French vineyards turn ‘green’ with genetics, robots

By Suzanne Mustacich  /  AFP, BORDEAUX, France

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 - Page 14

An Earth-friendly future for French wine could include disease-resistant grapes, solar-powered robots and lighter packaging, as vintners innovate to slash their environmental footprint.

“We can’t keep functioning like this, polluting the Earth,” Alexis Raoux, sustainability manager for Bordeaux-based drinks group Castel, told reporters. “What feeds us is the soil. If we continue like this, in a few decades the land will be polluted and our wine won’t be any good.”

Perhaps the most dramatic green innovation in the French wine world is in the field of disease-resistant grape varieties, the culmination of more than three decades of genetic research.

“Our solution is to put forth a plant that doesn’t need any treatment,” said Didier Merdinoglu, research director at France’s INRA Colmar research center.

Concerned about the impact of pesticides and vine treatments — including the copper used by organic farmers — on soil, air and workers, Merdinoglu believes that zero treatment is the future.

Obtained through cross-breeding as opposed to genetic modification, he expects the first new grape varieties to be available from 2016, incorporating resistance to the two most commonly treated vine complaints, oidium — also known as powdery mildew — and downy mildew.

In the meantime, a new solar-powered vineyard robot called Vitirover aims to lighten wine’s impact on the soil by mowing the wild plants between vine rows without need for heavy, polluting tractors or herbicides.

Winegrowers allow this wild vegetation to grow to control vigor, improve grape and soil quality, encourage biodiversity, and protect against erosion.

Invented by Xavier David Beaulieu, co-owner of Chateau Coutet, an estate in the Bordeaux region, the 11kg, GPS-guided robot won a special jury prize at the 2012 Vinitech trade fair in Bordeaux last month.

Vintners keen to slash waste are rethinking every step, down to the label.

These days, adhesive sticker labels have replaced the glued-on variety.

“So now we have a new waste product — the backing paper from the stickers,” said Raoux, whose firm, Castel, set up a subsidiary to recycle the labeling waste from its 640 million annual bottle production.

Lighter bottles have gained ground, too, in a drive to cut wine’s carbon footprint.

Calculating that footprint is complex, but the French Vine and Wine Institute says that the heaviest impact comes from tractor fuel, glass bottles, printed cardboard boxes, electricity and shipping.

Take as an example the 43 million bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine shipped to Britain: That alone spells 38,000 tonnes of glass packaging, the British-based Waste and Resources Action Study Programme (WRAP) said.

WRAP recycling experts say that lightweight bottles could reduce that figure by between 4,000 tonnes and 11,400 tonnes — slashing wine-related carbon dioxide emissions, 35 percent of which are generated by transport.

Four years ago, Verallia, the packaging arm of Saint-Gobain — the world’s largest glass wine bottle producer — introduced a lighter range called Ecova, which today accounts for half of the firm’s 300 million-bottle Bordeaux market.

The bottles use up to 96 percent recycled glass and are 50g to 70g lighter than the previous line, Verallia regional director Didier Dumas said.

Other French wine appellations like Savoy, Alsace and the Loire Valley have made the lighter bottle their official choice, he added.

“Green” pioneers are lobbying French wine’s governing bodies to take their concerns on board.

“In France today, our bedrock is the Appellation of Origin,” said Christophe Riou, the institute’s scientific and development director. “We need to integrate environmental questions into the appellation.”

Currently, an Appellation of Origin certification denotes quality based on location, grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking methods.

Some regions like Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy have forged ahead, using carbon footprint studies to measure and reduce their impact.

However, that is not enough for Riou, who would like a nationwide study on the broader impact of the sector, looking beyond the carbon footprint.

For instance, a glass of French wine takes about 90 liters of water to produce, the Netherlands-based Water Footprint Network said.

“There is the water footprint, carbon footprint and the impact on biodiversity,” Riou said. “Today, we are working on this life cycle. You have to integrate all three.”