Richard Smart has been stirring the climate change possum for longer than almost anyone else. The veteran Australian viticulturist started raising the issue of climate change at wine conferences in Europe in the late 1980s, telling disbelieving audiences that, thanks to a warming planet, they’d one day be forced to grow grenache in Bordeaux.

Three decades later, vignerons have acknowledged the uncomfortable reality of his predictions: in 2019, the syndicate of Bordeaux wine producers voted to allow seven warmer-climate grape varieties into the appellation, including, remarkably, the Portuguese white grape alvarinho and red grape touriga nacional.

Since the early 2000s Smart has also been encouraging the Australian wine industry to adapt to a hotter future, by shifting its viticultural emphasis to cooler parts of the country, and by planting and breeding more appropriate, heat- and drought-tolerant grape varieties.

Again, it was big, provocative thinking. Smart asked us to imagine a scenario coming to pass, in our lifetimes, when well-known regions we take for granted today are simply too hot to grow viable crops of grapes, and when the “classic” grape varieties such as chardonnay and shiraz are replaced by “alternatives” such as vermentino and tempranillo. It was inspirational stuff that has helped to change the viticultural landscape of Australia for the better.

Richard Smart
Richard Smart.

Recently, Smart has turned his attention from the vineyard to the winery. In a number of possum-stirring articles written for trade journals – one is titled “Are Wineries Environmental Vandals?” – he has outlined ways in which the industry can directly contribute to addressing climate change by reducing its carbon emissions, both on a small scale and on a very large scale.

If you’ve ever seen a vat of fermenting grape juice up close you’ll know it pumps out heaps of carbon dioxide in a mass of seething foam (the word ferment comes from the Latin fervere: “to boil”). Smart points out that this amount of CO2 produced may only be 10% of each winery’s total emissions, but it’s not insignificant when you consider the global industry as a whole. And he says much more could be done to capture and even re-use that CO2 using existing technologies.

“Such systems are commercially available now,” he writes. “[They] are more common in breweries, and are even available for microbreweries. Château Smith Haut Lafitte of Bordeaux is using a process developed by the French firm Alcion Environnement to capture fermentation CO2 as bicarbonate of soda. The Wine Council of Bordeaux ... is showcasing the initiative as a good example of how to lower CO2 emissions from fermentation.”

More provocative is Smart’s call for the wine industry to move away from glass bottles, the manufacture and transport of which he says accounts for a whopping two-thirds of wine’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“I believe now is the time to reconsider the use of [the] glass bottle,” he writes. “Consider the fact that most wine is bought for immediate consumption: it is picked off the supermarket shelf one day, consumed that evening, and put in recycling bins within a week. So why do we need glass bottles designed for longer periods of storage?”

There have been developments in this area, of course, as reported in this column. More and more producers are using alternative packaging from kegs to cans, to new-wave casks, pouches and Tetra Paks. But this is mostly on a smaller scale; at the moment, it looks like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic.

Smart is advocating for a dramatic shift in thinking that needs to happen at an all-of-industry level, led by national bodies such as the Australian Wine Research Institute. He believes that consumers, bombarded as they are by talk of a climate emergency, are increasingly looking for such initiatives.

“How long before an environmentally sensitive wine consumer is able to purchase a cardboard package of wine bearing the label ‘During the (production and distribution) of this wine no carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere’?” asks Smart.

Based on previous experience, it’ll probably take the wine industry another three decades to accept that such radical change needs to happen. But we can’t wait that long. If things continue on their present trajectory and emissions continue to rise, in 30 years’ time we won’t be worrying about whether our favourite vermentino comes in an outdated 750ml bottle or a one-litre recycled cardboard box. We’ll be too busy worrying about survival.