Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

What can wine drinkers do about the climate crisis?


Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford / 22 February 2021

Wine writer Andrew Jefford reflects on the challenges facing wine producers in these extraordinary times and what we can do to help.

Many wine growers endured a uniquely difficult year in 2020, beset by weather hazards, trade-war tariffs and the multiple disruptions caused by Covid. Some – in South Australia, in California – have lost vineyards, wineries and homes to the natural disaster of wildfires, and spent much of the last 12 months struggling with insurers, picking through burnt ruins, and wondering how to start again. Every crisis, though, offers the chance of change. How might we re-set our wine world?

Not in isolation, of course. The interconnectedness of the issues which face us is plain. Atmospheric carbon dioxide recognises no borders; it is the human load on the planet (an eightfold increase in the last 200 years) and our newly acquired hyper-mobility which makes pandemics likely, while sheer pressure of population feeds back into the environmental crisis of which climate change is an intimate part. That throws up political challenges which result (though not inevitably) in wars: trade tariffs and cyber warfare today; force of arms, at worst, tomorrow. If we need anything from the decade ahead, it is skilled, prescient and internationally minded leadership.

How complicit are wine drinkers and wine producers in our current difficulties? We have, after all, been making and drinking wine for 8,000 years; the first great book of the European literary canon, Homer's Odyssey, brims with wine-drinking occasions, with wine's refreshment and solace. Can something that ancient really wreck the environment?

Not if we drink as Odysseus and his sailors did; sipping locally-grown wine drawn from amphorae and served in jugs. Yes, fermentation produces carbon dioxide, but vine growth will actually sequester more carbon than fermentation and biomass emit – and forward-thinking producers are beginning to put carbon capture from fermentation into practice.

We've been making wine for 8,000 years and the cost to the environment would not be so great if we were still enjoying it like Odysseus and his men did; sipping locally grown wine made in amphorae and served in jugs
We've been making wine for 8,000 years and the cost to the environment would not be so great if we were still enjoying it like Odysseus and his men did; sipping locally grown wine made in amphorae and served in jugs

Culpability rises with the carbon cost of shipping liquid around the world – and magnifies greatly with the choice of glass as the vessel in which to do this, especially when wine is poured into that vessel at the winery itself, prior to transport. Australian researchers have calculated that 68 per cent of wine's carbon footprint comes from glass packaging and transport. Glass is melted sand, and sand doesn't melt at much below 1,700°C; the world's dirtiest fuel is the heavy fuel oil used by many container ships. These are serious concerns, and wine producers, bottle designers and retailers alike are confronting them – via new lightweight packaging formats. Our job as consumers is to be open to change (and Covid has shown how quickly we can adapt when we need to).

We shouldn't, though, give way to despair, nor assume that the future will be nothing but wildfires, smoke taint and ever higher alcohol levels. We have to live with the warming we have already caused and will continue to cause – and that means making the most of positive changes as well as trying to mitigate negative ones, arrest the damage we are doing to the environment and decarbonise the atmosphere. England's burgeoning wine scene is one example of these positive changes; so, many consider, are the run of recent fine vintages enjoyed in many key vineyard regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Piedmont, Tuscany – and, fire aside, even Napa. The wine world may in fact be enjoying a 'Goldilocks zone' of benefit from warming in Europe at present, despite repeated local losses from fires and wild weather. It won't last – but that's not a reason to spurn it.

Wine growers are well aware that every glass of wine is the result of a partnership with nature, and it's when we drinkers feel we can taste nature most clearly in wine (one definition, after all, of terroir) that we love it most. The lesson of care that imposes on us all – wine growers, winemakers and wine drinkers – is clear.

What is The Wine Society doing in response to climate change?

We are currently reviewing our environmental policy which we will be able to share with members later in 2021. At the moment glass remains the best format for preserving quality in wine though we are actively looking at alternatives. We already offer a number of wines in boxes and are trialling wine in cans. We already list a number of wines shipped in bulk and bottled in the UK. We're working with producers of our Society and Exhibition range wines to use lighter-weight bottles to help with our carbon footprint, which will mean a possible saving of just over 100g of CO2 per bottle, from production to pulling the cork. We'll continue to explore these innovations whilst we develop the business's approach to all matters ethical, social and environmental.

We'd love to hear what you think about our approach to climate change as we continue to change our practices for a sustainable future: simply email with your thoughts and feedback.

Read more from Andrew Jefford

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