A glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc is known the world over for its big blast of tropical fruit, but winemakers want to enhance their reputation by removing something – carbon.
Reducing emissions has become a key issue for producers and growers, with industry body New Zealand Winegrowers recently announcing its intention for the industry to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Making wine in an environmentally friendly way is nothing new, with a nationwide sustainability programme launched in the 1990s.
But the Zero Carbon Act, passed in November, has given the industry a renewed focus.
For Karen Titulaer, it is almost all she focuses on in her role as business sustainability and risk manager for Villa Maria, the country’s biggest family-owned winemaker.
The industry itself had not become more carbon intensive over time, but it was more aware of the impact wine had on the planet, she said.
While there are many stages between a grape growing on a vine and people sipping a glass of wine, there were two key sources of carbon emissions – packaging and transport.
Titulaer said glass bottles had their positives and negatives.
While easily recyclable, bottles are far heavier than alternatives like cans or bag-in-box.
More niche options include a flax bottle made in France, and a cardboard wine bottle launched in 2014 by Californian company Ecologic.
Bars have also served kegged wine in en effort to drop both cost and waste.
Titulaer said glass bottles were better for the long-term quality of wine, but there were ways to cut their carbon footprint.
Only one company, O-I, produced glass bottles in New Zealand, so working with them to create a lighter bottle using more recycled material was key, she said.
Having bottles made with 10 per cent more recycled material meant a 5 per cent reduction in emissions per bottle due to lower heating and materials costs.
Other changes to Villa Maria’s packaging products, including a different wrap for pallets and label paper, had helped reduce carbon emissions by 36 per cent in the past 10 years.
Lowering transport emissions was trickier, as most heavy equipment at vineyards required diesel fuel.
Villa Maria was interested in trialling electric tractors, but reducing fuel use went beyond the vineyard, Titulaer said.
Moving to electric forklifts in the warehouse reduced reliance on fossil fuels, as did shipping wine by rail or sea rather than road.
Villa Maria also planned to make its vineyards organic, which would reduce the use of sprays and result in more native plants going in the ground to suppress weeds.
But early signs indicated organic vines had increased resilience, which could be important in the face of climate change, Titulaer said.
Villa Maria was in the position to make large changes as a big company, but being small also came with advantages.
Alice Rule fits at the smaller end of the industry, producing just 4000 bottles of wine per year for her brand 3sixty2.
She used plastic-free and fully recyclable packaging where possible, as well as low-weight glass.
Customers could also pay to offset emissions through CarbonClick when shopping online.
CarbonClick was similar to the offset option the likes of Air New Zealand used, but customers got a tracking number to see where their money was used.
CarbonClick also tracked what country a customer was from, then diverted money to offsetting projects, like tree planting, where customers lived.
All those measures, and others, were part of Rule’s aim to have 3sixty2 be carbon neutral by 2023.
Being small meant she could quickly pivot towards new technology or practices, rather than having to roll out changes across a large company, she said.
“Being small means being agile.”
But a key challenge for everyone, big and small, was data..
Some associated industries like packaging suppliers would not share their carbon footprints, leaving producers either having to guess or ignore it, she said.
Not having accurate data could result in companies spending too much money on offsetting.
“We see incredible companies trying to save the world, but then they go insolvent,” Rule said.
“Sustainability is about the long-term economic viability, too.”
Vineyard owners and wineries were also hampered by emissions accounting rules that currently do not allow carbon saved by grapevines or soil to be counted towards carbon neutrality.
That was despite vines being shown to sequester more carbon than some trees, she said.
Being able to become truly carbon neutral would be a massive selling point for New Zealand wine, which Rule said could be done faster than other countries.
Being almost fully powered by renewable energy was a big plus, but the long term work of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) was especially key, she said.
Established in 1997, SWNZ was one of the first wine industry programmes in the world aiming to improve environmental practices.
New Zealand Winegrowers sustainability manager Ed Massey said being able to prove your green credentials was a powerful marketing tool.
The overseas market for New Zealand wine grew on the back of the Baby Boomer generation, but that demographic would be buying less wine in the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, younger generations were generally more concerned about the green side of wine.
“If we are going to sustain our success, it’s going to be younger people buying our wine,” Massey said.
It was also important to take consumers on the ride with winemakers and grape growers towards reducing emissions.
Rule used the dairy industry as an example.
Farmers copped a lot of flack for their impact on the environment, despite the big strides they had made in recent years, yet people in cities still wanted milk for their barista-made coffee.
“We put pressure on producers, but the bottom line is that consumers play a role.”
Using tools like CarbonClick was one way to make them feel accountable too, she said.
“My consumers are pleased to be on this journey and pleased to be seen to be helping.”
For Titulaer, it was about finding what she calls the “sweet spot”.
“For consumers, it’s about enjoying a product they know is good for the environment and society, but also something they can enjoy.
“This is a journey we are all moving along, and we all want to do the right thing.”
stuff.co.nz, 25 May 2020