Sustainable Vintages: How Britain’s Wine Industry is Embracing Eco-Friendly Practices

By | 21 June 2024

Last year was described as a ‘near perfect year’ in a recent report released by the Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) trade body, authored by Stephen Skelton MW.

Data from the Food Standards Agency Wine Team indicated that total production hit 21.6 million bottles, nearly twice the volume of the previous year.

Skelton predicted that if current trends in planting and yield continue, annual production could reach approximately 40 million bottles by 2032.

Within this burgeoning industry, sustainability is a paramount concern for producers as they aim to secure the future of their businesses.

‘It’s massively important,’ said James Davis MW, general manager of Bolney Wine Estate. ‘[In the future] access to water will be difficult, pesticides will become much more expensive, so the more we can act and operate sustainably, but also with a commercial thought process in terms of what we are doing, the better.’

Denbies Wine Estate, one of England’s largest single estate vineyards, became the first vineyard and winery in the UK to achieve Net Zero certification to the UK Carbon Code of Conduct standard (UKCCC) in April this year.

The latest figures from the Surrey estate, including the bumper harvest and bottling from 2023, show that Denbies sequestered more carbon than it emitted, leaving a carbon balance of -96 tonnes of CO2e.

Measures that Denbies has undertaken include leaving 4ha of vineyard in a natural state to promote biodiversity, installing solar panels on the winery building for self-generating green energy, and environmental best practice for all new capital investment.

The estate has also had success with the Solaris grape. As a PIWI variety, it is highly resistant to fungal disease, meaning that less spraying is required in the vineyard.

‘We started off blending the Solaris into some of our other wines but it’s actually stood up really well on its own in producing our orange wines,’ said CEO Chris White. The estate has also gone on to use some of the by-product from the wine in its vermouth.

Bolney is also making use of PIWI plantings. Davis told Decanter that the estate has found Rondo to have ‘about a third less of a carbon footprint than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir’. He likens the variety to Cabernet Franc in terms of its flavour profile and believes that the sustainability benefits will be well received by consumers, who are ever more aware of climate change.

Without the restrictions of permitted varieties or other regulations of Old World regions, producers in Britain have the ability to try out these kinds of sustainable approaches.

‘We don’t have to unpick a legacy and as a result, can be a bit more on top of the science,’ said Anne Jones, who is sustainability ambassador for WineGB among other sustainability consultancy roles.

Back in Sussex, Rathfinny Wine Estate achieved B Corp status last year, becoming the first sparkling wine producer that grows all of its own grapes to do so. It also has its sights set on becoming carbon Net Zero by 2030.

Winery manager, Tony Milanowski, spoke to Decanter about the innovative measures the estate has introduced, which include the use of an electro-dialysis machine for cold stabilisation, the process which prevents the possibility of tartrate crystals appearing in wine.

The process is usually carried out by either the addition of chemicals, which may not be desirable to a producer or consumer, or by using very low temperatures, which in turn uses a great deal of energy. The use of electricity as an alternative is a far more energy efficient option and highly effective.

Milanowski has also looked to other industries for inspiration when it comes to saving energy. Taking tips from the pneumatics industry he was able to improve the efficiency of Rathfinny’s air compression systems. He also looked at the refrigeration sector in terms of adapting glycol temperature in order to use less glycol overall.

‘We did some quite simple things that are not particularly exciting to other industries but probably not well understood in the wine industry,’ he said.

Tony Milanowski, winery manager at Rathfinny Wine Estate. Credit: Rathfinny Wine Estate

At Bolney, the team has been looking into the use of AI to assess what is going on in the vineyard. From a sustainability standpoint, identifying ‘problem’ areas – those with a greater pest, disease or frost risk – and being able to intervene more quickly and with a lower carbon footprint.

Davis also recognises the importance of learning from the experience of other wine regions, citing those growing Champagne varieties as an example. Bolney analyses data from other vineyards owned by parent company, Henkell Freixenet, in terms of weather, altitude, aspect, rootstocks and clones.

‘There could be overall transfer benefits from other vineyards around the world that can certainly help Bolney but also help the development of the English industry,’ he said.

This idea of knowledge sharing and collaboration is hugely valued in the growing industry and aided by WineGB, which aims to ‘establish Great Britain as one of the world’s great quality and most sustainable wine regions’.

The Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) certification was launched by WineGB in 2020 and now has 23 fully certified members through both winery and vineyard audit.

SWGB has developed, among other innovations, a tool which calculates how much CO2 is generated per bottle of wine and/or hectare of vineyard. For Jones, what sets this apart from other sustainability certifications is the fact that it has been designed specifically for Britain.

She speaks of her optimism with regards to the future: ‘We are in a position to learn from the history of other regions, enabled by the talented people we have here bringing their experience. Nature will take its course, and we must aim to work in harmony with it, combined with the benefit of science and innovation,’ she said.

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