About Time

Sustainable grape growing in Australia has lagged behind the likes of New Zealand, which has had a credible national initiative since the mid 1990s, but that might be changing.
Max Allen
by Parker Blain and courtesy of Wine Australia

For many years this column has bemoaned the lack of a good, credible, national eco-assurance initiative that the whole Australian wine industry can embrace – something along the lines of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, a near-universally-adopted certification program that has helped that country establish an enviable clean, green image in global markets over the last two decades.

Yes, we have seen excellent local schemes such as McLaren Vale’s Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW), but adoption has been limited to certain regions. And yes, the Winemakers Federation of Australia did launch a program called Entwine a decade ago, but it was voluntary and failed to cut through: currently only around 30% of the country’s producers have signed up to it.  

So, I’m pleased to report that a new national program called Sustainable Winegrowing Australia has been launched. The program, described as “a unified sustainability framework for all Australian grape growers and winemakers to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, benchmark performance and identify opportunities for improvements”, is still voluntary, but it is properly supported by both the statutory body, Wine Australia, and the main industry organisation, Australian Grape & Wine, and is being run by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

Dr Mardi Longbottom is senior viticulturist for the AWRI and has coordinated the development of the new program, in conjunction with the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine & Tourism Association and others. I asked her how the scheme came about and what it means for wine producers and consumers.

“The AWRI took on the responsibility for Entwine four years ago and we’ve done a lot of work since then,” said Dr Longbottom. “The first thing we did was a survey of how Australia sits in terms of a global wine sustainability perspective. We needed to understand how important sustainability is to the wine industry and to consumers around the world. And, if we’re going to have a sustainability scheme, we needed to find out what’s the best way to communicate what we’re doing.”

The review found that many aspects of both Entwine and McLaren Vale’s SAW program were equal to the best schemes around the world. As a result, the new Sustainable Winegrowing Australia initiative is essentially a combination of – and replaces – those two previous schemes. The review also found that an eco-assurance program works best if it is embraced nationally and is integrated into how the industry tells its story around the world – through Wine Australia’s marketing, for example, not as a stand-alone promotion of the industry’s green credentials, but woven into all communications and promotional strategies.

“Consumers don’t necessarily want to hear stories any more about how sustainable you are as a wine producer,” Dr Longbottom said. “These days, they just expect sustainability as a baseline requirement.”

This, I think, is exactly why Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand has been so effective: having the distinctive black-and-white fern-and-grapes trust mark as a logo on almost every bottle of Kiwi wine for so many years has created a green halo effect for the whole industry.

“There is strong demand in the industry for a similar kind of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia trust mark,” said Dr Longbottom. “But it might take some time. We need a lot more uptake among the industry signing up to the program before we can go out to the market with a logo – but it’s difficult to drive that uptake without a high-profile logo.”

I have long argued that sustainability is such an important issue for the industry it should be mandatory for grape growers and wine producers to sign up to a scheme like this, to prove to the trade and to consumers that they are serious about their commitment to environmental stewardship. Dr Longbottom doesn’t agree.

“I think there’s a lot more value in a program like this if it’s voluntary,” she said. “And we have an ambitious goal to get to 90% uptake across the industry. We believe that in the future, Sustainable Australia Winegrowing will have a much bigger impact with consumers.”