Destructive forest fires in California and Australia. High temperatures and record drought in Europe. Grape varieties that grow in previously unpleasant places. The effects of climate change on the world’s wine production are not theoretical, they are there and they are real.
Introducing climate neutrality. The idea is that wineries can offset their impact on the environment by switching to renewable energy sources such as wind, reducing or eliminating chemical sprays, using smarter packaging such as lighter bottles, and buying carbon credits from non-profit organizations.
Some wineries strive to obtain climate-neutral quality certificates, which are issued by third parties such as Natural Capital Partners, or proudly display them.
Climate neutrality has become a hallmark for wine companies that want to combat climate change. But is that enough?
Alex Katz has launched Protector Cellars, which he believes will be the first wineries in the world to benefit from a favourable climate in 2020. / Photo courtesy of Protector Cellars
Being CO2 neutral doesn’t help, we’re stuck, says Dr. Robert Boulton, leading professor of grape and oenology at the University of California at Davis. If we all become carbon neutral tomorrow, we will still have forest fires, we will still have melting ice caps because we have done nothing to reverse 120 years of carbon emissions.
We [feed] the wrong information that it is not a problem if you are climate neutral.
Becca Yamans Irwin, environmental scientist and author of The Academic Wino, agrees. It is admirable to reduce carbon emissions by reducing them elsewhere, but the fact is that you continue to emit bad emissions that ultimately need to be reduced rather than simply offset, she says.
Industrial leaders such as Boulton and the Porto Protocol, a group working to reverse climate change, believe that wineries should not only capture or reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but also extract more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce.
Don’t just see it as climate-neutral.
Wine Cellar Protectors are stored to reduce their carbon footprint / Wine Cellar Protector softness
Winemaker Alex Katz has been observing climate change in California for a decade. Harvests arrived earlier and the threat of forest fires increased exponentially.
We are in the agricultural industry, we are completely dependent on the environment, and the environment around us is changing, he says.
At the beginning of 2020, Mr Katz launched the production of Protector Cellars, which he believes are the first wineries in the world to have a positive impact on the climate. It looked at all parts of the wine-growing process that cause carbon emissions and started to address them one by one.
He only bought grapes from certified sustainable vineyards. He chose wine after learning that bottles are one of the greatest sources of carbon in viticulture. Katz has also worked with the non-profit organization Tree for the Future to offset unavoidable carbon emissions.
The guiding principle was: If I look at every aspect of the industry and my production process, how can I improve the carbon footprint without compromising the quality of the wine?
Katz believes that thanks to his efforts it was possible to create a cellar with a favourable climate.
According to Bulton, such a reflection is essential to ensure the ecological and economic viability of the entire wine industry. If you don’t have a sustainable development plan in 50 years, you won’t be here, he says.
One of the main side-effects of biodynamic Cullen wines is the net positive carbon effect / Francis Andrijic Pictures
Environmental protection has always been the driving force behind Cullen Wines, a company founded in 1966 in the Margaret River region of Southwest Australia.
It is part of ethical business management, says Vanya Cullen, a second-generation winegrower and winemaker.
For Callen, the natural next step is to go beyond climate neutrality. In 2003 Cullen Wines switched from organic to biodynamic production. At the time, this movement was not very popular in Australia. There was a lot of negativity and open hostility, she said.
But she insisted. One of the main side-effects of his biodynamic practice is the net positive impact on the carbon in the cellar.
We’ve been measuring carbon for six years and… …and we’re positive about carbon, she says. Last year, 75 tonnes of carbon per hectare were measured in our vineyard.
After careful consideration, Cullen Wines discovered that it emitted around 4,000 tonnes of carbon in 2019 and ended the year with an additional 80 tonnes of carbon seed in the soil.
Our climate-neutral certification body has never done this before, she says.
While the sustainability measures cost the winery about A$25,000 a year (just over A$18,000), Cullen estimates that it can sequester four times as much carbon on its property as it would otherwise have to pay in offsets.
We are in the agricultural sector, we are completely dependent on the environment and the environment around us is changing. -Alex Katz, basement security.
There are steps the industry can take to encourage more wineries to switch to emissions trading. Cullen and Bulton believe that a global market where winemakers can sell their additional carbon credits to those who need to buy offsets would effectively help create an emissions trading system that would financially reward climate-proof viticulture.
There is no meaningful programme for small producers to sell their carbon, Bulton said. Small producers cannot sell the carbon they have captured in their vineyards.
As industry initiatives, such as the Port Protocol, gain more and more members and a new generation of wine lovers learn about the climate crisis, carbon operations may become the norm for wineries that take environmental issues seriously.
It should be the yardstick for sustainable development everywhere, says Katz. It has become clear that the industry is not viable on today’s global road.
System changes take time, but so does wine. Perhaps an industry accustomed to measuring time over decades and generations is particularly suited to this task.
If we needed 120 years to get back in balance, it’s reasonable to say it would take 100 years to get back in balance, or 25 years if we’re serious, says Bulton. But what’s wrong with it taking you 25 years to do something when it took you 120 years to get to this point?
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