a tacky or cheap substitute.
Waste not, want not as we produce
Zero waste food and drinks are on the rise (fermentation pun not intended), and wine comes with its own byproducts. After you press the grapes and extract the juice, there’s the pulp left to contend with - which leaves a huge bulk, particularly when a small vineyard is producing well into the tens of thousands of bottles. Unlike one of those super duper juicers of the mid noughties that give a flavourless pulp at the end, the grape skins still have a bit going on with them, and the yeasts are still active.
There’s some options that have been used to get creative and make sure the most of the product is kept up:
In Italy, it’s traditional to distill the grape skins into a spirit known as Grappa. Traditionally served after a meal, anyone who’s had the experience of tasting it will know that it’s strong, three espresso martini strong in punchiness.
Flushing the pomace (as the remaining grape skins are called) with water and allow it to ferment again is known as piquette. Not quite beer but not quite wine in texture, this makes a sparkling drink that is lower in alcohol, and a nice thirst quencher which allows for the grape pulp to have a second use. While I had my hopes up as a way to create a new alcoholic drink category, making any wine by-product that is not Grappa (and within Italy as it’s a protected term) is illegal to trade or sell in the EU. In Australia, California and South Africa, piquette has started to grow in popularity as an alternative to beer, but sadly none for us unless you’re working in the vineyard or offered a dash on its own. More on why later.
Some beer makers have been experimenting with the use of wine grapes as well to provide a hybrid product. This is few and far between outside of the States, so watch this space. (I have spent a little time getting to understand the processes behind craft beers but, it never quite catches me in the same romance - so don’t expect this to be discussed down the line.
Other elements that remaining grape skins and seeds can be used for include skincare, biofuel, cooking oil, compost, extracts…. Which generally require a good bit of intervention from people with white coats to get it back in tangible form.
How will wine change in line with climate change?
Many people have asked me how climate change will affect wines in the future, and it’s not all bad news. But, it is going to change.
For the more established regions that have become household names in the wine world (Napa, Champagne, Burgundy), the rising temperatures absolutely pose a threat. The fruit has been getting increasingly riper and riper by the year as the temperatures rise, meaning that harvest season comes earlier when its good, and also starts to build toward a boozier wine since there’s more sugar to convert. This has also changed the palette of the wine gradually, which means that the winemaker has to make adaptions to keep a similar style going if the preference is to maintain the norm. Within the EU, this can be tricky if the grape varieties or amount of sugars in grapes have to be regulated (as they usually do). It could mean that there’s a new way to celebrate these wines in the future and look back at the flavour palettes of the past with nostalgia (and a heftier vintage price). However, in some cases the terroir is failing as it normally does, and more intensive (and generally expensive) measures to make sure that the soil stays fertile and is irrigated have to take place.
It also means that new wine regions are going to crop up. The South Coast of England is truly on the map for fine prestige with their production of English Sparkling Wine in the same style of Champagne, which has seen many a Champagne house buy some property in the home countries a little like Burgundians and the Bordelaise did in California in the 90s. The climate in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire is in its prime to produce wines of excellent quality that give the North of France a run for its money.
However, more rounded reds and whites could be increasingly grown and gain prestige at the rate things are going. Pinot Noir from the UK has been getting a name for good quality in the past, but for scorchers of years like 2022, it means that there has been sufficient warmth to ripen some of the sun worshipping grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon which generally need long growing seasons to get there. Some parts in Scotland and Ireland have already been pinpointed as excellent points to harvest grapes in the future the way things continue.
It can be seen as a way to widen the wine economy, but it will also shrink some elements quite strongly, too. Some regions such as Central Spain and Southern Italy are eroding soil hugely and combined with high temperatures, are providing arid conditions even for vines which generally don’t need a lot of TLC to produce beautiful fruits. Not every cloud has a silver lining here.
The case for Wonky Wine
Lest I leave you with an unsure future for the world of wine, there’s another threat that’s more ominous and obvious. The market and future drinkers themselves. Gen Z are a funny bunch. In between opting for early noughties text speak and no capitalisation in sentences, they make a mere 30 year old feel ancient with their explorations into ketamine and MDMA if we believe what we see as each season goes in Euphoria. But there is some truth to the Skins-on-steroids scripture: they ain’t drinking. Alcohol consumption is falling per capita, and in an already shrinking market, it’s not all going to a boom of new generation wine drinkers.
More for us, ha ha, you may think, but it tells a sad tale if you’re an enthusiast like me. There’s razor thin margins that both plonk and prestige labels are running on in the winemaking biz and let me tell you, it’s a romantic - not a pretty vocation by any means. Wild fires in Chile have ripped up some of the oldest vines just this summer on that side of the world, and to get a vintage that good again it’s going to take decades to get the soils and vines mature enough to make the good stuff. Most evocatively, there’s been protests in Bordeaux as wine has been poured literally down the sink. Bordeaux has fallen out of fashion for lighter reds and saline whites, but it’s an area of immense quality. Which is now being converted into industrial alcohol for the likes of hand san, and grants to keep the farmers going.
Without support, the wine industry is fragile at the best of times, and it’s very hard to keep a product on the shelf, let alone to enter the market as vineyards have soared in price. Wine byproducts within Europe at least are tight commodities, as the market does not sell every bottle that it produces in itself. Hard to believe, but there’s decent wine that will never be drunk. It’s either destined to become industrial alcohol (like methylated spirits or hand sanitiser). Or, quite simply, down the drain. Like most physical stock, this is heartbreaking, but particularly when the grape growing and wine making industry are not ones that are making a healthy (or sometimes, not even) a profit.
While we look to tweak the wine production capabilities and use the entire part of the grape, some wine is being literally poured down the sink, or made into industrial alcohol if it’s not used. And it’s not a small quantity, either. Wonky wine IS going to become a thing, although its roots still haven’t quite hit out quite yet.
One spot that I’ve heard on the grapevine in London is the Wasted Wine Club, dedicated to providing winemakers that are finding hard-to-shift stock and bringing it to a fashionable light.
Watch this space, and more content hopefully to come in the near future!