Sustainability in wine – as well as pretty much every other alcoholic beverage – is increasingly being put under the microscope.

Whenever we think of sustainability, the winemaking industry often comes to mind.

And there’s a good reason for that from soil to table, the industry as a whole has been making efforts to reduce waste and any negative impact on the environment.

Viticulture is essentially an agricultural affair. And unfortunately, in recent years, climate change has generally not been kind to winemakers. Vintages can be very different in character year-to-year, thanks in part to variations in weather. In fact, one would say that’s part of the charm.

But with rising temperatures and unpredictable weather being the norm, grapes are tending to ripen far too early, forcing winemakers to rethink their long-term approach in what increasingly looks like a sink-or-swim situation for the industry.

Times have changed – drastically.

You might say that it’s a confluence of factors that led us to this rather unique moment in time. Firstly, there’s the growing importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics – an increasingly important factor driving investment – with its financial implications that may have created push factors in helping things along. In the past, the added cost of sustainability pursuits would have made products uncompetitive.

These days though, Generation Z is widely accepted to care more about sustainability when it comes to buying decisions. The market cannot ignore that. Here’s a cynical way of looking at it: if there’s any time to reposition a company to better serve the next generation of big spenders, now’s the time, please. The new generation is just starting to grow their earning power at this point, and this is a budding relationship that companies cannot afford to ignore.

In hindsight we might even look upon the pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict as key driving factors for change; the former forced millions out of their comfort zone to embrace digitalisation, while the latter created shortages and shaped consumption habits through price changes. Prowein’s surveys have shown as much, and winemakers are taking to address these pain points.

And just like that, perhaps a new normal for sustainability in the wine industry will arrive sooner than we think.

Importance of circumstances and timing.

Previously, companies were able to justify why a shift towards sustainable practices could potentially cause more harm than good, especially when margins were low and the sustainability tag in itself did not make the product a more attractive proposition. In many cases, it often did the opposite.

But lockdowns put paid to that. Industries that had relied heavily on in-person interactions pivoted and adopted a model grounded in the digital world. The wine industry is no different, and some markets saw a growth in sales as they manage to tap into local consumers’ new homebound lifestyle and drinking patterns.

Also, the rising costs of transportation and materials meant that among other things, packaging and shipping costs became pressing concerns. The cost of glass had been expected to increase by another 45-70% this year. And while it has always been the traditional material of choice, something needs to give; especially when it comes to cheaper wines with lower margins.

Packaging makes more sense as a compromise. Consumers are more inclined to ‘comply’ when forced to choose between a higher price tag or a less appealing package. By that same logic, it is highly unlikely that premium wines will get the wine-in-a-box treatment in the name of sustainability. Unless, of course, one functions like Telmont, which consciously built its identity around this very public commitment to environmentally conscious decisions, though they did not go to the extent of doing away with glass bottles entirely. They simply stripped away non-essential packaging, even for its top-dollar offerings. Recently, the brand announced that it will be adopting 800-gram bottles – 35 grams lighter than today’s standard champagne bottles – to reduce its environmental impact.

Ludovic du Plessis understands luxury and is well-equipped to conjure products that are sustainable and appealing. (Image: Telmont)

You can litmus test this with another aspect of sustainable practices: hyper-locality. It’s often touted that it is beneficial to eat local or consume products made closer to home, as it reduces the carbon footprint accrued through shipping. This is purely opinion, but for Singapore at least, it is unlikely we will compromise on food ingredients in favour of environmental responsibility: affordable food becomes more expensive, while fine dining that is very exacting of its sources is unlikely to compromise with substitutes it may deem inferior or inappropriate. So unless we’re compelled to deny ourselves options, it’s highly unlikely that any lasting change will happen.

Sustainability is a lifestyle choice.

This all points to one thing: it is very much a lifestyle choice. Much like how fast food is borne from a decision that we prioritise speed and convenience over all else, sustainability is also about convincing others to buy into the way of life. There’s no doubt that the idea of drinking sustainably sounds appealing, but only those who buy into the philosophy are willing to compromise familiarity for a sense of responsibility.

In the past, natural wines didn’t quite take off because they were very different from the wines people were used to. But producers have since taken that to heart and are trying to find a middle ground.

For natural wine at least, the process affects the outcome to a large degree. It’s an entirely different experience, as you are tasting a product that is fundamentally different taste-wise, which is a direct reflection of those choices.

It’s a little different when Apple talks about its environmental concerns that affect the design of its products; arguably, the recycled materials used don’t perceivably change the experience of the product. In contrast, Acer’s recycled plastic laptop – Vero – proudly displays the patterns and texture of a recycled plastic mix and you can literally experience the physical manifestation of that philosophy; much like the wine, it’s a matter of savouring the ideals as well.

Joerg Henkenhaf brought over a bit of his German tradition to New Zealand, putting waste lees to good use.(Image: Broken Heart Spirits)

That idea applies to spirit producers too, and in some ways, our ancestors would loathe to let things go to waste. That was certainly the case for Broken Heart Spirits founder Joerg Henkenhaf, who hailed from a family of winemakers in Germany. He discovered that vineyards in Gibbston Valley in New Zealand were discarding their lees and decided to collect them to distill grappa, which would how they would do it back home. Henkenhaf would wind up helping other wineries in the region by distilling their waste product. And turning it into something delicious, no less!

Then there are brands like Flor de Caña that likewise revel in the drive for sustainability. The Nicaraguan rum brand – best known for its award-winning sustainably-produced rums – may be currently the world’s only Carbon Neutral- and Fair Trade-certified spirit, but we’re sure that will soon change in the future.

Many names, same goal.

And then there’s the old elephant in the room called global warming. Aside from the grapes ripening too early, other issues are standing by awaiting their cue: higher soil erosion risk and an influx of new pests, just to name a couple. A ‘sustainable’ approach to viticulture helps to allay these problems, by making the local ecosystem more robust and resilient to changing weather conditions.

Not all winemakers are in a position to transition their plots for organic or biodynamic farming as these are processes that take many years to implement, plus they are also done in the view of meeting regulated standards such as Demeter and EU Organic. But it doesn’t shut the door to the adoption of regenerative farming practices, which also aim to improve the long-term health of the soil.

Ultimately, it’s about enhancing the local ecosystem and biodiversity, while minimising the effect of human activities and their unwanted interventions. Many vineyards leave areas of the land untouched to promote natural habitats for wildlife, and some even plant native vegetation to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to get things going.

Regenerative agriculture is one of the less-talked-about approaches, partly also due to the fact that most of us use the blanket term, sustainable agriculture, instead. Similarly, biodynamic farming is in essence, a form of regenerative agriculture. Where it may get confusing is that regenerative agriculture does not fully exclude the use of synthetic fertilisers if their use can be justified. This is what separates it from organic farming, for example.

And in many ways, regardless of whether one is following organic or biodynamic certification standards, there’s considerable overlap in terms of practice and the outcome. And they all help to temper the effects of global warming to some degree, by potentially improving yield, and minimising soil erosion and dependence on fertilisers. Provence-based Château Malherbe, which was certified biodynamic in 2021, says that the approach has helped them to achieve more lively soils despite the hydric stress and strong sunshine of their region.

Regardless of the approach, they all share the same goal of improving the soil. If nature wins, so do the winemakers.

chateau malherbe - coast
Château Malherbe’s commitment to organic viticulture methods started in the ’60s to protect its fishing interests, with its vineyards placed next to the coast. (Image: Château Malherbe)

Reducing waste and improving efficiency.

One underlying commonality is that embracing a sustainability-driven model actually seems more cost-effective in the long run.

With recent global events, we learn not to take the bare necessities for granted and the importance of not being dependent on a single source of energy. In the case of vineyards, it would mean exploring renewable energy or employing a gravity flow layout to reduce and offset costs wherever possible.

Likewise, with rising costs of packaging and transportation, it makes sense to rethink the playbook. While closed-loop systems like ecoSPIRITS aren’t quite a thing yet in the world of wine, there are some, like Coquard on Tap, that are already serving up AOC wines in recyclable PET kegs.

ecoSPIRITS plantation rum canister
ecoSPIRITS is a patent-pending, first-in-the-world technology using an innovative closed-loop distribution technology that nearly eliminates packaging waste in the premium spirits supply chain. (Image: ecoSPIRITS)

The bottom line is that since we can’t expect to drastically change behaviours on a whim (maybe if shipping costs go up again, but touchwood), the more modest, or ‘low hanging fruit’ approach for most, is to do away with extraneous packaging beyond the bottle, or bottle or package designs that themselves require fewer materials in order to pack and ship.

So, wine in kegs may well be the norm in the future, especially if we can enjoy substantial savings on shipping when buying bulk quantities of a daily sipper. And on top of that, think of the space you’ll save at home, and the massively reduced carbon footprint on your ledger.

Then again, there is New Zealand with its respectable 75% glass recovery rate for recycling. It makes the rest of the world look bad (mind you, Norway stands at 93% without a refund system) and all these alternatives look superfluous – but it’s a lot to do with sociological reasons.

Perhaps it’s also why (plus the fact they’re relatively small) they’re able to drive through initiatives that might seem daunting to others, like shifting to a circular economy to reduce waste. They have a lofty target: that the wine industry achieves zero landfill waste by 2050.

Perhaps it’s time we consumers do our part as well. Be it to learn about how our wines are made, as well as to reward those who show reverence to the environment. They’ve earned it.

ProWine Singapore will return on 23-25 April 2023, and it is a good way to learn about the new wave of innovations in the wine world and more. The aforementioned ecoSPIRITS will also be present if you want to learn about closed-loop delivery systems in Singapore and Broken Heart Spirits will be showcasing its range of organic and sustainable gins.

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