An estimated 50-100 billion tonnes of carbon has been lost from our soils since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Wine industry luminaries are now looking to start putting it back by using regenerative farming techniques. NICK BREEZE talks to Miguel Torres and Julien Gervreau of Jackson Family Wines.
Leadership in agriculture
With an 8000 year heritage, the wine industry today comprises 1.8% of global agriculture. With the pressure on all industries to raise ambition on climate action, the wine industry has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in both reducing emissions and adopting farming practices that lock up carbon and support biodiversity.
Although many may see wine as a luxury or non-essential agricultural product, it is the cultural aspect of many family-owned wine businesses that make them particularly suited to face the climate challenge.
Viticulturists know that every aspect of the vineyard plot impacts the fruit produced and will be the main determiner of the eventual quality of the wine. Many famous regions are regulated to protect the quality that consumers expect. It thus follows that slight changes in climate will impact the quality of grapes and alter the style of the wines produced.
On top of this, we see unseasonal extremes such as the recent frosts that destroyed many vineyard crops in northwest Europe. These extremes are mirrored in the wildfire events that have been seen in places like California, Australia or South America.
Multigenerational wine producers can see that climate instability, due to the huge burden of greenhouse gas emissions humanity has emitted, is a direct threat to the businesses they hope to hand down to their children and grandchildren.
The most vocal of these producers is the President of Spain’s largest wine producer, Miguel A. Torres, who had an epiphany as he watched Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
Since then he has become a passionate wine industry activist and himself an inspiration to others in the industry to address the challenge of climate change.
Building a coalition of winemaking activists
Torres joined forces with another renowned quality producer, Jackson Family Wines, who operate on a global scale, to form International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA). The group has set rigorous rules for both measuring each member wineries current carbon footprint and taking action to reduce emissions.
With independent assessments and new protocols coming into place, IWCA has joined the UN-backed ‘Race To Zero’ campaign to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The call to act on climate change has attracted more wineries to join IWCA, including the historic Symington Family Estates in Portugal, among others.
Building inclusivity with smaller producers
Many wine producers are not such large operators with budgets that can be easily deployed but as many as possible are needed to make the wine industry a significant leader in the agricultural sector. IWCA is currently working to make sure that smaller producers can also start the journey towards drastic emissions reduction.
When I interviewed Jackson’s Vice President of Sustainability, he said,
“As the climate changes and the impacts, either accelerating or decelerating that change are felt, from a human perspective now is really our opportunity to do something about it.
Around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by the agricultural sector. We are seeing a lot of research right now which is pointing to the potential for agriculture to actually be a net sequesterer of greenhouse emissions.
In changing how we farm and changing our relationship to the soils we can actually draw down carbon and store it, sequestered, in the soil.”
A blueprint for sucking carbon from the atmosphere
It is early days and the IWCA recently created an internal soils report which is the beginning of a blueprint that has the potential to be taken to scale.
Regenerative farming is getting a lot of attention in the press as scientists realise we have a major degraded carbon sink that could be actively stimulated to suck billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
Walking the walk
Familia Torres has made climate action an integral part of their brand identity. As many young consumers will no doubt care more about climate impacts than wine, this is undoubtedly a wise move.
On regenerative efforts Torres says:
“Our new agricultural plan of regenerative viticulture includes the conversion, over five years, of more than 500 hectares of our organic vineyards in the Penedès, Priorat, Conca de Barberà, and Costers del Segre.
Some of the regenerative practices are already currently in use as part of our winery’s vineyard management, but additional ones will also be implemented gradually to regenerate the soil, with adjustments made based on the results. We hope this will help to reduce our Carbon footprint permanently between 3 to 5%.”
The company has also begun a 4-year study working with the Forestry Applications & Research Centre (CREAF) in order to learn more about the ideal soil compositions, as the carbon stored in soil increases, in Jean Leon and in Mas La Plana vineyards.
Resilience against climate impacts is critical
Climate extremes are now more tangible than ever, so resilience in the vineyard is becoming a key concern. Regenerative farming naturally promotes biodiversity, which itself makes for a more resilient ecosystem.
Torres says: “Based on the experiments carried out for the past 10 years, we have seen that cover crops make it possible to retain more rainwater and get through periods of drought more easily, also avoiding soil erosion.
We also believe that the increase in biodiversity will give us a better balance and a more stable ecosystem in the vineyard, which in the end could give the vines a better natural defence against possible pests and diseases.
As mentioned earlier, this will be a test and a learning process for us for the coming years, but the basics of the approach make sense.”
Torres already allocate around 11% of their annual profits to investments related to the environment and climate change. In 2019 I visited them in Catalunia and saw first hand how carbon emissions from fermentation were converted into gas to power plant machinery.
When I ask Torres about other initiatives he highlights four that touch on various stages of the business cycle:
“In our vineyards, the already mentioned implementation of regenerative viticulture, for which the use of electric tractors will also be important.
In the packaging area, we are focusing on the project of reuse of bottles which should be organised on a European level.
Here it will also be interesting to see an experiment we are doing with the monopoly in Quebec, in which we are sending entry-level wines in bulk and bottling them at the destination.
At the winery level, our plan is to increase the use of renewable energy from 31% to 100%, to reuse to a maximum the CO2 from our fermentation, and to capture CO2 from the Troposphere by continuing to plant trees in our 6.000 ha estate in Patagonia (Chile).”
The findings from the work that Familia Torres carries out is shared with the IWCA members and collectively the group publishes reports to members in order to establish working best practices.
To my final question, Torres answers more cautiously. With a total of 3.2 m hectares of vineyards in Europe and 7.4m globally, what is the most ambitious scenario he can envisage if this approach was adopted widely?
“That is difficult to answer, as CO2 sequestration very much depends on various factors such type of the soil, type of climate and actual organic matter content.
So it is not easy to give you here a European or worldwide scenario, but as mentioned before the approach of regenerative viticulture makes sense and every contribution to fix CO2 from the troposphere in the soil in a natural way, is a good thing. But this will not change the current situation of global warming.
What we need is to stop using fossil oil and gas and change our lifestyle (for example, use less air conditioning/heating, switch to LED bulbs, switch to an electric car, install PV’s and vary our diet (the more vegetarian the better …) and this is very difficult unless we have world governance.”
Miguel A Torres will join Julien Gervreau of Jackson Family Wines and Rob Symington of Symington Family Estates to give an IWCA Industry Briefing as part of the London Wine Fair at 4 pm BST on the 18th May.
Nick Breeze is a co-founder of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, writes about wine and climate change for SecretSommelier.com and also hosts the Shaping The Future podcast.