The Environmental Impact of Wine: From Viticulture to Consumption

The Environmental Impact of Wine: From Viticulture to Consumption
Frances Andrijich for The New York Times

It’s become much more common practice for consumers to question where their food comes from and how it was produced. However, it’s only recently that people’s attention has turned to understanding how wine is produced. If you care about your produce, you should care about your wine. After all, wine is an agricultural product, even if we don’t always see it as such. It’s easy to forget that a lot of effort and resources are required to get this delicious liquid in your glass.

There are many factors to consider when attempting to determine wine’s environmental impact. We have to look at growing practices, cellar practices, packaging size and type, shipping distance, as well as distribution method.

In the Vineyard: Viticulture

As is true for all agriculture, before the industrial revolution, viticulture was largely dominated by farmers who had tended to their land — and in this case their vines — for generations. This all changed after World War II, when agricultural chemicals, mechanized tools and new technologies became readily available (and readily used). They promised increased efficiency and yields, as well as reduced inputs and losses.

While more and more producers are adopting organic, biodynamic and regenerative viticultural practices in their vineyards (more on that in a later blog), the vast majority of mass-produced wines are still farmed industrially. Machine harvesting is common practice in large vineyards as it is less time consuming and more cost effective than physical labour. Along with the direct emissions, the associated indirect emissions must be considered (i.e. fuel production, machinery production).

Fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides are used to combat vineyard “pests”, mildews, and fungal diseases, all while increasing vine productivity. Synthetic fertilisers, such as ammonium nitrate or calcium nitrate, and organic fertilisers, like horse or cow manure and vegetable waste, are regularly applied to increase soil fertility. However, the regular use of synthetic fertilisers gradually degrades the soil and makes it dependent on its continuous use. Although organic fertilisers are understood to be better, they still release substantial emissions of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

Pesticides are equally problematic, as these chemicals pose additional risks to the environment due to the potential for run-off, which can contaminate local water sources. Their use is more pervasive than you might think. French wine producers are no strangers to spraying; despite only accounting for 3% of France’s agricultural land, vineyards are responsible for 20% of the country’s pesticide use.

The other main resource used to grow grapes is water. The majority of water used in wine production is used for irrigation rather than in the winery. Even though this is the case, grapes need a relatively small amount of water compared to other crops. In fact, several vintners are proponents of dry farming. Those who do use irrigation to ensure bountiful fruit can improve water use efficiency by utilising precision irrigation techniques.

In the Cellar: Viniculture

Now that the fruit has been picked, either by hand or by machine, it’s time to ferment it and turn it into wine. The process of alcoholic fermentation itself generates CO2 as a byproduct (fun fact: when this CO2 is intentionally trapped the result is sparkling wine). In fact, the emissions released during fermentation are the most concentrated of all industrial CO2 emissions.

Other direct emissions associated with wineries are caused by synthetic refrigerants released as a result of refrigeration and insulation. Indirect emissions linked to winery activities are largely due to electrical demands such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, pumping, etc. Various wine industry associations offer energy saver toolkits to help wineries improve their energy efficiency. Less significant, are the indirect emissions created during the production of commercial yeast (which natural wines and low-intervention producers have moved away from), additives, and barrels.

Moreover, winery wastewater management is of the utmost importance. Water is regularly used to hose down barrels, tanks and floors. Water usage can be minimized by switching to high pressure hoses, or cleaning with brooms and squeegees. The generation of some waste water is difficult to avoid and must be managed appropriately. Water and caustic based cleaning solutions can be captured and reused. There has been an increase in reusing winery wastewater, after minimal treatment, as an affordable and sustainable source of irrigation water for grasses, root crops and cereals. If this is not possible, the waste water must be treated and disposed of accordingly.

Packaging and Distribution

Only a little over a third of a wine’s carbon footprint can be attributed to vineyard and winery activities, the rest can be attributed to its packaging, distribution, and storage. Although glass bottles can be recycled more than two dozen times, they add significantly to transport emissions due to their weight. Additionally, producing glass is an energy intensive activity with natural gas needed to melt raw materials, such as sand and limestone. Other packaging components that require production are the cork and tin or aluminium foil around the cork. Cork is a pretty sustainable material: it’s biodegradable, renewable, recyclable, reusable, and can circulate continuously in the economy. Since wine corks are a tightly-packed, impermeable material, they cannot be composted at home nor do they break down easily in landfills. Luckily, several national cork recycling projects collect this material and manufacture it into new products. RecycleBox by First Mile collect used corks and send them to their partners who donate or resell the corks for a second life. On the other hand, tin or aluminium foil wrapped around the cork are problematic. Tin is a conflict mineral and the production of aluminium is energy intensive. This is why certain producers are choosing to nix this (mainly aesthetic) practice. When we stop to consider that most wine is purchased with immediate consumption in mind, these packaging practices seem incredibly wasteful.

For this reason, among others, we’re beginning to see more wine available in bags, cartons, or on tap at restaurants and pubs. The footprint of packaging can be reduced by a factor of five by purchasing wine packaged in cartons rather than glass. Since some consumers can’t help but judge the quality of their wine by the vessel it comes in, winemakers have started shipping their wines in stainless steel containers, and completing bottling closer to the point of sale. By reducing the weight of the load to be transported, the transport emissions are reduced in turn. It is estimated that transporting wine in bulk can cut emissions by 40%!

A great way to reduce emissions related to transport and to support your local economy (!) is to drink wines produced closer to home. Even here in England, winemakers are crafting excellent, harmonious sparkling wines in Sussex and Kent, among other places. Despite this, the United Kingdom is the world’s largest importer of wine, according to WRAP. Half of all wine imported comes from the New World (the far away lands of North America, South America, South Africa and Oceania). The country or continent of origin isn’t always the most important factor to consider when evaluating transport emissions. The method of transportation has a more significant impact than the distance travelled. Wines that have travelled long distances overland, either by car or by plane, should be minimized. For example, Americans who live east of Nebraska are “better off buying a wine from Bordeaux than one from Sonoma [California]”.

In short, next time you’re picking out a bottle of wine to drink, take a minute to question how and where the grapes were grown, how it was transported to you and the vessel it came in. Stay tuned for the next blog post about sustainably produced wines, where we’ll present alternatives to conventionally produced wines. There will also be suggestions on where to drink good wine that does good 😉.