The survey, carried out by Geisenheim University in late 2021 ahead of the German trade show (Dusseldorf, May 15-17) talked to nearly 3,000 wine experts across 48 countries.
While experts had previously voiced concern that COVID-19 would overtake and hinder the industry’s ambitions in sustainability, these fears have not been realized: ‘compared to 2019, sustainability is considered as important as before in the industry,’ notes Geisenheim's report.
But while the motivation is still there, the practicalities of implementing and communicating sustainability remains a sizeable challenge.
“Industry representatives agree that consumers cannot understand and differentiate between the great number of environmental and sustainable certifications. Eight out of ten industry experts demand a unique, strong sustainability standard that can be jointly communicated to consumers.”
As a more recent concept, certification as a sustainable producer is not yet as widespread as organic.
When it comes to gaining certification, the new world and France are in the lead where roughly half the vintners surveyed are have a sustainable certification.
In Spain, Italy, Portugal, Austria and Greece 40-50% of those polled are considering sustainability certification in future.
"Of the larger companies in cooperatives and wineries, one third already hold or are undergoing certification at present," notes the report.
"This percentage is still markedly lower among smaller wine-growing estates. In Germany, where many small enterprises also took part in the survey, most companies have not considered certification so far."
Interest in certification – both from producers and the wider trade – is primarily driven by personal interests in sustainability.
But a clearer idea of what is sustainable is necessary to drive the concept forward, says the report.
“A vague definition of sustainability and the risk of greenwashing are stated as the biggest obstacles to certification, followed by consumers’ unwillingness to pay for this and excessively high certification costs," notes the report.
"One in two wine producers fear competition by wine imports from countries with cost advantages from low sustainability standards and demand compensation by way of import restrictions on non-sustainable wine.”
From reducing herbicides to cutting water consumption
However, many of the vintners polled stated they had undertaken measures to achieve environmental sustainability.
Two thirds of the wine-growing estates had reduced the use of herbicides (France and Austria are leading here at 80%, followed by Spain 74%) and proactively promoted biodiversity (USA 78%, France 72%, Germany 61%).
Half the estates polled had minimized the use of pesticides (New Zealand 100%, USA 90%, France 80%, Spain 70%), and just under 30% had reduced water consumption (South Africa 90%, New Zealand 50%, Portugal 40%).
While offering plenty of potential, digital technology for optimally dosing water, fertilizers and herbicides is - so far - not very widespread: given the investment required in this type of technology. The countries of the new world (Australia 50%, USA 33% and South Africa 33%) are leading here compared to old world nations (Spain and Italy 22%, France and Portugal 17%, Germany 11%).
Most experts surveyed agreed the wine sector still has ‘substantial room’ for improvement in terms of sustainability.
“One in two of those polled regard mandatory legal regulations (like the ban on herbicides) as more effective than voluntary commitments of the organizations to reach these sustainability goals," notes the report.
"In particular, the companies already obtaining or undergoing sustainability certification are those calling for additional state rules. These companies with a particularly strong interest in sustainability believe that certification and state regulation complement rather than replace each other.”
However, creating a 'sustainable' product also requires attention beyond the vineyard.
“Since the production and transportation of glass bottles accounts for a third to a half of the CO2 emissions, the greatest potential for supporting sustainable products lies with the trade side of the industry,” notes the report.