Vineyards are on the climate frontline - here's what we can do to help them

Miguel Torres is not one to mince words. “We are not talking about climate change any more, this is a climate emergency,” he said.

Some vines just shrivel in a heatwave.

“For viticulture, climate change is worse than phylloxera.” For those who have perhaps missed the significance of the word phylloxera, this was the louse that spread through the vineyards of Europe and eventually the world, consuming the roots of vines and killing them.

Starting at the end of the 19th century, the destruction lasted for decades, ruined complete regions, altered the way vines are grown and changed the style of wine forever.

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Torres, of Familia Torres, is not an alarmist, nor a politician. He is just concerned with growing grapes and making excellent wines. His family has been doing the same for generations, and for the last 40 years, he has noticed changes in his vineyards and taken action to counteract the effect of warmer summers.

He has planted higher up hillsides and bought land which was viewed as being too cold for vines, yet a decade later, is now planted and vines are flourishing. He is also taking great steps to counter the carbon footprint of his winery.

At a briefing in London, Torres was joined by Rob Symington, of Symington Family estates, and Fiona Macklin, from the UN-backed Race to Zero. This was a thought-provoking session setting out what needs to be done, and how the wine industry can achieve targets that might help towards combating climate change.

“The wine industry is like the canary in a coal mine, showing up the effect of changes in climate,” warned Torres. “Drought, heatwaves, fires and severe frosts are symptoms of these changes and the vineyards of the world are already feeling the effects.”

For many years Torres was a lone voice talking about the effect of climate change on vineyards but now others have joined him. Wineries around the world have come together to form the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA – with the aim of encouraging wineries to reduce emissions of CO2.

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With a science-based approach, they share information about how to reduce waste and develop corporate ecological methods. It is not enough to just join and pay a subscription. Every member is assessed to prove that over the years they are actually reducing their carbon footprint.

“For example,” said Torres, “every year we ferment grapes to make wine. In doing so, we produce carbon dioxide which until recently was just let out into the atmosphere. But we also buy carbon dioxide to preserve the wine in the tank. So now we have changed. We collect the CO2 from fermentation and reuse it. If every winery in the world did the same, then CO2 emissions from the wine industry would fall dramatically.”

With electric vehicles, solar panels, a reduction in bottle weight and many other techniques, the Torres winery has reduced its carbon emissions by 30 per cent. It plans to cut them even more by 2030.

What is significant is the number of wineries that have joined the IWCA. Jackson Family Wines, with 40 wineries around the world, is a founding member and has brands such as Kendall-Jackson, La Crema and Giant Steps. Yealands in New Zealand, and VSPT, one of Chile’s largest wine exporters, have joined as well as small wineries such as Spottswoode in California, and Cullen in Australia.

Significantly, one of the world’s largest wine and beer producers, Constellation, has applied to join along with Yalumba in Australia and one lone property in France, Ch. Troplong Mondot in St Emilion.

Fiona Macklin, from Race to Zero, which works across all industrial sectors emphasised how important the wine industry is in changing mindsets about climate change. “Wine people are natural storytellers, they can get the information across in a simple, easy way, with wine in a glass.”

Rob Symington, from Symington Estates, which makes Graham’s, Warre’s and many other ports also contributed by showing that reducing emissions is not necessarily expensive. “Many ways of saving CO2 can actually save the company money by reducing wastage. It is all about raising carbon literacy.”

So, what can the regular wine drinker do to make sure your drinking is good for the globe and not just for you?

Bottle weight is one sure sign of carbon wastage. Shipping heavy glass bottles around the world wastes energy, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that a heavy one means better quality. It doesn’t. A heavy bottle is used to imply that the wine is better than it really is.

At a recent Aldi tasting, I noticed that it uses significantly heavier bottles than many retailers and Aldi’s buyer, Josh Heley, admitted that it has a programme of reducing glass weight starting in the spring. I’ll keep an eye on this.

UK bottling is another way to save emissions. If wine is pumped into a huge, plastic flexitank, shipped to the UK and then bottled on home soil, then the CO2 footprint is around 40 per cent less than shipping it in bottle.

I used to dislike UK bottled wines because some bottlers were not up to standard, but now they are some of the most well-equipped bottling people on the planet. Look on the back label to see where the wine was bottled. Anything with a UK postcode is a sure sign it has a lower carbon footprint than a bottled-at-source wine. UK bottling is often used for supermarket own-label wines from Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina.

Here are some UK bottled wines that are seriously good and won’t cost the earth:

The Best Sauvignon Blanc 2021, South Africa, Morrisons, £7: Crisp and lively, with citrus and tropical fruit. Bottled in Manchester.

Finest English White 2020, Kent, Tesco, £11: The grapes were grown, fermented and bottled in England which means this crisp, refreshing wine has a very low carbon footprint. Bottled in Kent.

Malbec 2020, Argentina, Morrisons, £5: Astonishing value for a wine that is full of juicy, chunky, blackberry and blueberry fruit. Bottled in Manchester.

Mad Fish Shiraz 2020, Australia, Tesco, down from £9 to £7 until November 15 for Clubcard holders: Full of black cherry and plum flavours, soft and smooth. Bottled in County Durham.