24th January 2012 -- Last week an article appeared in Harpers Wine and Spirits on the back of a press release outlining how wines from the Rueda region in Spain were poised to take market share away from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the UK.
The original press release was distributed by a UK agent, Clink Wines, who have a number of brands from the Rueda region on their books. The release itself was scathing towards Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – outlining the issues of quality relating to bulk commoditisation of New Zealand wine and a price point that was no longer offering value to the consumer due to the strong NZ dollar (or more pertinently, a weak British Pound). Both are contentious points that would have been received with umbrage by many producers here in New Zealand.
But these were not the points that rankled us. The one that got us more than a little grumpy was the claim that these wines have a lower carbon footprint than New Zealand wines.
Back in 2006 when we started working on carbon assessments of wine there was a term being widely used – you might remember it – “food miles”.
This term was based on the concept that it would be better to buy products manufactured closer to home as they would have a lower impact on the climate by being responsible for less carbon from transport. Given that New Zealand is about as far away as you can get from the UK, products from here were given the automatic status of “food miles whipping boy”.
A simplistic concept at best, it galvanised all manner of people in New Zealand to really look at whether New Zealand produce was carbon competitive. A ground breaking study was undertaken by Caroline Saunders and her team at Lincoln University to comparatively look at the life cycle carbon impacts of New Zealand products. This study, along with work undertaken by NZTE quickly dispelled the simplistic concept and introduced a wider audience to more robust terms such as cradle to grave and life cycle assessment.
Last week we asked for clarification of the carbon claim made in the press release – but nothing as yet has been forthcoming. We have found no public disclosures on the carbon footprint of Rueda wines and can only assume that the comment was based on the ill conceived idea that because Rueda is closer to London than Marlborough, its wines will have a lower carbon footprint.
Without a transparent study to compare against neither can we claim that Marlborough wines have a lower carbon footprint than those from Rueda, what we do know though is the following:
- It is highly likely that wine freighted to London from Rueda is by road and cross channel ferry. This has a larger carbon footprint than wine freighted by road and sea freight ex Nelson from Marlborough, due to container shipping being a very carbon efficient form of transportation.
- Spain has an electricity emissions factor almost double New Zealand’s.
- Spain has a glass recycling rate that is lower than New Zealand’s.
- Marlborough produces some of the best white wines in the world at almost twice the cropping levels of the Rueda regions vineyards – probably giving better economies of scale in terms of carbon allocation in the vineyard.
- The region is significantly warmer than Marlborough due to its continental climate – again there will probably be a greater amount of energy and HFC’s required for refrigeration of must, juice and wine.
- It is also worth pointing out, without any irony intended, that shipping wine in bulk and bottling in the UK reduces the carbon footprint of New Zealand wines still further.
We have to hold our hands up and say these are only the most likely scenarios as we see them. Without the primary data it’s necessarily all supposition.
After all, the wines might be container shipped out of Corruna to Tilbury, the wineries might have their own small scale renewable energy plants, they might purchase extremely lightweight glass from an efficient European supplier and their agrochemical and fertiliser regimes might be less than New Zealand’s due to the high soil lime content and warmer weather, thus negating the vineyard economies of scale. Their wineries may even be primitive affairs and not use refrigeration at all, preferring to blow away the confected fruit characters of more traditional cool climate wine styles. All of these are possible and could be calculated (and compared), if the numbers came with the claims...
All we are asking is that marketing claims, like the ones put out in the press release, are based on robust studies and not misguided assumption – otherwise it is just marketing “greenwash” – something that DEFRA and the ASA are very strict on policing in the UK.