The SW Summary: Italy’s wine windows, ongoing criticism of ‘clean wine’, questioning the shape of wine bottles, struggles of South African wineries, and the first SWGB accredited producers

By Hanna Halmari

The comeback of Italy’s ‘wine windows’

Writing for Decanter, Chris Mercer reports on some lighter Covid-19 related news: the return of ‘wine windows’ in Florence, Italy. This socially distanced form of serving customers is an age-old method dating back to the 17th century. With over 100 wine windows in Florence, they were traditionally used to serve flasks of wine to customers during the bubonic plague between 1630 and 1633. According to the article, the use of wine windows was not limited just to the time of the epidemic. It is believed that they were also used by Florence’s “noble winemaker families to serve city residents.” 

Mercer quotes Diletta Corsini, cofounder of the Wine Windows Association website, who recently wrote an article sharing how the wine producers conducted their business during the plague. Instead of receiving direct payment, the sellers would “[pass] a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar.” Whilst today’s contactless payment methods certainly take on a different form, the purpose and convenience of wine windows remains very much the same.

“When it comes to clean wine, the only thing being cleaned is your wallet.”

So concludes Felicity Carter in her article on clean wine for The Guardian. Referring to it as “the Goopifcation of grapes,” Carter discusses how an increasing number of ‘clean wine’ companies are looking to capture the wellness market through “disparaging the competition.” They are doing so by “claiming that other wineries fill their wines with noxious chemicals” – all of which Carter rightfully points out to be untrue.

Since winemakers are not legally required to list their ingredients, ‘clean wine’ brands are claiming that the traditional wine industry lacks transparency and are consequently positioning themselves as ‘honest and transparent’ winemakers. However, as Carter notes, “the clean wine gang is pretty quiet about where their own wines come from.” She provides the example of the Wonderful Wine Company, who provides very limited details on the origins of their grapes – all we know is that their white comes from “France.” 

Carter also addresses another common claim made by ‘clean wine’ brands about how their wines are made free from manipulation. Are we to believe that these winemakers have simply left grapes in a tab and produced drinkable wine, as opposed to “vinegar or cloudy, sour wine”? As she emphasizes, “wine doesn’t make itself” and “winemaking is both [an] art and science,” developed through centuries of testing different processes in search of higher quality. 

Overall, the wine industry is highly regulated. Whilst some mass-market wine producers in the US do employ practices such as adding grape concentrate like Mega Purple for added colour, this practice is illegal in the EU. Furthermore, as Carter points out, “just because winemaking tools exist doesn’t mean people use them.”

Finally, at the end of the day, whether ‘clean’ or not, “there is no wine that won’t deliver a hangover if you drink too much.” Read more here.

Why are wine bottles still round?

This is the question Robert Joseph explores in his recent article for Meininger’s. According to the article, the argument for square bottles is fairly straightforward: you can save on money and space. Round packaging is “wastefully inefficient,” as “you could fit 100 square…[bottles of wine] in the space occupied by 82 round ones.” Whilst it may take more materials to produce square bottles, Joseph argues that this would be offset by the lower costs resulting from the savings in space. In regards to the extra weight, this is less of a concern “if the glass is properly recycled – or more ideally refilled.” 

So what are the barriers to change in alternative bottle shapes in the wine industry, he asks? He focuses on the common argument that “consumers just don’t want it. In addressing this, Joseph makes a valid point about creating consumer demand and cites a few examples. Among these are how consumers “didn’t ‘want’ a car before Henry Ford offered them one,” and how consumers didn’t want screw caps prior to 2000 when “Australian, New Zealand and subsequently Austrian and German producers, along with UK retailers all supported the idea, and millions of wine drinkers found themselves happily unscrewing Marlborough Sauvignon or Austrian Grüner.” Perhaps one day round bottles too will no longer seem ‘wrong.’

Struggles in the South African wine industry

The pandemic has caused economic hardship throughout the global wine industry and South Africa is no exception. In his article for Wine-Searcher, James Lawrence discusses the “toxic storm” that the South African wine industry is currently suffering from as a result of economic, social, and political crises. Already a country burdened by a shrinking economy and “societal divisions and tensions,”  Covid-19 will only deepen these issues. Although the wine industry does not traditionally engage in political discussion, Lawrence argues that “to discuss South African wine today without first dissecting the socio/economic and political forces at work in the nation seems ridiculous.”

He specifically calls out the massive impact on wineries of the ban on liquor consumption, highlighting the fact that an estimated “80 wineries will close their doors, obviously leading to significant redundancies in the sector.” Lawrence also believes that the pandemic is further fuelling the anti-alcohol discourse in the country, predicting that politicians will maintain the tighter regulations on alcohol sales once the pandemic is over. He quotes winery owner Anthony Hamilton Russell who argues that whilst such restrictions are “an understandable sentiment” in the context of the rise of alcohol-related domestic abuse during the pandemic, “wine, however – and particularly fine wine – is not the culprit.”

Some expect the alcohol ban to be lifted in the next few months. Among these is winery owner Alexander Waibel, who shares his opinion: “I’m not sure if restrictions on alcohol sales – especially after a vaccine is found – make a lot of sense. SA is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations.” 

Hit by the loss of income in the hospitality and tourism, many wineries turned to focus on international sales during the crisis, as exports are exempt from the alcohol ban. Whilst exports have been “surprisingly buoyant…South Africa needs tourism.” Russell also fears that by not being able to visit other countries, South African wineries will “not be able to grow or maintain [their] international markets easily.”

Lawrence concludes by stating that, “the literary ‘divorce’ between the grape, grower and wider political context is lunacy; their fates in South Africa are dangerously intertwined.”  Read more here.

WineGB announces the first producers to receive its sustainability certification

WineGB recently announced the first twelve producers to receive its Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) certification. The SWGB working group was formed in 2019 by 30 founding members to drive environmental responsibility in Great Britain’s wine industry. Key focus areas include “conservation of the environment, and minimising the use of sprays, water and energy; all ultimately to achieve production of outstanding grapes and wines.”

Producers can “formally achieve recognition for their sustainable credentials” under the SWGB scheme provided that they operate according to the WineGB Sustainability Guidelines. As stated in the press release, the accreditation process is based on an annual self-evaluation against the guidelines, and accredited producers are then independently audited every three years. 

The twelve accredited producers are:

Their wines from this year’s harvest will be the first to “include the certification mark on their labels,” and will be supported by SWGB sponsors Marks & Spencers and Waitrose when released. Read more here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.