Published November 2010
A bunch of gripes
Leonie Nimmo explores problems and potential in the wine industry.
With the festive season looming it’s time to brace ourselves once more for the barrage of consumption most of us will no doubt be putting ourselves through. And as the recession continues to bite, many of us will be looking for the discounts offered by the big supermarkets for that crucial Christmas ingredient: wine. But what are the hidden costs of cheap wine, and are there ethical, affordable alternatives?
Supermarket own brands, packaged under various labels, account for a fifth of the UK wine market.(2) The rest is dominated by a few huge companies which are likely to produce the majority of wines available at your local off-licence. Then there are the thousands of smaller vineyards and producers. Although we only include a tiny fraction of them in this report, we do recommend that readers seek out such brands, as by definition their operations are likely to be more sustainable than those of multinational corporations. See the ‘links’ section below for where to go if you want to swim against the mainstream tide and buy wine from small producers.
All of the top selling brands in the UK are described as ‘New World’, that is, from outside of the traditional wine growing areas of Europe. In 2008, five of the top ten wine brands came from Australia, with brands from the USA and South Africa being the next most popular.(2)
Viticulture, or the production of grapes for making wine, is particularly vulnerable to climate change.“Wine is a bit of a bellwether in terms of some of the very immediate impacts you see from climate change,” according to Australian Winemakers’ Federation Chief Executive Stephen Strachan.(1) Weather conditions play a pivotal role in the final product. They set the parameters for the grape varieties that are suitable for selection and determine the types of tastes produced. Australia typically produces full-bodied, robust wines, as arid conditions result in less water in the grapes, more intense flavours and, generally, higher alcohol contents. English wines are more likely to be younger and fresher.
Changes in temperature, the length of growing seasons and water availability have the potential to significantly change global wine production. According to Jem Gardner of online organic wine retailer Vinceremos, it is climate unpredictability that is of most concern to wine producers. And these are nerve-racking times.Producers often only grow grapes, therefore are dependent on just one crop. Factors such as the timing of rain can have a big impact on yearly harvests.
Irrigation is an essential element of viticulture in arid areas of Australia. A drought in 2008 led to rising water prices, which threatened to put many farmers out of business.(1) Temperatures in most wine producing areas of Australia are projected to increase by between 0.3 and 1.7 °C by 2030. A study conducted in 2006 found that this increase could result in a reduction in grape quality in some regions of up to 50%.(5) Winemakers in Australia are therefore being forced to rethink the types of wine they can produce and the regions they can grow in. Australian grape vines can be over 130 years old,(6) so such changes may be difficult.
According to the managing director of Chapel Down wineries in Kent, a half degree rise in temperature leads to a shift in the area that can be cultivated for vineyards by 200-250 kilometres further north. Hence, south east England is now comparable to the Champagne region of France.6 And in the UK, wine is now produced as far north as Yorkshire.
Food miles, packaging and carbon footprinting
The UK is the world’s largest importer of wine, and research has estimated that wine consumption equates to about 0.4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.(7)
The focus of discussions regarding the carbon cost of products has shifted away from ‘food miles’, increasingly seen as an over-simplified model, to carbon footprinting, which calculates all of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product. Research in the wine sector indicates that this is a much more accurate approach. In 2007, the American Association of Wine Economists found that, whilst distance was important, the mode of transport used was also key in determining the carbon emissions from the transportation of wine. Shipping was found to be better than roads, which in turn was better than air freight. Their results indicated that, for people living in New York, it was ‘greener’ to consume a glass of French wine that had been transported by sea, than a glass of Californian wine transported by road.(8) By shifting from roads to canals, Tesco claims to have reduced its CO2 emissions on bulk wine transportation in the UK by 80%.(9)
Ethical Consumer could find no evidence that wine companies are beginning to pass information to consumers regarding the methods of transportation of their products, so making informed choices is tricky. Of the Corporate Social Responsibility reports we looked at for this Buyers’ Guide, none included such information.
Packaging also has a big impact on carbon emissions. Wine accounts for more packaging than any other product in the food and drink sector, totalling 8.75 billion tonnes of glass annually.(10) Research conducted by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in 2007 found that carbon emissions from the transportation of wine can be reduced by over 30% if the wine is bulk imported rather than bottled at source.(4) WRAP is working to encourage producers to adopt measures such as bulk importing and using lighter weight bottles to reduce carbon emissions.
Put A Cork In It
Cork is a 100% natural, sustainable and renewable product. And no trees are felled in the production of natural cork. It takes 25 years for a tree to be ready for harvest and then the bark is harvested every nine years for up to two centuries. Production of natural cork stoppers causes ten times less CO2 emissions than plastic stoppers, derived from petroleum, and 24 times less than screw caps, materials for which are sourced from open-pit bauxite mines.(22)
Cork for wine bottles is harvested from oak trees in the Mediterranean. Cork oak landscapes cover nearly three million hectares from Portugal and France to Algeria and Tunisia. The industry provides income for more than 100,000 people. Around 30,000 people rely on the cork industry for employment in Portugal alone, ranging from the ‘tiradors’ who harvest the cork through to those who work in processing. And while cork has many uses, the wine stopper is the Portuguese economy’s most important cork product. Of 15 billion wine corks produced globally every year, 60% are made in Portugal.
But the traditional areas of cork production are under threat, as a result of wine makers increasingly favouring synthetic stoppers and screw tops over natural cork. Three-quarters of the Western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within the next 10-15 years as a result, according to a 2006 WWF report, ‘Cork Screwed?’.
These landscapes support one of the highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, including globally endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle and the Barbary Deer. Oak agroforestry systems in Portugal also provide grazing land for indigenous pigs, sheep, goats and cattle.
Ethical Consumer carried out a quick survey in a nearby supermarket and found that nearly all the ‘New World’ wines on the shelves use a screw top, whereas European wines were more varied. Of those that had a more traditional-style stopper none appeared to indicate on the label whether the stopper inside was made from cork or plastic, which therefore makes it impossible for consumers to make informed buying decisions. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose include information on the type of stopper used for different wines on their websites.
The ‘I Love Natural Cork Campaign’ is asking wine drinkers to pledge to choose more wines which use natural cork. Find out more at www.ilovenaturalcork.co.uk.
War on Want released a damning report in 2009 on the impact of British supermarket power on working conditions in the wine industry in South Africa. The report ‘Sour Grapes’ provides a powerful critique of supermarkets profiteering from their market dominance, with costs from discount promotional sales being passed down the supply chains to producers, and workers being the ultimate losers.
According to the report, an excess of supply over demand has resulted in fierce and costly competition for space on British supermarket shelves. Mechanisms through which supermarkets exploit their power include charging sky-high rates for prime shelf position, exclusivity arrangements and contracts which can be cancelled at short notice. Wine agents are a key element of the supply chain. Incredibly only 12 agents are the intermediaries for over 80% of wine sales in the UK, and such concentration results in immense market influence.(11) Inclusion in the agents’ portfolios is vital for market access, and the threat of being de-listed, either by supermarkets or agents, makes it difficult for producers to speak out against the system.
The UK is South Africa’s largest wine export market, accounting for over 30% of its wine sales by volume. Specific impacts of British supermarkets’ policies in the South African wine sector include poverty wages, extended working hours, insecure seasonal labour and redundancy. The seasonal labour force in wine production jumped from 50% in 1995 to 65% in 2000.(11) Women are the most vulnerable as labour conditions deteriorate: traditionally, only men were able to obtain secure employment contracts, and often housing is only provided to workers with such a contract. Many women are consequently dependent on the men in their household. Some are forced to stay in abusive relationships or risk them and their children being made homeless. Women are also paid less and often suffer sexual harassment at work.
WEITA is the South African agricultural ethical trade initiative. Originally developed to improve conditions in the wine sector, it has now expanded to encompass agriculture as a whole. It is a voluntary, not-for-profit association of stakeholders including producers, retailers, trade unions, non-governmental organisations and government. A supply chain policy based on the WEITA Code, and WEITA accreditation, is robust enough to receive Ethical Consumer’s best rating in this category. Morrisons and Sainsbury’s are the only supermarkets in this report that are not members, but how this membership translates into actual improvements in supermarkets’ supply chains is somewhat unclear.
War on Want is asking its supporters to sign its petition calling on the British government to guarantee a fair deal for workers producing goods for UK supermarkets. It is demanding a living wage for all, decent working conditions and the right to join a trade union.
Getting drunk on exploitative labour conditions can be avoided by purchasing Fairtrade certified wine. Today 1% of all wine sold in the UK has Fairtrade accreditation, accounting for £16.4m sales in 2009. So there’s a long way to go. For many people the most readily available fairly traded wines will be found in the Co-operative, which launched the first supermarket-available Fairtrade wine in 2001. A full list of Fairtrade wines with contact details is available at www.fairtrade.org.uk.
‘Conventional’ and organic
Grapes are one of most heavily sprayed crops in the world. This can cause health problems for the workers, degrade the land and lead to residues in final products. In 2008 the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) released research into 40 bottles of conventional wine purchased in the EU. The results were startling. According to PAN: “100% of conventional wines included in the analysis were found to contain pesticides, with one bottle containing 10 different pesticides. On average each wine sample contained over four pesticides. The analysis revealed 24 different pesticide contaminants, including five classified as being carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic or endocrine disrupting by the European Union.”
According to Elliott Cannell of PAN Europe pesticide use is a growing problem amongst European wine producers, with traditional methods of pest control being abandoned in favour of synthetic pesticides: “In two thirds of cases the pesticide residues identified in this study relate to chemicals only recently adopted into mainstream grape production in the EU”.
However, the issues related to pesticides and other problem chemicals in wine are off the radar for many consumers, who assume wine is a ‘natural’ product anyway, according to Amy Wislocki of Decanter magazine. That’s probably reflected in the fact that purchasing levels of organic and Fairtrade wines are low compared to organic and Fairtrade food. Jem Gardner of Vinceremos, one of the country’s leading organic and biodynamic wine specialists, agrees, suggesting that people have a more relaxed approach to buying wine than food. Whereas they might organise for a weekly box of organic veg to be delivered, it is less likely they will arrange wine purchases in advance – possibly as a result of reluctance to acknowledge their wine consumption habits. Gardner also pointed out that wine is less likely to be associated with health, and so drinking organic is not as intuitive as eating organic.
There are over 350 different organic wines now available in the UK. There’s no EU organic criteria for wine itself , consequently ‘organic’ wines in Europe must be labelled ‘wine from organically grown grapes’. Organic certifying bodies in individual countries do have their own standards for organic wine production, however.
Sulphur dioxide is added to wine in the production process to prevent the taste deteriorating. According to the Soil Association, organic wine producers use on average one quarter of the legal maximum for conventional wines, although different certifying bodies have different standards for sulphur dioxide content. Hangovers are often attributed to the addition of sulphur to wine; consequently organic wines are sometimes said to result in less of a hangover – a theory that has, unfortunately, been somewhat discredited in recent years.
In Australia, vineyards are not permitted to use treated waste water to irrigate organic grapes – one of the slightly counter-intuitive areas where ‘organic’ doesn’t translate into ‘better for the environment’. Using treated waste water reduces pressure on fresh groundwater, and diverts sewage away from the Pacific Ocean, where it has been found to kill seagrass.
Veggies take note – Soil Association organic standards do not prohibit the use of animal-based processing agents.
Inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s biodynamic agriculture is a holistic system of production that goes beyond organic and views the farm as a single organism. The UK’s Biodynamic Agriculture Association, founded in 1929, certifies products with the ‘Demeter’ logo.
The rhythms and cycles of the solar system also have a part to play in biodynamic production, and the annually produced biodynamic planting calendar is influenced by the sun, moon and planets.
Animals play a key role on biodynamic farms, with manure central to the avoidance of external chemicals and fertilisers. According to the Demeter website, “agricultural Demeter farms without animals are not conceivable.”(19) Species-appropriate animal husbandry is practised, with animals provided appropriate shelter, exercise, fresh air and care. Whilst this type of production may not sit comfortably with vegetarians and vegans, the finished products can still be considered as suitable for them if no animal ingredients have been used in the production process.
According to Vinceremos’ Jem Gardner, biodynamic farming methods are being adopted by wine producers because they are persuaded that they will get results, rather than because of consumer demand. And many farmers adopt such practices without getting accreditation, which supports this argument.
Filtered with fish bladders
Filtering or ‘fining’ agents are used to remove organic compounds in wine, a process which makes the final product clear. In the UK, products with an alcohol content of more than 1.2% by volume are not required to be labelled with their ingredients, although fining agents are often not suitable for vegetarians or vegans.
The following are used in wine production as fining agents:
Gelatine – from bones and connective tissues of cows or pigs;
Isinglass – obtained from fish swim bladders;
Chitin – derived from the shells of crabs or lobsters;
Casein – obtained from milk;
Albumen – from egg whites;
Bentonite – a type of clay.
The synthetic polymer PVPP is a vegan fining agent, but definitely not organic.
The supermarkets covered in this report all sell at least a couple of own brand vegetarian wines, labelled as such, and all but ASDA and Tesco also sell own-brand vegan wine. However, amongst the big label wine brands, there either seems to be no move towards labelling wine as being suitable for vegetarians/vegans, or only a very few that actually are.
Although not yet commercialised, a number of GM grape varieties have been developed. Trials have been conducted in the USA, Italy, France, Germany, South Africa and Australia. In August 2010 sixty activists uprooted a field of GM grapes in France.(27)
Whilst commercially available GM grapes may be some way off, in the USA and Canada, GM yeast for wine-making is already available on the open market. Products made with GM yeast do not need to be labelled as such, as it is a ‘processing agent’ not an ingredient. Whether any such wines have made it onto the UK market is unclear.
There are now over 380 vineyards and 100 wineries in the UK, with 2009 production doubled on 2008 to 3.17 million barrels. This is labelled as either English or Welsh. English vineyards are listed on www.englishwineproducers.com. English wines, particularly sparkling wines, have won international awards in recent years.
Confusingly enough, ‘British’ wine refers to a form of ‘made wine’ manufactured in the UK from imported grapes, grape juice, grape must or fruit juices – a bit like fruit juice from concentrate. ‘Made wine’ products are not governed by EU wine rules. This confusion may account for some of the negative perceptions of wine from the UK!
Making your own beer and wine
Making your own wine and beer is a good way to use up surplus gluts if you grow your own fruit, or to utilise the many wild plants that surround us, even in cities. And you don’t have to use the more obvious ingredients – beer can be made from camomile, lettuce and nettles, while wine has been made from Earl Grey tea, tomatoes and mushrooms (not all at once!). The fruit doesn’t even have to be ripe; umeshu is a liqueur made from steeping green plums with alcohol and sugar, and a great way of using up unripe fruit.
The Urban Wine Company in South London grew from just such beginnings. In 2007 a group of friends in Tooting, South London pooled their grape crops and pressed 20 bottles of ‘Chateau Tooting - Furzedown Blush’. It now acts as a collective for grape growers all over London and the South East, collecting their crop and delivering it back as wine. The 2009 harvest yielded over 1.5 tonnes of grapes and a thousand bottles of wine. The Urban Wine Company describes itself as being “on a mission to reach more urban grape growers and plant vines across the capital.”
While it may be harder to grow grapes further north, other crops can be collected communally and turned into delicious drinks – the most obvious example being apple cider. You can check the website of your local Abundance group for information about finding local free fruit. There are at least ten Abundance groups nationally, too many to list here, but you can find links to their sites at http://abundancemanchester.wordpress.com/
Making your own has a lower carbon footprint than buying booze. The ingredients are local and full bottles are not being moved around the globe. Plus, if it’s your own fruit, you can grow it using organic methods. But it does have its own environmental footprint, especially the use of boiling water and sterilising solutions for sterilising bottles. So if possible do your sterilising in batches. Chemipro Oxy is being marketed as an environmentally friendly steriliser that uses active oxygen rather than the more usual chlorine or sulphur dioxide sterilising agents.
Bear in mind that different drinks take significantly different lengths of time to prepare. Nettle beer only takes a couple of weeks, whilst people recommend leaving elderberry wine for a couple of years to do it justice.
There is a veritable cornucopia of books for the home tipple producer, including Winemaking the Natural Way (by Ian Ball, ISBN 0716020998) and Self-sufficiency Home Brewing by John Parkes (ISBN 184773460X).
Online resources include:
- Search ‘How to turn your excess fruit and veg into wine’ for recipes.
- ‘Andy Hamilton’s Home Brewing’ on YouTube for a demonstration of camomile beer
- http://duramecho.com/Food/NoveltyWines.html for recipes for the unexpected wines mentioned above (apparently the mushroom wine tastes almost like a conventional white wine).
Camel Valley was founded in 1989 and is a family business that has won international awards for its English wine. Wines available by mail order from website or by telephone (01208 77959), and stocked in Waitrose.
The London Beer Company Ltd produces Broughton Pastures fruit wines along with Pitfield’s ale, cider and perry.
Constellation Brands is the world’s biggest wine company, with annual sales of more than $3.65 billion. It markets over 100 brands in 150 countries, operates more than 40 wineries and employs about 6,000 worldwide. In 2009, Constellation Brands Inc donated $100,000 to ‘Budget Reform Now’, a California Political Action Committee aligned with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which lobbied for the passing of his proposed budget. The original proposal called for an increase in alcohol tax, but this measure disappeared from the final version, despite the fact that it was supported by the electorate. In 2008 the company had eight registered lobbyists in California alone, according to alcohol watchdog the Marin Institute.(28)
Davenport Vineyards produces the Limney range of organic, vegan wines. Founded in 1991 in Kent, it today comprises of over 20 acres of Soil Association certified vineyards.
E&J Gallo Winery was founded in 1933 by the Gallo family, who still own and operate the company. Co-founder Ernest Gallo became one of the richest men in America. It is the leading exporter of Californian wine – one in four bottles in the US are produced by the company.(29) Political donations are a persistent feature of the company’s activities. In 1986 Bob Dole introduced the inheritance tax bill, nicknamed the ‘Gallo amendment’ following the Gallos’ donations of more than $1 million to his think tanks, charitable foundations and campaigns. The amendment is estimated to have saved E & J Gallo $104 million.(29)
Perlage is a family-owned company based in Treviso, Italy. All its products are vegan and certified organic.
The Ridgeview Estate Winery family-owned estate in the Sussex Downs produces sparkling wine from traditional Champagne varieties and methods. All its products are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Stellar Winery is South Africa’s largest producer of organic wine, and became the first organic winery in the world to achieve Fairtrade accreditation. Workers own 26% of the shares of the cellar and 50% of the farming operation, Stellar Agri. Stellar is the top organic wine brand in the UK, and also produces wine without added sulphur. Its products are suitable for vegans.
The farm-worker families at Thandi Wines own 55% of the shares of the company. It describes itself as the “first truly broad-based empowered wine company, and also the biggest black-owned exporting wine company, in South Africa”.(35)