Mon, Dec 08, 2008 - Page 11 News List

Winemakers push the envelope

NEW IDEASIn the dismal economic climate, the traditional industry is innovating to bring down production costs and to find eco-friendly techniques that attract buyers


An employee at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco selects various wines yesterday.


From solar panels to “intelligent” barrels, climate change and economic slowdown are pushing winemakers to seek new ways of getting grapes into the glass.

Last week’s two-yearly Vinitech trade fair, France’s biggest wine industry equipment event, underlined how the industry was racing to cut costs and innovate.

“A crisis makes people more intelligent,” said Patrick Ducournau, director of Boise France, the country’s leading producer of oak chips, a cheap alternative to oak barrels.

A fraction of the price of barrels, chips can be left to soak in wine prior to bottling, essentially inversing the traditional wine-into-barrels process, an idea upsetting to old style winemakers.

“People are looking for new ways of doing things and don’t assume expensive is better, which is very good for us,” added Ducournau, who said chip orders from Chilean winemakers, for example, were already up 50 percent.

Among local wine producers at the show, Patrick Dugrana, who has 24 hectares of vineyard producing red, white and rose wines, said he was looking for cheap alternatives to weed killer.

“Weed killer has tripled in price and I’m afraid it will increase again next year,” he said.

Alternatives include “soil turners” that pull up and bury grass and weeds that were developed originally for organic or bio-dynamic grape growers obliged to avoid chemical products.

The use of such eco-friendly methods may turn out to be a positive side effect of the current crisis, said Vinitech coordinator Frederic Espugne. He defined the two major trends at this year’s fair as being the search to lower production costs and to find eco-friendly techniques that attract buyers.

“Sustainable development practices are a marketing necessity,” he said.

Solar panels are another way to save on costs while increasing a winery’s green credentials, and for the first time, Sunnoco, a panel-making company, took a stand at Vinitech.

“It is a significant investment to start with, about 200,000 euros [US$253,000], but you make money from day one,” the firm’s Ronan Guivarc’h said.

Electricity generated from solar panels is sold to France’s main electricity supplier, EDF, or other independent suppliers, with the aim, he said, to sell as much as you use, slashing electricity bills to zero.

So far he has two winery clients and although he admitted current credit difficulties could make things difficult, he was optimistic.

“The wine industry is very conservative and there is a credit shortage, so the first few wine clients will be hard,” he said. “After that we can generate a buzz and attract others more easily.”

While reducing expenditure is one way of cutting costs, reducing production time too is important.

As with oak chips, which result in drinkable wines in two months instead of the six to 18 required for barrel aging, using commercial yeasts and bacteria can knock weeks off the wine fermentation process.

“Adding lactic bacteria speeds up secondary fermentation by about four times the norm,” said Christopher Bertolla of Oenofrance, a supplier of technical yeasts and other winemaking products. “It can save the winemaker the months of electricity normally needed to keep temperatures at 18°[C] during [natural] fermentation.”

At the other end of the scale, winemakers with cash to spare are playing on luxury to increase sales.

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