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Tasting Climate Change conference 2024: Key takeaways

Hardy Québécois wine professionals braved -8ºC temperatures in snowy Montreal for a two-day conference on climate change, viticultural challenges and the impact on wine.

Founded by Montreal-based Michelle Bouffard, DipWSET, Tasting Climate Change is international in scope. Held 22-23 January 2024, the 4th edition of this trade-oriented, biennial symposium brought in 30 experts from around the world to lead seminars and panel discussions for an audience of almost 400.

Bouffard led with a reminder that 2023 was the world’s warmest year ever recorded. She referenced the record forest fires across Canada, widespread loss to fungal disease in Europe and dire drought in Catalonia. ‘Even though we need to acknowledge the challenges, these aren’t the reasons I am here,’ she said.

Turning swiftly to the conference’s objective to explore solutions, she shared a report by France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), suggesting that agriculture, which includes viticulture, has the potential to sequester 41% of its carbon emissions through proper soil management.

The role of soil

Taking the relay, keynote speaker Marc-André Selosse, professor at Paris’ Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, gave a dense presentation of the composition and choreography of dirt. ‘Low water isn’t necessarily the problem,’ he stated, pointing instead to the ability of soil to retain water. Modern practices like ploughing, tilling and using pesticides and mineral fertilisers have diminished this and crucially reduced soil’s capacity to store carbon.

Carbon sequestration is one of the main goals of regenerative agriculture, a trending topic in the world of wine. Michel Gassier from Famille Gassier described the approach as pragmatic rather than dogmatic. It takes all the good ideas from ancestral to modern practices such as organic and permaculture to improve soil, increase biodiversity and restore ecosystems. ‘It is the only system we found that isn’t necessarily more expensive than conventional farming,’ he said.

Joining Gassier was Joseph Brinkley from Bonterra Organic Estates. With 344ha, Bonterra is the largest Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) winery in the US and fewer than 20 worldwide. ‘The strength of ROC is the social aspect,’ Brinkley explained. Besides farming practices, it includes a strict audit of how employees are treated, including receiving an essential living wage.

The importance of certifications

Beyond ROC, the numerous certifications were evaluated, with Bouffard noting that organic alone isn’t a guarantee of sustainability. Anne Bousquet from the multi-certified Domaine Bousquet in Argentina shared that B Corp, which assesses environmental, social and economic sustainability, was the most difficult to attain. ‘Certification is like a marriage rather than an engagement,’ she said. ‘It assures clients and retailers that what we say we do, we do.’

Regional certifications were recognised as having the most significant potential to accelerate change. Admired by industry peers as the ‘gold standard’, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) – established in 1995 – was one of the first sustainability initiatives launched in the global wine industry.

The country has achieved SWNZ certification for over 96% of its vineyard land through a collective effort. Speaking on behalf of SWNZ, Meagan Littlejohn considered the entire lifecycle of a winery’s carbon footprint, asserting that ‘25% of emissions come from exporting and 75% from production’. She argued that New Zealand wines still represent an environmentally sound choice despite the distance they typically must travel, as low production emissions more than compensate for those from transportation.

The panel on regenerative agriculture. Credit: Tasting Climate Change

The weight of the bottle

Bottle weight alone is the most significant contributor to a winery’s carbon footprint – 30%, according to Tom Owtram of Sustainable Wine Roundtable. ‘We have to bust the myth of heavyweight bottles being directly connected to quality,’ he said. To this end, Stratus in Ontario has moved all premium wine from 750 to 370g bottles. From the Comité Champagne, Pierre Naviaux reported that the new standard Champagne bottle has been reduced from 900 to 835g. ‘This sounds tiny, but multiplied by 300 million bottles, that’s about 17,000 tons of CO2 we are saving annually,’ he said.

A first-time partner in Tasting Climate Change, the government-owned Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ) is one of the world’s biggest importers of wines and spirits. ‘Our buying power confers on us a responsibility and the ability to influence our suppliers and partners,’ said President Jacques Farcy. He reported that in 2022, nearly 85% of wine under CA$25 (representing 40% of total sales) came in lightweight bottles, lowering the carbon footprint by 6,000 metric tons.

Clonal diversity and a place for hybrids

Further sessions included focuses on varietal innovation and fighting fungal disease. ‘Aiming for zero disease is not sustainable,’ said Matthieu Beauchemin of Domaine du Nival in Québec. Olivier Sebe, who owns Domaine La Clausade in southern France, agreed: ‘We have to change our production to tolerate 20% loss.’ Here, Bouffard suggested drinking less but better to help producers be sustainable.

Both Beauchemin and Sebe farm organically and grow hybrids. For Beauchemin, hybrids are a necessity in Quebec’s humid climate. Conversely, Sebe planted fungal-resistant pilzwiderstandsfähig (PIWI) varieties to avoid spraying copper. While acceptance and interest in hybrids are growing, Europe’s appellations have long banned them – though even this is changing. In 2022, the French Institute for Origin and Quality (INAO) allowed mildew-resistant hybrid Voltis in the Champagne AOP for experimental purposes.

Nevertheless, lecturer and researcher at the Ecole Supérieure des Agricultures in Angers, Etienne Neethling, questioned if focusing on new varieties is jumping the gun, particularly when addressing heat and drought. ‘Can diversity of clones be a climate solution, especially in maintaining local wine identity?’ he asked. Most vineyards in France are planted with a low diversity of clones. He cited Chenin Blanc as an example – 4 clones represent 94% of plantings since 2005, yet 400 exist.

‘A polyclonal population gives a greater chance that one of those clones will be able to adapt to climate change,’ Neethling said. He compared plantings of multiple clones to a team of great players, each possessing different strengths and increasing protection against whatever direction the climate takes.

The issues with climate change are complex, and dealing with them is even more so. Conferences like Tasting Climate Change are crucial to furthering solutions. Yet staging a summit of this scale comes at an environmental cost. To offset the 53.38 tons of travel-related CO2 emissions, Bouffard contributed CA$1601.40 through NatureLab World to be invested in global projects such as tree plantations. ‘Compensation is not the answer,’ she recognised. But it is the best option for now.

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