cop25 torres cover innovations2020b

With images of forests and vineyards burning in the world media, the message that the wine industry sits on the frontline of climate change is strikingly clear. So far the pressure is with the those producers who are, at best, trying to mitigate and adapt, and at worst, just trying to survive. At the consumer end things are changing too, as the industry seeks new ways to communicate.

Consumer choices blurry

With many of the world's leading wine regions now achieving new certification levels denoting sustainability, or that their wines are (overtly) vegan, and many more turning to organic and biodynamic principles, there is no wonder that consumers are making choices based on a myriad of pretty much opaque signals. Recently at the UN climate conference in Madrid I spoke to Miguel Torres, head of the international brand, Bodegas Torres, as well as president of Spain’s Wine Federation (FEV). 

When I asked about impacts to date, Torres replied:

Miguel Torres (MT): What we have noticed in the last decades is that maturation comes earlier. So, grapes we used to harvest in the past in early October, we now have to harvest them in the middle of September.

miguel torres cop25 madrid
Nick Breeze (NB): And what sort of impact does that have on the growth of the grape, the physiology of the grapes and ultimately the style of the wine?

MT: Of course, it has effects you know, because you have two maturations, the maturation of the sugars and the maturation of the quality levels, like anthocyanins, the aromas, like polyphenols, you know? These have a different maturation process, the same as ripening, but then they need the cool nights.

So we have to avoid by any means any harvest in the month of August. In order to achieve this, we have tried to delay maturation with viticultural practices. Playing with rootstocks, at least for the new vineyards, the height of the canopy, density of planting.

The important thing is to delay maturation until the cool nights.

NB: Do you experience any weather extremes in your vineyards?

MT: Yes, in the last few years we have seen these very short heatwaves and they will last only a couple of days and the temperature could rise to 42ºC which is totally abnormal. Then we have seen in some vineyards that if the soils do not have enough clay to store water, then the soil is dry and the vine can dry.

If the vine becomes very very dry then the grapes turn to raisins and eventually the vine may die.

shriveled grapes 600px

Climate pressure rising

Severe and life-threatening climate impacts are imperilling the lives of millions of people from around the world. From a wine-loving perspective, fires in Portugal in 2017, California and Australia in 2019, have all been particularly striking. The latter are still raging now with many devastating images pouring out on to social media.

 

These intensifying extremes are set to continue and worsen as the global climate continues to transition to a new hotter state. When asked about his level of optimism that people will change Torres says:

MT: The vineyards are like a thermometer for climate change or climate emergency. We see this constantly but for most people it is still not a priority. Most people, they just continue with business as usual. They continue to fly, to drive their cars, to eat meat all the time. So, very little changes.  

Are wineries doing enough?

Bodegas Torres has long been a leader in communicating the climate crisis and starting collaborations with other wineries. When I ask him how these are generally going he says:

MT: We started a group about 9 years ago called Wineries For Climate Protection, a fantastic name but in practical terms when it came to reality, it was just a marketing tool. People were not prepared to invest. 

Today we are about 20 wineries there. You see, they can buy green electricity, so, what is the purpose? If you buy green electricity you are not doing much. You are paying the same and you are not helping.

They don’t consider the calculation of the carbon footprint. They don’t include scope 3, everything from the vineyards to the glass where you bottle the wine, and on the other side, the logistics, shipments to Japan or wherever. 

All this is scope 3 and scope 3 is 80% of the normal carbon footprint in a winery. So if you don’t take this into account, what the hell are you doing?

Torres has recently embarked on a wider collaborative international effort to engage the wine world and consumers in taking action on climate:

MT: Now we have a new group, International Wineries For Climate Action that we have started with Jackson [Family Wines] in California, maybe you have heard of it?

NB: Yes I have heard of that. How is it progressing?

MT: It is going well I think. Next month we are getting recognition by the Wine Enthusiast in San Francisco, delivering us an award. We have 6 wineries who are now on board and our team makes sure they see the terms of our protocol because now we have a very serious protocol to make sure we avoid [using this] as any kind of marketing tool. It has to be serious!

New environmental labels in 2020

One of these new innovations coming from International Wineries For Climate Action is a label that will launch in early 2020, clearly showing the environmental footprint of the wine in a way that consumers can recognise:

MT: The problem is that still the consumers don’t make the decision when they go to buy a bottle of wine. They don’t think of what they read about a company who is making an effort to do something.

Miguel Torres climate mitigation wine labelNew Torres Label: 'WE MITIGATE THE EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE'

We are now coming up with a new label in January which will be on our entry-level wines. You see here we will say that this year we are up to a 30% [CO2] reduction, that we are using PV’s and planting forests in Patagonia and so forth.

Currently, consumers in the UK have no clear identification that wineries are truly sustainable or whether they are abiding stricter rules in their definition of sustainability. These new labels aim to make it very clear as to what efforts are being made, in a snapshot.

Portugal rising

Portuguese dry wines have been steadily increasing in popularity with a broad choice of variety and modern styles of winemaking, charming professional tasters and consumers alike. Climate impacts are very much on the rise too. 

On a recent tasting trip in the Dao, one producer told me they lost 50% of their harvest in the region last year, and 70% of their harvest in Vinho Verde where they own a second estate. These are colossal losses in terms of business output.

At lunch in Lisbon with Portuguese wine bureau (OIV) President, Bernardo Gouvêa, he explained:

Bernardo Gouvêa (BG): In the 2017 vintage we had a very bad crop. In 2018 it was better than the rest of Europe; we had an increase compared to the really bad 2017. This year, the 2019 crop is going to be, by our estimations, more than 7% higher than the previous year. Around 6,475,000 litres. 

This is below the medium range for Portugal. It is not enough for us, for our domestic consumption and for our exports so we have to increase a lot the vineyard plantations but we have a restricted regime within the European Community. We are restricted to 1% of increase [of vineyard planting] every year.

So let’s see if this is going to be enough. I am not sure but we have to give a lot of support to plant new vineyards.

Portugal boasts over 300 indigenous grape varieties and in time of changing climates, this is a huge resource in terms of scientific research into new strands of resilient vine properties. 

Gouvêa emphasises the work they are doing:

BG: We are making an effort to preserve and study in terms of the genetic codes of all of the varieties. I think we are pioneers in Europe studying the intra-varietal genetics of the grapes to see if we can find different kinds of plants that are more adapted to the new kind of climate challenge that we are facing in the future.

We have already identified some clones in the same grape variety that are more resistant to the heat by 4ºC than the other clones; in Tinto Roriz, for example.

This research is delivering some really impressive results. We are going to invest in this strategy but also we have to think about the plants' resistance to heat. It is a challenge because we do not want to go outside from Vitis vinifera. It is very important to us to maintain the Vitis vinifera species in Portugal and not to come in with another [species of vine].

UK’s Wine Show launches refillable Reserva from Lisbon

Torres highlighted above that bottling and transportation are not always included in the carbon accounting for some winery businesses and yet these can account for 80% of emissions. Billions of bottles of wine in transit around the world obviously tots up the emissions counter. 

In a project that seems to tackle this head-on, UK TV show, ‘The Wine Show’ has launched a refillable Portuguese wine aimed at what they term the ‘unpacked market’. The white wine is blended from Chardonnay and other ‘field blend’ (indigenous) grape varieties and has some light oak ageing. It is made by producer Luis Vieira, using grapes from his vineyard, Quinta do Gradil, located in the foothills of the Serra de Montejunto.

wine on tap waitrose wineshow

Bulk shipping not new

Merchant bottling was popular in Britain for centuries as barrels of wine shipped here could then be bottled and sold on to drinkers. This new concept has been piloted at 4 stores of Waitrose retailers in the UK in the run-up to Christmas and has a refill price of £6.99, after the initial purchase of £7.99 that includes the glass carafe. The press release states that this wine if sold in bottles, would retail at £12, so the saving is not only on the environment but on the consumer’s budget too. 

Will this method prove more popular? Perhaps for everyday drinking wines, it is a very reasonable proposition. 

Drinking forward into 2020

Climate change is now a firmly established narrative at the winemaking end of the business but is not yet percolating down to the consumer level. This is bound to change as public awareness and action to reduce personal footprints becomes a major trend in the next year. 

The UK is also set to host the UN Climate talks, COP26, in November which will put the subject front and centre for the nation. As companies like Torres, and retailers like Waitrose, make efforts to bridge the gap to better inform consumers, hopefully, climate awareness will become an important factor at the point of sale, in write-ups and marketing.

Listen to the full interview with Bernardo Gouvêa, President of OIV, POrtugal

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