Large companies across the globe realise that the gravity of the climate crisis obliges them to act. But moving from today’s reliance on fossil fuels to a business with a negligible carbon footprint is hugely demanding, particularly for companies facing shareholder demands for quick investment returns.
The Torres winery, headquartered not far from Barcelona, is the largest producer in Spain. Still family-owned after five generations, its vineyards produce a wide variety of wines, including some of the very highest quality. The company’s planning for a transition to a low carbon world, and its actions to address the impact of climate change on both the amount and quality of its production, seem to me to be exemplary.
Wine has a central role in many cultures; progress on emissions reduction in viticulture can have a powerful exemplar effect across agriculture and other industries. The progress made by Torres shows how large enterprises around the world can productively respond to the threat from a changing climate.
Earlier in April, the company held a day-long session for wine writers and other journalists to present its strategy for adapting to climate change and reducing its CO2 impact. I summarise below some of what we learnt.
Why does climate change matter to a business making wine?
The quality of a wine is highly sensitive to the meteorological conditions the vine and its grapes experience during the growing season. Few industries are likely to be as quickly affected by climate change as viticulture. Variations in temperature, rainfall or wind affect all the world’s agricultural commodities but the volume of wine produced and, in particular, the quality of the product are exquisitely affected by the weather.
· Higher temperatures affect wine in a particularly important way. The grapes mature earlier than they used to and then need to be picked. The slowly developing taste-enhancing phenolic compounds in the grape have not had sufficient time to mature. Changing climate affects the pleasure we experience from good wine.
· Less well-known than the gradual, if erratic, rise in temperatures is the increase in the typical variability of weather. Extreme events, such as frost in April, now appear to be more common across the Torres estates around Spain and in other parts of the world. Once the buds on a vine have burst into growth a few hours of frost will reduce yields dramatically. Hail storms can have a similar effect.
· As climate changes, drought is more likely in hotter regions such as Spain. Prolonged shortages of soil moisture will reduce yields and impair quality.
What can a wine producer do to adapt to the changes in climate?
The Torres family has been experimenting with methods to increase the resilience – in both quality and quantity terms – for well over a decade. It is adapting to the changing climate by:
· Managing its vineyards differently
o Rows of vines are planted 2.2m apart, up from 1m previously. This helps reduce the average and maximum temperatures experienced by the vines.
o Torres is experimenting with not taking the leaves off its vines as the grapes ripen. This helps protect them from maturing too early.
o The company is covering its vines with hail nets. This both protects against hail and reduces temperatures.
o Rows of vines are planted north-south, rather than east-west to reduce the intensity of the sun on the plants, thus delaying sugar formation.
o The vines are pruned differently during the winter period in order to create a different shape at summer maturity. The new shape, called Gobelet, mimics the way ancient Greek and Roman vines were trained.
o Water management is increasingly important. Torres research has shown the benefit of a fertiliser called Polyter that helps hold water in the soil as well as dramatically improving root growth.
o Torres contends that organic wine actually has a higher carbon footprint than conventional techniques. Organic production results in substantially higher emissions from fuel use and, more surprisingly, from fertilisers. Organic fertiliser from animal manure bears the high carbon burden of the cows and sheep that produce it. And the transport of manure is substantially more CO2 polluting than the use of standard fertilisers.
· Changing the location of its vineyards and developing alternative varieties of vine, often based on older Catalonian vines.
o Torres is developing new vineyards, such as high up in the Pyrenees. Sites are as high as 1,200 metres above sea level (higher than the top of Snowdon, the tallest mountain in England and Wales). Torres is currently growing a white grape variety at its highest location but says it may be able to switch to red at some stage. Red grapes typically need more heat than white. These elevations would have been inconceivable not many years ago.
o In an experiment lasting over a decade, the company has searched out old Catalan varieties of vine that may be more resistant to extreme temperatures. These varieties have generally been found outside the traditional wine growing areas and are brought into the Torres laboratories to be ridded of viruses and eventually to check on the quality of wine produced. Some of the 46 ancient vine types look as they are better fitted to a hotter, drier Spain than the most popular varieties of today, many of which were initially imported from France and other countries with more moderate climates than Catalonia.
o Another type of fertiliser being tested is made from dead insects arising from the manufacture of fish food. As with many things discussed at Torres’s presentation of its climate change strategy, the problem is that it will be 30 years before the full impact on the health of the soil is known.
Minimising the amount of CO2 produced by the Torres products
About 80% of the impact of wine making on greenhouse gas emissions arises away from the vineyard itself (‘Scope 3’ in the jargon). Torres often has an important place in the sales of its suppliers and so it is able to exert productive pressure on the CO2 emitted by the chain of the businesses that it works with.
· One good example is the bottles used to carry wine. A standard glass bottle, used once, has a footprint of between 300g and 400g of carbon dioxide. A household buying 200 bottles a year will therefore add up to 80kg of CO2 to the atmosphere. That’s roughly one per cent of the typical footprint of a European person. Reuse that bottle six times and the number comes down to 75g, a lower figure than a PET bottle and equivalent to foil wine bag in a cardboard box. Full circularity of glass is as good as any new materials.
· In the last decade, Torres has reduced the full impact of each bottle , including all the elements employed to produce the wine, by almost 30% and is planning to get to 50% by 2030.
· Some of the changes that the company has made itself are predictable. A 1.8 hectare (over 4 acres) PV array on the roof of its main warehouse, plus a boiler that burns the clippings from its vineyards and other organic wastes, contribute 25% of its overall energy use. It has begun to electrify its car fleet, although most of its vehicles are still petrol hybrids. The tourist bus that takes sightseers around the main estate is battery powered.
· A huge new reservoir stores water for summer irrigation.
· More unusually, it is just beginning a large scale experiment to use a highly innovative technology to capture and use the CO2 that bubbles up from the fermentation of the grapes. The Exytron conversion system (analysed here) will take up to 10% of the 2,600 tonnes of CO2 produced during the fermentation and convert it to natural gas (methane) for powering cars and vans.
· Torres is also working with other major wine producers to set standards for CO2 savings and to share knowledge of emissions reduction techniques. As interest rises around the world in the emissions from our patterns of consumption, becoming leader in taking climate change seriously can only help the sales of Torres wines and those of other fine wine-makers that join with it.
· Some of Torres’s emissions will be very difficult to entirely remove. So the company has started what it calls a programme of ‘insetting’, as opposed to offsetting, emissions. It is reforesting areas of Spain and Chile that it owns but which today have limited tree cover. The most important area of reforesting lies in Chilean Patagonia, where 6,000 hectares will be planted with trees. (Very roughly, the contribution of Torres towards carbon capture from photosynthesis will be equal to the recent promise by Shell to plant trees in the Netherlands, Spain and Australia to balance some of its emissions. But Shell is the larger company by several orders of magnitude).
The quality of wine made in 2050 will depend on decisions made now. So many parts of the winemaking industry do have a culture that allows managers and owners to think several decades ahead. And many of the most successful wineries are still in family ownership; the importance of long-term stewardship of the company and its vineyards is often ingrained in the culture of these businesses.
The wine industry, called ‘the rock star of agriculture’ by one of the speakers at the Torres conference is highly vulnerable to climate change but is thus able to make highly expensive long-term moves to mitigate its emissions and to act as an exemplar to other industries. I want other companies to copy Torres’s quiet determination to reduce its emissions to near-zero and to keep producing the highest quality wines at the same time.
 I visited the Torres headquarters two years ago to discuss its climate change programme and was invited back in April 2019 to give a presentation to its recent conference on the topic. I was paid for this presentation. I travelled to Barcelona and back to London by train.
 I believe that this assumes no recycling and reuse of the bottles.