A Look at Sustainable Wines Banner Image
July 9, 2020 Sustainability Tips

Wine making is one of the oldest industries and despite that, it’s only been in the last couple of decades that sustainability has really played a role on the global stage. Understanding the impact of the industry, from the consumer side, can help us make informed choices and to help shift market demand towards a more sustainable industry.

A short history of wine  
The oldest evidence of humans making some version of fermented grapes comes from Georgia, around 6000 BC, followed millennia later by Iran and Sicily. Wine was a staple industry in Ancient Greece, as well as in the Roman Empire. In the middle ages, ‘viticulture’ was essentially abandoned by all, save for a few monastic orders who kept the art alive. Expansion of trade routes in the 1600s, as well as new packaging (advances in glass-blowing methods) paved the way for the global industry.

The wine industry today 
Italy, France and Spain are the world’s greatest producers of the world’s wine, which make up 50% of the global market by volume.1 While wine is an integral part of cultures throughout the world, it is historically absent in others. The advancement of global distribution networks has increased the reach and popularity of the industry, which has grown to a value of 355 billion USD.2

Are you interested in knowing how to buy wine with the most positive social, environmental, and economic impact? Skip to the bottom and read ‘Selecting Sustainable Grapes’

Environmental Impacts

Emissions

  • As with all agricultural products, wine production requires energy (resulting in emissions) for all aspects of its production, processing, and distribution.
  • A primary contributor to wine’s carbon footprint is the production and distribution of glass bottles.3

Distribution of the glass wine bottle is a big culprit when it comes to wine’s carbon footprint (glass is heavy and takes up a lot of space).

Pollution

  • The wine industry in Europe is responsible for 15% of synthetic pesticide applications, despite taking up only 3.5% of cropland.4
  • Run-off of pesticides and fertilizers can contaminate surface and groundwater sources.3
  • Overuse of chemical defences can harm predator populations that naturally keep pests at bay, leading to increased pesticide use.3

Water

  • Approximately 70% of water intake by wineries becomes wastewater.5
  • Water-use can have varying impacts on local water sources, depending on the location and the amount of water that available
  • Disposal of wastewater without proper treatment comes with significant environmental risks

Land and Biodiversity

  • Proper ecosystem management of vineyards can contribute to the enhancement of local biodiversity and provide ecosystem services.6
  • Improper ecosystem management can cause harm to the local flora and fauna and result in harm to the vineyard itself by throwing the ecosystem out of balance.

Social Impacts

As with all internationally sold products, there can be risk associated with the industry’s impacts on the people and communities along that supply chain. South America and South Africa, both big players in the industry face unique economic and social challenges. Certifications, such as Fairtrade, have helped to ensure that workers and farmers are treated and compensated fairly. Many of the ‘New World’ wine producers (Argentina, Chile, Australia) have put a greater emphasis on social and ethical regulation than their ‘Old World’ counterparts.

It also bears mentioning that increased consumption and normalization of wine culture can bring unique challenges to countries that haven’t historically been large consumers of wine.

Economic Impacts

The wine industry has substantial economic impact, domestically and globally. In Canada, for every $1 spent on Canadian wine sold in Canada, $3.42 in GDP is generated across the country.7

There can be many benefits to local communities with the presence of vineyards and wineries, such employment opportunities and revenue coming from tourism. However, because of the growth of the industry, small scale farmers can also find it difficult to compete with large-scale ownership in the global market.

Sustainable Regulation and Certifications

Despite the ancient history of wine, and its established global presence, sustainability and environmental regulation has only been at the forefront for the last couple of decades. Organic regulation of winemaking was approved in the European Union in 2012 and strides have been made as vineyards shift to more sustainable and less chemically reliant systems. Every country has its own system of environmental certification, as well as its own standards for environmental regulation, which can make it a bit confusing, especially as a consumer trying to pick the right wine.

Selecting Sustainable Wines

Put a cork in it

Contrary to popular myth, when it comes to the most sustainable type of wine stopper, it happens to be the most traditional one. The cork oak, grown primarily in Portugal, provides a model of sustainable agriculture. Cork oak forests provide habitat, regulate water, and increase biodiversity. On top of all that, they help to mitigate climate change by storing carbon.8 The outer layer bark of this evergreen is harvested from living trees which actually require human use to sustain their ecosystem benefits.9 New technologies have allowed for greater quality control of the natural product, removing concerns of ‘corked wine’ (and increased waste). Synthetic (plastic) stoppers and screw caps have been favoured in recent years because they are cheaper to purchase than cork.

Did you know that cork can be recycled? Check out the work that ReCORK is doing, and the drop-off locations in Vancouver.

Choosing Where Your Wines Comes from

As was discussed in the last Sustainability Tips, there are countless benefits to supporting local agriculture and business. To name a few, supporting local business can decrease emissions, help the local economy, and contribute to a healthy community.  However, this doesn’t mean that you can never again purchase your favourite bottle of Bordeaux. Like all matters in sustainable purchasing, graduality is important and moderation can be key.

Tips for Choosing Sustainable Grapes

  • Skip the extra drive. Taking an extra drive can be a primary contributor to the impact of your purchase (even if you are buying a local wine). Always purchase wine as part of your regular driving routine, otherwise take a walk or ride your bike.
  • Check the label. Check to see if the wine has any certifications listed on the bottle. If you don’t recognize them, take a couple seconds to look it up. Going Organic or Fairtrade (when purchasing from South America or South Africa) is one place to start. If a wine doesn’t have a certification, especially if they are smaller winery, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t using sustainable practices. But there should be some information available (transparency!) to inform you, the consumer.
  • Pick it up. The glass bottle that wine is packaged in can account for the greatest amount of emissions. Opting for a lighter glass bottle means that fewer emissions were required to get it into your hands.
  • Ask. If picking a ‘sustainable’ wine seems a daunting task, get some assistance from somebody working at the store. Oftentimes (especially in specialized wine shops) staff are happy to talk about different wine options and to share their knowledge.
  • Choose transparency. Pick a wine that lays it all out. While this is a more modern trend, and older winemakers may not necessarily tell you their ‘story’, try to learn a bit about the wine before committing to a bottle.
  • Choose cork. Cork is a renewable resource, has lower environmental impacts across its life cycle, and supports biodiversity.

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