Let’s face it, organic wines from artisan vignerons with vineyards and processes that encourage biodiversity are not always an option, either financially or physically.
So what is there to be found amongst the motley collection of wine, for under £10 in your local supermarket, that’s also good for the planet?
Alex Traska investigates and comes up with a surprisingly familiar face.
The biggest-selling red wine in British supermarkets is Campo Viejo Rioja.
Its familiar yellow label is a trusted go-to purchase for millions of shoppers in the UK, so it should be some comfort that even a business this large has an impressive commitment to sustainability and the environment.
Owners of the Campo Viejo brand, Pernod Ricard, are well aware of the level of responsibility that comes with mass production on this scale and how architecture, vinification, bottling, and a ground-breaking attitude to corporate social responsibility play an important role. Indeed, their efforts have awarded them carbon-neutral status (the first producer certified as such in Spain) and the first winery in the world to be certified for climate protection status.
Responsible production – on a massive scale
Last year, I was invited to their winery near Logroño, the municipal capital of the Rioja wine region, where just two small buildings betray the cavernous winery dug into a hillside overlooking some of the vineyards that make up the 5,400 hectares they control across the sub-regions of Alta, Baja and Alavesa – a total of 11% of all the vineyards in Rioja.
Pernod’s vice-president of global sustainability, Vanessa Wright, and Campo Viejo head winemaker Elena Adell and her team guided me around their beautiful site, explaining how much care, attention and commitment to sustainability goes into every bottle of wine that ends up on the kitchen tables of people like you and me.
Around the vineyard
The tour begins in 230 hectares of vineyard, dominated by Tempranillo, but many other accessory grapes.
The rows of vines immediately surrounding the winery are generally reserved for experimentation and testing purposes, not just with viticulture, but also for finding ways of protecting their valuable crop with organic methods that encourage bio-diversity.
Nesting boxes are provided for birds and bats that inhabit the home oak groves at the northern edge of the vineyard, a ridge punctuated with insect hotels that make a fine home for spiders, and ‘mohaños’ for lizards who do a better job of controlling the unwanted moth population than damaging pesticides.
“We have a responsibility to generate knowledge and new ideas and share them with growers. This helps us reduce the use of insecticides and promote biodiversity in an entire region,” says Mario Ezquerro, Campo Viejo’s vineyard manager.
Methods of reducing the use of fertilisers, along with ways of winning the constant fight with mildew in an environmentally sound way, are shared with the 850 producers who grow vines for Campo Viejo. Their lectures have been so successful in fact, that the strategy is now spreading to other brands in the Pernod Ricard portfolio.
“We don’t have to make these things up, it’s where we come from. We support creative conviviality – a French adaption – good times from a good place,” says Vanessa Wright, Vice-President of Global Sustainability at Pernod Ricard.
“We have a responsibility to generate knowledge and new ideas and share them with growers. This helps us reduce the use of insecticides and promote biodiversity in an entire region.”
Clever architecture and construction of the winery
We escape the heat outside and head into the winery building. Logical, intelligent design makes use of natural phenomena are used to ventilate and light the vast 45,000sq metre winery dug into the hillside.
Winemaking is of course a carefully controlled and sensitive process, so keeping the winery at a constant temperature is important and key to doing so is not producing unnecessary heat in the first place.
To that end, the multi-level building is designed to follow the process of winemaking and uses gravity, rather than electric pumps, to take grapes dropped in by the truck-load on top of the hill, all the way to to the fermentation tanks and bottling room.
“We prefer the word ‘vinify’ over ‘produce’, which is too industrial for our approach. We don’t have boilers or use fossil fuels – we only use electrical energy from 100% renewable sources,” Elena Adell, Campo Viejo winemaker.
The heat generated by the fermentation process is removed by convection, dropping the temperature of the winery by a few degrees C each night – a process which uses no energy at all. Only the northern façade of the building is exposed, which reduces the effect of the heat from the sun whilst also letting natural light flood the long, terracotta concrete hallways coloured to resemble the earth they have replaced. In the areas where natural light cannot reach, a moving zone of light follows you around the building to guarantee that empty areas are not lit.
It’s a surprisingly peaceful place. The lack of whirring pumps and floodlights makes it hard to believe that the facility is capable of processing half a million kilograms of grapes in a single day, just a fraction of what is required to fill the rows of tanks that hold 30 million litres of wine at full capacity.
All emissions generated by the wine making process are measured and the team here are always looking for ways to reduce emissions further to meet their targets. The introduction of tunnels below the vast room of tanks traps the large amounts of CO2 produced by fermentation is one such design innovation that has helped them achieve a 25% reduction in emissions since 2011.
Water use stands at one-third that of average wineries, and that which is used to wash the tanks is treated on site and re-used for irrigation of the surrounding vineyards, which also happen to grow on the very soil excavated to create the winery.
“We prefer the word ‘vinify’ over ‘produce’, which is too industrial for our approach. We don’t have boilers or use fossil fuels – we only use electrical energy from 100% renewable sources”
Barrel-ageing and bottling
Once fermentation is complete, Rioja must be aged for a minimum of one-year before sale, extending to five years for Gran Reserva classification. The barrel room is perhaps the most impressive sight on the tour. Regular red wine stained stacks, six barrels deep, stretch as far as the eye can see and look more like a glitch in the matrix than a hidden chamber in the Spanish countryside.
The vast amount of oak that must be felled, milled and hooped to create the 70,000 barrels in the room comes from sustainable forests, which Pernod Ricard maintain in France.
To prepare the product for sale, it must be bottled, corked, labelled and shipped and it is here that even tiny reductions in weight or changes to manufacture processes per unit have a macro effect when you consider that their bottle ageing room holds no less than six million bottles of vino.
Campo Viejo’s bottle suppliers succeeded in their challenge of reducing the weight of a case of wine by 35% to reduce transportation emissions. Cork continues to be used as harvesting the product does not damage the tree (and its naturally biodegradable of course – far better than the plastic corks commonly found in aggressively priced, mass-market wines). All dry matter suppliers (boxes, labels, pallets) are certified as sustainable and sea shipping accounts for 80% of the distribution of the end-product to their global markets.
The small, and mostly female team, operating the vast winery are part of an enormous workforce under the employment of Pernod Ricard, a company founded on social responsibility.
On the 7 June each year, every employee of Pernod Ricard in the world downs tools or leaves their desk to make a social contribution to their community. At the winery, employees work with local school children on the construction of the insect hotels on the periphery of the property.
“We don’t have to make these things up, it’s where we come from. We support creative conviviality – a French adaption – good times from a good place.”
So next time you’re doing the supermarket sweep at 9.50pm or looking for decent wine that won’t break the bank and reach for that familiar yellow label, remember that sometimes being a big global brand can have its advantages when it comes to tackling the climate issues that affect us all.