Sustainable wines: a scientific overview

sustainable wines

As the climate emergency leads to growing demand for sustainable products, writer and hospitality expert Ali Dockerty explores the science behind sustainable wines.

Did you know that the waste created from pressed grapes can be used as an alternative fuel? Instead of only using basic eco-friendly winemaking practices, vineyard and winery owners around the globe are harnessing science to create new technologies for producing sustainable wines. As the effects of climate change continue to become a daily reality and landfills continue to expand, winemakers have taken it upon themselves to be as innovative as possible when looking to responsibly grow and produce their wine varietals. Although some may think that only a small portion of vineyards and wineries are adopting these practices, this is far from reality.

Worldwide, many groups and wine business owners are pushing entire countries and regions to make important changes. For example, in 2016, the group EQUALITAS began its work of uniting Italian wine producers in using sustainable practices. Additionally, by the end of this year, all of the Sonoma, California wine region will be certified sustainable. To see how wine growers are making a real impact on some of the biggest issues facing the environment, learn more about the science behind sustainable wines.

Reducing or eliminating contributions to climate change

At the beginning of 2019, National Geographic reported that greenhouse gases are now at levels higher than any other time in the last 800,000 years. To help reduce or even eliminate further carbon emissions, individuals in the wine industry are turning to their knowledge of science to combat the problem. One way to achieve this goal is through the many sustainability certification programs that have been developed across the globe. The Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW) program, SIP, ISO and Certified Green are just a few examples of the available certifications that a winery or vineyard can earn. Each group that provides a third-party certification adheres to a strict standard of scientifically backed sustainability measures.

For wineries and vineyards, a major factor in earning these certifications is demonstrating that they are using environmentally friendly energy sources, including solar and wind technologies. They must also consider commonly overlooked details, such as emissions related to transporting wines to domestic and international retailers. For example, sustainable wines packaged in cans can significantly reduce carbon emissions due to having a lower weight than glass bottles. Through the smart use of weight and energy principles like these, wineries have been able to limit their carbon footprint without compromising day-to-day operations.

Reducing waste

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the reduction of waste from the wine production process is crucial for sustainability-minded winemakers. While the successful implementation of waste reduction methods has relied heavily on newer scientific breakthroughs, winemakers are going steps further in the wise use of natural resources. In fact, they are pairing up with chemists and other scientists to decrease as much waste from the winemaking process as possible.

In 2009, a team of researchers at Penn State began working to convert wine waste into biofuel (as reported by It is made from what is left over after a winery’s grapes are pressed. The fuel can be created because the microbes ‘break the sugars down into water and hydrogen, and the hydrogen is converted into energy.’ In addition to this research, chemist Yi Zheng is working on creating a method that would convert ‘the cellulose from the skins and seeds into ethanol, which would significantly up grape pomace’s efficiency as a biofuel feedstock.’ Although the current fuels are not particularly efficient, they are a step forward in the right direction. In addition to turning wine waste into alternative fuel, researchers have also explored the idea of using this waste to produce biosurfactants.

Preserving the land, water and air

Another major goal of sustainable winemaking is preservation of the land, water and air. To earn almost every kind of sustainable winemaking certification, wineries and vineyards must show that they are actively working to conserve water, responsibly manage runoff; and use pest management treatments which do not involve harsh chemicals.

As an alternative, sustainable grape growers are also harnessing the science behind biodynamic viticulture. Rather than just reducing (or eliminating) the chemicals that are used to control pests and boost soil quality, farmers using biodynamics look at a vineyard as a microclimate. By studying how the land performs, growers are able to develop effective herbal sprays to treat the vines, properly time all growing and harvesting activities, and use innovative composting techniques.

Over the next decade, it is almost certain that eco-conscious winemakers will continue to turn to science to further enhance their winemaking processes, eliminate carbon emissions, and repurpose waste in new and exciting ways. As more winemakers than ever before are turning to sustainable practices, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact this one industry can have on global environmental issues.

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  1. Any article that cites ‘the science behind biodynamics’ and includes the nonsensical statement “… farmers using biodynamics look at a vineyard as a microclimate” is suspect – biodynamics is not about science and microclimate is defined as the environment within the grape canopy.


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