In Vino Sustineri: Why should we care about the environmental impact of wine?

Close up of black grapes on their way down the conveyor belt in Napa shortly after harvest.
Grapes shortly after harvest. (c) Niall Kennedy CC BY-NC 2.0

Ebba Engstrom, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, discusses why we should care about the environmental impact of wine. Based at the Centre for Environmental Policy her research focuses on multi-dimensional sustainability in vineyards in the UK.

Before starting my PhD, I worked with sustainable food systems in Sweden, and how to make our diets more environmentally friendly. During this time, it was exciting to see that there were many initiatives in Sweden to raise awareness about the impacts of our diets on the planet from different types of actors, including start-ups, larger retailers, and the Swedish government. However, in working with this topic, it was odd to me that the impact of alcoholic beverages was not mentioned more.

In fact, from a research standpoint, even though alcohol consumption is widespread globally, alcohol is rarely accounted for in studies that look at the environmental impact of diets. Alcoholic drinks may not make up a major part of our diets’ total environmental impact, but it is not negligible. In the Swedish context, it is especially important to pay attention to the impact of wine, as it is one of Sweden’s most popular alcoholic beverages. A study focused on the climatic impact of alcoholic beverage consumption in Sweden found that wine accounted for  61% of the greenhouse gas emissions here. Furthermore, these products also have an impact on other environmental areas, such as biodiversity and natural vegetation.    

Why should we care about the environmental impact of wine?

Even though the land area occupied by vineyards globally is much smaller in comparison to that of other crops, they are associated with negative environmental impacts. Traditionally, vineyards are intensively managed, involving a high level of pesticide application and the simplification of landscapes, which reduces the diversity of vegetation and crop types. The production and application of pesticides contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and pesticides can also pollute waterways and soils. More so, the way the vineyard land is worked, together with the land-use change brought on by vineyard implementation, can cause disturbances to soil health and biodiversity.

Now, the environmental impacts associated with wine do not stop at the production level in the vineyards. The next steps of the wine supply chain, in terms of winemaking in wineries and then the sale and distribution of wine, also have environmental impacts. At the winery level, there is a high level of electricity consumption during the harvesting period associated with keeping grapes and musts cool. Additionally, traditional packaging in the form of glass bottles contributes to a great share of the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the wine supply chain. Not only does the production and washing of bottles require energy and other resources, but the weight and fragility of glass bottles also means that the distribution leg of the supply chain becomes less efficient (in terms of amount of product transported per vehicle).  

Vineyard in Alentejo, Portugal, in dry conditions
Vineyard in Alentejo, Portugal (c) Ebba Engstrom

There are practices to minimise the environmental impact of the wine industry – and they can even have a positive impact on the environment. At the grape production stage, agricultural practices can include soil management that uses fewer chemical inputs like synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, and causes less disturbance to soil-based organisms, together with the use of beneficial organisms to control pest populations (also known as biological control). At the winery level, one can turn grape waste into valuable products, as well as sell wine in alternative packaging to bottles. One initiative that is becoming more common is that of ‘canning‘ of wine – with retailers like Waitrose in the UK planning to switch to selling many of its wines in this packaging. Additionally, producers can – at both vineyard and winery level – switch to using renewable energy, rather than fossil fuel-based energy.

Climate change – a shift in grape production and wine-making regions

For wine-drinkers in countries like the UK and Sweden, the environmental impact of the wine industry may feel distant and localised to regions which are more traditionally associated with wine production. However, on account of climate change, there are several countries in which the growing of grapes and winemaking has become more viable, including both Sweden and the UK. In the UK, the wine industry was reported as one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the country in 2019. As a result, the more localised environmental impacts caused by grape production and winemaking are now of concern in these countries – and there is a need to ensure that these industries are developed in a sustainable way in these places as well.

Close up of wine bottles in a factory on a production line
Wine bottles on a production line (c) Ebba Engstrom

What can you do?

As consumers, there are a few steps we can take to support sustainable wine production:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the wine labels showing different certification criteria (e.g. organic, biodynamic, sustainable) and what these mean.
  2. Nowadays many wineries share their practices and sustainability intiatives on their websites – have a look at these to find out what they are doing.
  3. Many wineries also offer public tours of their vineyards and production sites (e.g. Ästad Vineyard in Sweden and Rathfinny Estate in the UK), so you can learn first-hand about the practices behind the wine you are drinking.

We can – and should – support sustainability in the wine industry. Doing so, will mean that, as we enjoy that glass of wine, not only will the words, “in vino veritas” apply, but perhaps also, “in vino sustineri”.

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