Looking back at 2021: Sustainable wine’s year in review

By Hanna Halmari

Whilst we all look ahead to what 2022 will bring, the start of a new year also provides a good time and space for reflection on the past year. As the second year of a global pandemic, 2021 was undoubtedly a challenging year for many on both a personal and professional front. The wine industry continued to experience significant supply chain and distribution channel disruption and grappled with serious social and environmental issues. 

Although the past year perhaps made the sustainability challenges in the sector more evident than ever, we also saw remarkable resilience, creative solutions, and widespread commitments to address these key issues.

As such, I firmly believe we can look forward to 2022 with hope, provided we continue to build on the momentum to drive progress and positive change throughout the industry.

The early work of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable (SWR), now with more than sixty members, demonstrates the commitment many in the industry, from five hectare producers to large multi-national companies, are prepared to make towards real change. The SWR, which Sustainable Wine serves as the online magazine for, aims to lead in fostering consistent collaboration across the industry. You can find more information on the SWR here

Here’s a brief summary of the key sustainability-related themes and trends we identified in the wine industry over the last 12 months or so:

Climate action is key

Extreme weather events and erratic weather patterns are unfortunately becoming more prevalent across the globe. 2021 saw wildfires across the Mediterranean, deadly floods in western Europe, an extreme April frost in France, droughts in California, and an overall warming climate. This increase in average temperatures is changing the global wine map as we know it, with grape growing becoming increasingly unviable in certain wine regions. 

To help the European grape growing and wine making industry adapt to climate change, the EU established new rules at the end of 2021, allowing EU member states to use resistant hybrid varieties in appellation wines. We also saw significant action on the mitigation front, with a wave of commitments throughout the industry: from individual net-zero pledges to more and more producers joining collaborative platforms for climate action such as IWCA, a founding member of the SWR.

Glass is under scrutiny 

In efforts to lower the industry’s carbon footprint, many turned their attention to packaging. It’s well understood by now that the production and transportation of glass bottles accounts for the highest proportion of wine’s carbon footprint. An increasing number of wineries are exploring alternatives to the glass bottle. We can now find more and more high quality wines available in alternative packaging formats, such as bag-in-box, aluminum cans, PET bottles, and Tetra Pak. Lightweighting (or ‘right weighting’) of glass bottles can also make a significant contribution, and much remains to be done there. However, consumer perception issues remain a significant barrier and further consumer education is required to dispel the myth that higher bottle weight indicates higher quality wine. 

Social issues remain salient

We also saw a greater focus on the social side of sustainability, as issues around modern vineyard slavery and labour exploitation throughout the wine value chain came under increasing scrutiny. This increased attention to the human side of production – often an aspect overshadowed by environmental concerns – is reflected in the growing number of certifications that adopt a more holistic view of sustainability, such as B Corp and Equalitas. This is also a key area of focus for the SWR in 2022 and beyond, with the establishment of a working group to tackle guidance and tools on the issue, now under way.

Throughout 2020 significant issues around sexual harassment and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) were raised to the forefront of the wine industry. Organizations throughout the sector responded by establishing various DEI programs and scholarships, marking the beginning of breaking down systemic inequities and structural barriers. Although we saw such initiatives increase and develop throughout 2021, the industry still has a very long way to go in terms of creating a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. 

The era of the ‘eco-awakening’: Consumers care, but what is sustainable wine?

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) commissioned by WWF marked 2021 as the start of the ‘eco-awakening’ era. People are increasingly aware of the issues related to nature and biodiversity loss and are actively searching for ways to live more sustainably. However, whilst consumer concerns around sustainability have increased, there’s still a value-action gap when it comes to purchasing behavior. 

Wineries are faced with the challenge of communicating sustainability messages to consumers. This is no easy task given the inherent complexity of sustainability and the lack of consensus of what this means in the wine industry. We are seeing progress in this space, however, as we move towards a new era of transparency. 2021’s EU Common Agricultural Policy legislation stated that as of 2023, wines and spirits will be required to provide consumers with the ingredients list and nutritional value of the product. This information will need to be provided either on the label or digitally and provides a direct communication channel for the wine’s sustainability initiatives and credentials.

Furthermore, the SWR has embarked on an ambitious mission to define sustainable wine in practical detail and develop a global wine sustainability standard. You can read more about the SWR’s purpose and work here.

Further reading and listening:

Here’s a recent podcast we recorded on the 2021 trends and the world of the SWR. 

For those who missed them, here are some of the most popular and, we hope, useful articles and event session recordings from Sustainable Wine during 2021 and our archive, on the above topics and more:

There are many more podcasts like this on our website and you can also find all the sessions from our 2020 and 2021 conferences for free here. Subjects range from leadership and strategy, to human rights to packaging and the circular economy. Be sure to subscribe to our podcasts so you don’t miss a thing – just search for Sustainable Wine in your podcast app. 

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About the author

Hanna Halmari
Editor

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and a project director 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.