Bordeaux's Green Wineries




‘The best vintages of Bordeaux may be already behind us.’

This suggestion, from Richard Smart, Australian viticulture specialist, at the 2008 Climate Change and Wine conference in Barcelona dramatically highlighted the threat to Bordeaux from the potential temperature rises that are due over the coming decades.

He wasn’t about to hold back on the hyperbole: ‘It is not a question of if temperatures are going to rise, it’s a question of when, and we have to adapt our viticulture practises in readiness.’ He suggested, among other things, planting new grape varieties, adapting vineyard techniques or moving to cooler, higher areas – something that would not be viable in Bordeaux, where the idea of geographic-specific terroir in each appellation is firmly welded to the identity of the region.

The phenomenon is by no means limited to Bordeaux (and in many ways, as consultant Michel Rolland pointed out at the same conference, Bordeaux has benefited enormously from warmer summers in terms of better ripening of the grapes giving rounder, softer tannins and more fruit-focused wines), but as a traditionally highly conservative area, it is perhaps fair to wonder whether Bordeaux can change as fast as the environment threatens to do...

Back in Bordeaux itself, not everyone shares Rolland’s optimism. The CIVB announced this year that it is undertaking an extensive audit of its carbon footprint. The study, the Bilan Carbon initiative, expects to show the first results by September 2008 and is being led by climatologist consultant Jean Marc Jancovici.

The aim is to examine the carbon impact of wine making during the growing season, vinification, bottling, packaging, delivery, as well as general electricity consumption in merchants' offices, cellars and at all points along the production and delivery chain.

Laurent Charlier of the CIVB technical service, explained, 'We intend to find out the carbon emissions for making different styles of wine, in different appellations, and at what stages we need to concentrate our efforts to mitigate the emissions.’

'We know we produce 756 million bottles of wine per year, and that 40% of that number is exported, but we haven’t broken down the energy-consumption at different stages of production. This study should give a clear idea of what different methods of production or shipment mean in terms of environmental cost.'

The wine industry may be a small offender globally in terms of carbon emissions, but it is also one of the first to publically show its commitment to being accountable. There is always a benefit to being at the forefront, and Bordeaux can perhaps claim the political and moral highground for its forward-thinking programme (Champagne carried out its own audit a few years ago, but Bordeaux is the first of the still wine AOCs in France to step up). But does this high profile project mean anything at a producer level?

‘The problem for many,’ says JP Delmas at Chateau Montrose, which is leading the way among high-profile properties in flexing its green credentials, ‘is that it costs a lot to introduce these things, and many winemakers can’t afford to do so. Whether installing solar panels, or refitting your cellar with environmentally-friendly instruments, there is a huge initial outlay.’

Montrose, which is now owned by manufacturing group Bouygues, doesn’t suffer from this liquidity problem (the family has an estimated personal fortune of $3.2 billion according to Forbes), and in fact since its purchase in 2006, has been quietly pursuing a policy of transforming its cellars and buildings to recycle energy through sun, water and wind power, both to improve insulation, electricity usage and to generally increase the efficiency and quality of its winemaking.

‘Martin Bouygues always wanted to be exemplary in terms of the environment, reflecting similar green policies that he has brought in with his construction companies,’ continued Delmas, who has worked at Montrose since his retirement from Haut Brion in 2005, ‘such as trying to be self-sufficient in energy use. At Montrose, we are lucky to have a water source below the chateau that remains constant all year at around 14 degrees – meaning that it can be used in the cellar to cool things down in the summer, and warm things up in winter.’ It avoids the over-use of thermo-regulation, and can also convert energy, to ‘store up’ for use when needed.
The buildings surrounding the property are all being rebuilt for an expected completion date of 2010, and all, according to architect Philippe Mazières, will be self-sufficient energy-wise. ‘There will eventually be 3000m2 of solar panels,’ he explained. ’I worked on a project for Chateau Clerc Milon last year where we installed solar panels to reduce dependency on electricity, but this is the most ambitious project I have seen in Bordeaux, and will eliminate the need for any outside power for electricity.’ They expect, instead, to be able to sell back excess electricity to the national power company.

Montrose may well be the most advanced in terms of green practises, but they are definitely not the only ones. As Thibualt Despagne of the Despagne Family Vineyards wrote on his blog in March 2008, ‘It has become the topic number 1 of all newsrooms: the world is discovering how climate is changing. Temperatures, precipitations, wind, sun; every record testifies the climate is like never before... As a winegrower I don't have any opinion but I like to mention we haven't waited for Al Gore's movie to try to protect our "green assets".’ He goes on to detail how, for the past 10 years, the Despagne company, in all of its Entre deux Mers chateaux, has initiated many environmental programmes in recycling, waste water management, energy conservation and biofuel. He also records that there is increased interest in the subject from direct customers, importers and industry. The family sells almost 20% of its production to airlines, which increasingly ask for recycled or recyclable glass, lighter weights and for more environmentally-friendly initiatives in all wines that they stock onboard.

Chateau Larose Trintaudon, just outside of Pauillac in the Haut Medoc appellation, has also long pursued a policy of sustainable development, with the official ISO certifications to prove it. Owner Brice Amouroux says, ‘We were among the first, back in 1997, to start thinking about sustainable development, and we are now considering full carbon neutrality. For us, it’s not just a fashionable word, but real. There are plenty of neighbours who say they are doing things, but really aren’t.’

The property has just welcomed 300,000 bees into its vineyards, both to make honey and also guard against excessive use of pesticides by keeping out more harmful pests. For visitors, the environmental focus is part of the tour, as 12 information panels explain the role that sustainable development plays in the vineyards, and that is summed up in the slogan ‘Dare to be rational’.

For everyone who has so far undertaken these changes, one of the key questions is whether they can turn into sales. Bordeaux has notoriously been undergoing an image crisis in recent years, and there may be a hope that green practises can go some way to countering the idea of the region as old-fashioned, cold and overly corporate. There seems, however, little evidence of it so far; the best that most report is that ‘going green’ can help build loyalty with suppliers and consumers, and perhaps give a reason for importers to choose one chateau over another, but not to actively increase volumes sold.

That has certainly been the experience for Remi Lacombe of Vignoble Lacombe in Civrac Medoc. Owner of four vineyards (Château Bessan Ségur, Château Tour Saint-Vincent, Château La Gravette Lacombe, Château La Grange de Bessan), Lacombe was the first vineyard in Bordeaux – in fact in France – to put its claim for carbon neutrality on its label. ‘But I can only do this with a tiny proportion of my wine, as the carbon off-setting adds to the price per bottle, and most importers are not prepared to pay the extra. If I tried to go 100% carbon neutral, I would never sell any bottles.’

Lacombe launched the project in 2007 amid much press noise, and chose the option of working with Climate Partner, because, as he explained, ‘I wanted to choose a partner that had international resonance.’

His initial audit discovered he used 639 tonnes of CO2 a year, so 1.7kg for each of his 380,000 bottles of wine. Particular hotspots included consumption of electricity, fuel, yeasts in vinification and vehicules for both work in the vineyard and transporting wines. ‘Besides the offsetting, I have tried to diminish my consumption, but have been surprised how much it costs,’ says Lacombe.

‘For example, I had to outlay €30,000 just to change to low consumption bulbs, and was disappointed by this outlay for the small results. But I’ve had great results for other things such as managing the temperatures in the cellars during vinification, and by anticipating demand. If I have to lower temperatures during fermentation, for example, then I start much earlier to let it lower naturally.’

At the same time, for every bottle purchased, Climate Partner offsets the emissions by funding projects around the world, much like offsetting airmiles. ‘So far, the carbon neutral label hasn’t brought any strict benefits in terms of commercial sales. I’m not a classified growth, so I had hoped this would give a different angle for sales. So far, I’ve given it as an option to my distributors. If they want it, I will talk about it, if not, I don’t. It does add quite a bit of money to the cost per bottle, but I see it as another way of talking to consumers –– a wine for a cause.’

Back at Montrose, Delmas would no doubt agree with him, up to a point. ‘Everyone is interested in pursuing a green message now – even the five first growths are talking about it. We can no longer live in this world without trying to look after it. But let’s not get carried away; for Bordeaux, the most important thing always has to be quality. And we mustn’t forget that many of these things are highly contradictory for the luxury industry. Packaging, for example, is difficult to make environmentally friendly and yet remain high quality. Naturally we choose heavier glass for our bottles, and package the wine in wooden boxes. I can’t see that changing. For a start, people still like that feeling of weight and reassurance that these give. They also genuinely help prolong the life of the wine, and that still has to be paramount.’

There is also the small matter that Bordeaux wines are exported all over the world, often by air freight, and the majority of the 8,000 producers in the region are more interested in increasing their exports than they are in saving the planet. But as one of the world’s most high profile wine regions, the actions of even a few could have the effect of bringing the importance of green wine making practises into focus. As Lacombe says, ‘There may not be immediate profits, but it answers a need to change people’s mindsets for the long term.’

The Bilan Carbon: Bordeaux’s Carbon Project

This study of the emissions made by the Bordeaux wine industry was initiated in January 2008, with the results announced in November 2008, after six months study and two months of interpreting the data.

The study examined the carbon impact of Bordeaux wine making during the growing season, vinification, bottling, packaging, delivery, as well as general electricity consumption in merchants' offices, cellars and so on. The work was undertaken by the Technical Service of the CVIB, under the direction of climatologist consultant Jean Marc Jancovici, who had previously carried out carbon studies for both LVMH and the Champagne Wine Body, and assisted by the Environment Agency. It employed a measuring technique developed by Jancovici.

The results revealed a production of 200,000 tonnes of carbon per year (to give some idea of what this means, the Champagne region found it produced around the same amount carbon when it did a similar study last year – 200,000 tonnes, or approximately 700g per bottle). This doesn’t make wine regions the worst offender – to make a comparison, according to a 2006 study published by the Guardian newspaper, an average UK city produces 200,000 tonnes of carbon per year in gas consumption alone, and 91 million tonnes from the UK’s private cars.

The breakdown of this figure for Bordeaux showed 45% came from production of materials such as glass and cork, 12% through moving personnel around, 10% on vinification processes, and 18% on transportation of wines.

Particularly significant emissions came from glass, at 42,500 tonnes per year, and overland transportation of wines, with 24,100 tonnes per year. Sales trips undertaken by chateaux and negociants, and the 550,000 annual wine tourists to the region, also came under the microscope, with these departures and arrivals creating 23,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Alain Vironneau, president of the Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB), said at the press conference, ‘We intend to bring these figures down by 30,000 tonnes within five years, and to have an overall reduction of 75% by 2050.’

Some of the suggested strategies for this reduction include the use of lighter glass bottles, the reintroduction of sea transport for wines, the use of recyclable materials and energy-efficiency strategies and a more considered use of sales trips.

Sylvie Cazes, president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, commented, ‘It is just as key right now to reduce use of energy and water as it is to think about ecological practises in the vineyard, and this study is a very useful tool for the whole of our industry.’

Bordeaux produces around 756 million bottles of wine per year, and that 40% of that number is exported.