There’s a lot of talk, these days, about wine and the environment. Conferences about climate change and its effects on winegrowing and winemaking. People who calculate the carbon footprint of a particular wine bottle, and aim for carbon-zero wine production. Decanter’s November issue is largely devoted to a report asking “Is wine bad for the planet?” (accessible with a free registration), and exploring everything from packaging to water usage, corks, chemicals and the regulatory mess that surrounds the very variable definitions of sustainable viticulture in several regions, like New Zealand or Oregon.
Sometimes, these questions are mixed up in many ways. The “conventional” (i.e. chemical) winegrowing techniques are, for instance, attacked as much for their negative impact on the environment as for their negative impact on wine quality. The well-known American wine writer and merchant Kermit Lynch, for instance, favored traditional methods for taste and quality, first and foremost. On the other hand, Alain Brumont, the famous Madiran producer, confessed, during a lunch where I had the pleasure of being a guest, to converting to sustainable methods after seeing that years of copper anti-mildew treatment had left some of his former vineyards barren, to the point where cereals would wither before reaching maturity. Treatments have since been reduced tenfold on his domaines.
It all depends what you look at, of course. If you’re looking at the local impact of winemaking and viticulture, dry farming and biodynamic practices are obviously better, environmentally speaking, than chemicals and irrigation in, say, dry areas of Australia. But if you look at the wine trade, packaging and transportation are pretty much the same all around. Mind you, wine has been traded around the world for thousands of year: it’s not the trade, it’s the intensity and the transportation methods in general, and not just for wine, that play a part in the whole climate change issue.
That makes me think of an old trick question: what’s heavier, 50 tons of lead or fifty tons of feathers? If you’ve answered feathers, you may think that it’s better to carry 20 cases of biodynamic wine across the Atlantic than 20 cases of industrial wine. ‘fraid not.
But even then, there are some comforting aspects to this whole environmental analysis. The Decanter report, for instance, pointed out this, about water usage:
Carmel Kilcline MW, who wrote her Master of Wine thesis on the wine industry’s use of water in Australia – the driest continent – says evidence suggests that when it comes down to consumption, viticulture is less culpable than other thirsty businesses such as cotton, pasture and livestock. ‘While 99% of the water used in winemaking is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water,’ she says. ‘In Riverland, 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle of wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton 5,020 per kg of cloth.’
In French, we have an expression that says “quand on se regarde, on se désole, quand on se compare, on se console”. Freely translated, it means that when you look at yourself, you feel bad, but when you compare, you feel better. From an environmental standpoint, you should feel less guilty about drinking a glass of imported wine than about wearing a cotton shirt. Cheers to that.