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Richard Siddle on lessons learnt at the World Congress on Climate Change and Wine

Published:  16 April, 2011

If you thought the wonders of wine were all about tastings, great food matchings and the enjoyment of what is in the bottle then think again.

If you thought the wonders of wine were all about tastings, great food matchings and the enjoyment of what is in the bottle then think again.

For a whole other part of the sector, wine is all about soul analysis, drip irrigation techniques and the environmental consequences of how that wine ends up in the bottle.

All of which was played out at this week's World Congress on Climate Change and Wine in Marbella, Spain, courtesy of organisers the Wine Academy of Spain.

Although numbers were down on the two previous conferences in 2008 and 2009 when the green agenda was here, there and everywhere it still attracted near on 300 delegates from 40 countries.

The UK delegation, however, was disappointingly thin on the ground. The large numbers who had come in previous years were conspicuous by their absence.

But it demonstrated how far the green agenda and the wine industry's involvement in climate change had slipped down the agenda in face of the economic crisis.

If you mention sustainability in the UK these days people assume you are talking about staying in business rather than helping the environment.

But for wine producers in those parts of the world directly faced with the consequences of climate change the issue has never been more serious.

Paul Symington talked as passionately as ever about how the Douro was having to face up to the fact some areas may not be able to make wine at all if rainfall levels fell below 400mm,

A 1.2C rise in average temperatures in the last 40 years was already having an impact on winemaking and maturation. Another degree rise would have a serious impact not only on the quality of Duoro wines but the "survivability" of some vineyards, he warned.

Nigel Greening of Felton Road in Central Otago, New Zealand, went as far as to say the wine industry should seriously consider limiting the amount of wine it produces. He questioned the environmental ethics of a worldwide industry continuing to use up the earth's resources to make wine that will never be drunk.

He introduced his own "no growth" policy at Felton Road five years ago and urges other producers to do the same.

The good news, however, is that behind the scenes research on how best to manage vines in extreme weather conditions is paving the way for wineries to operate both commercially and sustainably.

Be it planting cover crops, introducing organic practices, better use of water management through to reducing glass bottle sizes or shipping wine in bulk to be bottled where it is sold.

All were key features of the conference.

A point raised by none other than former United Nations director general, Kofi Annan, in his conference speech. He urged the wine industry to invest in whatever new technology was needed to help tackle climate change. And he is a man it is hard to say no to.

Hats off to congress organiser Pancho Campo for following up Al Gore's appearance at the first Climate Change and Wine conference with someone of the international profile and gravitas of Kofi Annan.

His presence attracted 800 of the great and good of Marbella who were invited in to hear him speak. Interestingly over 100 of which were school children who asked him more questions than learned friends of the wine trade.
Annan's presence was great for publicity, but equally he raised key questions over how far big business has gone to put the interests of sustainability over those of their shareholders.

Or as Symington succinctly said: we take care of our soils not shareholders.

To be fair, Steve Smidt of Constellation in the US, the biggest wine operator present, conceded more needed to be done to think longer term. But he stressed it was arguably even more important for a wine business as large as Constellation to act sustainably, if it is going to have a business to run at all.

But as Campo, himself, stressed, it is ultimately up to wineries to take the necessary action. There are too many, he believes who are using green policies for marketing purposes, but "scratch" below the surface and there is not much there.

His call to put their "money where their mouths are" will ring loud and clear long after the sun has set on this conference, but it is clear, from this side of the media, that there is much more that can be done by wineries to communicate the benefits to the trade and even consumers about the green actions they are taking.

Too often green initiatives are presented as, frankly, boastful claims of how much a winery has spent on making itself sustainable, rather than concentrating on and highlighting the benefits its actions will have on the trade or its community and staff.

The fact a winery has invested in green technology is not news in itself. These are steps it should be taking.

Sadly the green agenda has slipped down the list of people's priorities. Hopefully this week's Marbella conference will help get the issue back on to boardroom tables and by the time of the next congress many of the ideas presented this week would have been put in to action.