The SW Summary: How to tackle wine’s social and labor issues, spring frost vulnerability, hybrid grapes, and more

By Hanna Halmari
How can the wine industry better tackle labor and social issues?

The wine industry is no stranger to sustainability initiatives, but much of the focus to date has been on the environment. The sector has been slow to address the social side of sustainability, largely due to the lack of scrutiny from campaigners and activists (unlike palm oil, for example). However, a number of tragic cases of modern slavery last year have raised the industry’s human rights challenges to the surface, and companies are taking action. 

In SevenFifty Daily Jacopo Mazzeo notes how the challenges “extend beyond the risks of harvesting grapes in extreme heat, particularly as the industry becomes increasingly reliant on migrant labor to address a shortage of local workers.” According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), there are nearly 170 million migrant workers globally, many of whom work in agriculture. The risks of exploitation are high due to the murky nature of subcontracting. Many vineyards turn to external agencies to hire temporary workers during harvests, who in turn outsource recruitment to other companies.

Many companies are turning to comprehensive certifications such as B Corp and Equalitas to address these challenges. Environmental certifications such as the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International are broadening their scope to include social issues. Whilst certification is certainly a positive step forward, Mazzeo points out that their voluntary nature “implies that achieving meaningful change across the entire industry requires broader efforts at a systemic level by trade organizations, retailers, and local and regional governments.”

SWR cofounder and general manager Tom Owtram agrees: “Retailers are going to make human rights a key issue and they will want to see a minimum level of performance in this area of sustainability.” The SWR is currently developing collaborative actions and tools for labor standards, with the aim to create practice guidance for the global wine industry. You can find the SWR’s workshop series on labour standards and human rights here.

Decarbonising the glass bottle 

Ohio-based glass manufacturer O-I GLASS group has ramped up its decarbonisation efforts, investing €95 million into its two flagship French plants. Over in Gironcourt-sur-Aisne, €55 million will be invested in building a furnace and Gas Oxy Advanced Technology, which “involves a mixture of gas and oxygen combined with a heat recovery system that should reduce CO2 emissions by up to 18%,” Vitisphere reports. A €40 million investment to improve energy efficiency in the Reims plant has gone towards renovating one of the two furnaces and a production line, making it “one of the most modern glass manufacturing sites in the world.” Read more here. 

France’s warm winter increases spring frost vulnerability

A warm winter in France has resulted in early budding in many vineyards, especially for more northern appellations. In Decanter Chris Losh explains how vines that start their vegetative cycle early can be at their most vulnerable in April when spring frosts hit. This is concerning for growers, many of whom remember the destructive spring frosts in April 2021 that saw some growers lose almost their entire year’s production over three days.

Frost protection measures such as fans or paraffin candles are expensive and often only used for the most lucrative vineyards. Lower volumes and higher costs are not only bad news for producers, but also for the wine buying public in the form of higher prices. 

Losh points out that “five vintages out of the last 12 have been affected by frost during flowering to some degree, with 2017 another ‘black frost’ nightmare.” It’s no secret that climate change is behind the increasing trend. Read more here.

Who’s hot for hybrid grapes?

There’s been a lot of talk recently around hybrid grapes. How will they affect winemaking? Can they make good wines? Are they the future of wine? There currently seem to be more questions than answers, but one thing we do know is that the process of creating hybrid grapes is long and laborious.

 In The Vintner Project Shana Clarke explains how it can take around two decades to develop a viable hybrid grape. The process begins with taking pollen from a resistant vine (often wild) with desired traits during flowering. This is cross-pollinated with vinifera and the resulting fruit is harvested four months later.

The seeds are removed and chilled for three months before going into a greenhouse. As soon as a few leaves are produced, researchers can get a genetic prediction of the plant’s traits. They then select the plants for the next round of crossings with vinifera, and the whole cycle repeats. Clarke notes it takes around three to four years to complete a cycle and a minimum of four to five cycles need to be completed to get a viable grape. 

Hybrids can be worth the wait. With increase disease and drought resistance, they don’t require as many (if any) chemical treatments and can withstand harsher and more volatile climates. Many growers are excited. PIWI International is a German organization that has been promoting a class of hybrids known as Pilzwiderstandsfähige Reben (PIWI) since 1999. According to Wines of Germany, three percent of vineyards in the country are planted to PIWIs. This number is expected to grow significantly as soon as grape nurseries can meet inventory demands. 

Whilst growers are excited about hybrids, Clarke makes the good point that the ‘true hybrid revolution’ will only happen once customers are on board too. To increase the acceptance of hybrid grapes, PIWIs need a glow-up, says Eva Vollmer of Weingut Eva Vollmer in the Rheinhessen. The first step is a name change: “PIWIs is not a nice name. And ‘fungus-resistant’ isn’t good for marketing, either.” Instead, she advocates for the use of the term ‘Future Wine’ to talk about hybrids.

Broad acceptance of hybrids will require an open mind on what wine can and ‘should’ taste like. If natural wines, with their cloudy appearance and funkier taste, have been widely accepted, could hybrids be too? Read Clarke’s article 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.