French vintners seek greener future


An Earth-friendly future for French wine could include disease-resistant grapes, solar-powered robots and lighter packaging as vintners innovate to slash their environmental footprint.

“We can’t keep functioning like this, polluting the Earth,” said Alexis Raoux, sustainability manager for the Bordeaux-based drink group Castel. “What feeds us is the soil. If we continue like this, in a few decades the land will be polluted and our wine won’t be any good.”

Perhaps the most dramatic green innovation in the French wine scene is in the field of disease-resistant grape varieties, the culmination of more than three decades of genetic research.

Didier Merdinoglu, research director of the INRA Colmar research center, said, “Our solution is to put forth a plant that doesn’t need any treatment.”

Concerned about the impact of pesticides and vine treatments on soil, air and workers, including copper used by organic farmers, Merdinoglu believes zero treatment is the future for France’s vineyards. Obtained through cross-breeding as opposed to genetic modification, he expects the first new grape varieties to be available from 2016, incorporating resistance to the two most commonly treated vine complaints: oidium — also known as powdery mildew — and downy mildew.

In the meantime, a new solar-powered vineyard robot called the Vitirover aims to lighten wine’s impact on the soil by mowing wild plants between vine rows without the need for heavy, polluting tractors or herbicides. Wine growers allow this wild vegetation to grow to control vigor, improve grape and soil quality, encourage biodiversity and protect against erosion.

Invented by Xavier David Beaulieu, joint owner of the Chateau Coutet estate in the Bordeaux region, the 11-kg GPS-guided robot won a special jury prize at the 2012 Vinitech trade fair in Bordeaux last month.

Vintners keen to slash waste are rethinking every step, right down to the label. Adhesive sticker labels have replaced the glued-on variety, “so now we have a new waste product: the backing paper from the stickers,” said Raoux, whose Castel group set up a subsidiary to recycle label waste from the 640 million bottles it produces annually.

Lighter bottles have gained ground, too, in a drive to cut wine’s carbon footprint. Calculating that footprint is complex, but according to the French Vine and Wine Institute, the heaviest impact comes from a combination of tractor fuel, glass bottles, printed cardboard boxes, electricity and shipping.

Take the 43 million bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine shipped to Britain, which alone accounts for 38,000 tons of glass packaging, according to the British-based Waste and Resources Action Study Program.

Recycling experts from the program say lightweight bottles could reduce that figure by some 4,000 to 11,400 tons — slashing wine-related carbon dioxide emissions, 35 percent of which are generated by transportation.

Four years ago, Verallia, the packaging arm of Saint-Gobain, the world’s largest glass wine bottle producer, introduced a lighter range called Ecova that today accounts for half of the firm’s 300-million-bottle Bordeaux output. The bottles use as much as 95 to 96 percent recycled glass and are 50 to 70 grams lighter than the previous line, according to Didier Dumas, regional director for Verallia.

Lighter bottles have also become the official choice of other French wine appellations, including Savoy, Alsace and the Loire Valley, he said.

Green pioneers are meanwhile lobbying French wine’s governing bodies to take their concerns on board.

“In France today, our bedrock is the Appellation of Origin (AOC),” said Christophe Riou, scientific and development director of the French Vine and Wine Institute. “We need to integrate environmental questions into the appellation.”

Currently, an AOC certification denotes quality based on location, grape varieties, viticulture and wine-making methods.

Some regions, such as Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, have forged ahead, using carbon footprint studies to measure and reduce their impact. But that is not enough for Riou, who would like a nationwide study on the sector’s broader impact to look beyond the carbon footprint. “There is the water footprint, carbon footprint and the impact on biodiversity,” Riou said. “Today we are working on this life cycle. You have to integrate all three.”