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Nordic vineyards, the need to rethink wine packaging, and wine tech innovations transforming the vineyard

Norway: Europe’s most northerly commercial vineyard

Writing for his blog The Wine Gourd, David Morrison takes the discussion on wine production to Northern Europe.  As the world’s climate is getting hotter and hotter, winemakers can no longer depend on their current methods and locations for making wine. As Morrison explains, the wine industry is faced with two choices: “(i) change the varieties in the current regions, or (ii) move the regions further away from the equator or from sea level.” 

His article focuses on the Nordic grape-growing regions of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, all of which are “much further north than anywhere else on the planet,” with “plenty of land even further north.” What these regions lack in temperature, they make up for in day-length, enjoying “up to 25% more hours of daily sunlight during the summer compared to, say, France.” Vines are mostly planted on south-facing slopes to ensure maximum sunlight. 

Morrison specifically discusses the wine production of four northerly vineyards in Norway, Sweden and Finland, as marked by him in the following map below. In a postscript he also highlights that “there are now vineyards along the Sognefjord, which is even further north-west in Norway.” 

His discussion concludes that currently Norway leads the way with “Europe’s most northerly commercial vineyard with Sweden and Finland not far behind. This can be expected to change in the not-too-distant future, unless we can reverse climate change.” Read more here.

“Wine should come in a glass bottle, right? Actually, wrong if wine drinkers want to do their bit for the planet’s resources and environment.”

So states Jancis Robinson in a recent post advocating for the need for consumers to rethink wine packaging.  Despite the fact that an increasing number of vineyards are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, many wine producers are failing to address the two main contributors to wine’s carbon footprint: its packaging and transportation. Instead, most vineyards’ focus is on reducing agrochemical use, which is “certainly an excellent idea, but it’s only a start.”

The exact contribution of packaging and transportation processes to a wine’s carbon footprint largely varies. Audits by multiple wine research institutes, such as the Australian Wine Research Institute, continuously reveal glass bottles to be the biggest culprit in terms of packaging. Robinson explains how “road transport is much, much less effective in carbon-emission terms than shipping by rail or sea. And shipping wine in bulk is much more virtuous from the perspective of the future of the planet than transporting heavy, fragile, inconveniently shaped glass containers around the world.” In fact, a bulk wine container holds up to two and a half times more wine than a standard 75-cl bottle.

Glass has been used to package wine for over four centuries. However, with only around 50% of recycled wine bottles being reused in the UK and in light of its significant carbon footprint, many companies are looking to alternative packaging. Marks & Spencers sets a positive example, with its “proportion of wine sold in a container other than a glass bottle [reaching] 10%, with pouches and 25-cl bottles made out of PET plastic proving particularly popular.” The same can’t be said for plastic 75-cl bottles, but M&S is optimistic about the future of canned wine – a sector listed as one of the eight ‘‘best sectors for launching a business in 2018’ by Inc Magazine, Robinson reports. 

The post discusses the current alternatives to glass, including: cans, pouches, bag in box, PET plastic bottles, cartons, kegs, and tubes. Robinson concludes by highlighting the key barrier to change – consumer perception:

 “What is needed is a major change in consumers’ perceptions of glass bottles. As my fellow wine writer and host of The Wine Show Joe Fattorini, whose wife is Swedish, puts it: ‘Flygskam, or “flight shame”, has reduced Swedish flight passengers by 9%. Maybe we need flaskaskam, or bottle shame.” 

Innovative tech solutions transforming the vineyard 

Total venture capital funding in wine tech has remained under $1bn in the last two decades. When compared to food and agritech venture capital funding, which totalled $20bn in 2019 alone, it becomes clear that wine tech is a fairly niche area. However, as  Emiko Terazono’s article in The Financial Times illustrates, winemakers are increasingly turning to innovative tech solutions to combat the issues of labour shortages and effects of climate change.

Terazono discusses “how tech is transforming the vineyard,” from satellites providing large scale imagery, drones identifying areas in need of care, AI-powered apps analysing data and providing recommendations, robots gathering data and spraying vines, and much more. 

He provides the example of Symington Family Estates in Portugal, which uses a solar-powered robot called VineScout to gather data from the vines, such as water availability. Château Mouton-Rothschild in France uses a robot called Ted to weed and spray vines in its Moët Hennessy vineyards.

Over in California, Chris Storm, director of viticulture at Vino Farms, uses an evapotranspiration technology provided by Tule Technology. Sensors measure the amount of water vapour coming from vines and this data is then analysed with AI to provide water management recommendations to winemakers.

Innovative solutions have also been developed to combat the problem of fungal disease, which will only be aggravated by the extreme temperatures resulting from climate change. Such solutions include “a digital app linked to a GPS attached to dogs trained to sniff out [fungal disease]” developed by Sigfredo Fuentes at the University of Melbourne, as well the use of ultraviolet light to kill fungi, as currently being developed by David Gadoury at Cornell University. 

Furthermore, AI technology provides winemakers with important data analysis and production yield predictions. With stagnating global consumption, there’s “a lot of pressure on the wineries and in turn the growers. [The wine industry] doesn’t have a choice but to turn to technology,” says Uri Rosenzweig, head of product at Trellis, an agritech start-up Trellis.” Read more in Terazono’s article here. 

Villa Maria Estate trials native plants and cover crops as it aims to go chem-free

Writing for Harper’s, Lisa Riley reports on Villa Maria Estate’s experiments to find alternatives to herbicides. For the last two decades, the estate has been focused on transitioning to organic vineyard management. It hopes to become chem-free by finding a long-term sustainable alternative to herbicides that ensures the protection of “biodiversity, soil structure and moisture retention.”

In partnership with New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries, the vineyard is testing the use of native plants and cover crops to see if they “are effective in suppressing weeds without negatively impacting vine health and grape quality.” Riley quotes Villa Maria Estate’s business sustainability and risk manager, Karen Titulaer, who says, “if successful the use of native plants or cover crops could reduce carbon emissions and labour costs associated with weed management, improve vineyard ecosystems and nurture the soil.” 

The trial launched in August 2019 and is due to finish in June 2020, with preliminary findings deemed “positive” by Titulaer. As a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, the estate will share its findings with the country’s wider wine industry.

Read more here.

Wine Business Monthly’s sixth annual Innovation + Quality Conference

The end of February saw Wine Business Monthly hold its annual Innovation + Quality conference, attended by around 400 high-end winemakers and growers. As reported by Kerana Todorov in Wine Business, the “Innovation + Quality award winners were: Precision View; Trellis’ AI crop prediction; Diemme Neutral 2; Pera by Pellenc America and Braud 9090X of New Holland Agricultural.” The 2020 Lifetime Innovator Award went to professor emeritus Roger Boulton of the University of California, Davis. 

The keynote address was delivered by Miguel A. Torres, president at Familia Torres, who stressed the importance for the wine industry to invest and work together more. Last year in a move towards a more sustainable wine industry, Familia Torres and Jackson Family Wines co-founded the International Wineries for Climate Action. The coalition is “a platform for exchanging ideas, for sharing best practices and research to reduce the wineries’ carbon footprint,” which they hope to reduce by 80% by  2045. Todorov quotes Torres who says, “I’m sure if we would meet Greta Thunberg now, she would tell us ‘This is not enough. You have to go faster.’ My friends, if you can go faster, that would be great.”

Read more here.

Join 200 wine producers, distributors, traders, retailers and many others from the industry, at the Future of Wine Forum 2020, which takes place in London on November 26-27. Register or sign up for updates at: https://futurewineforum.com/. For regular media updates and analysis sign up on this site, above, for our weekly newsletter.