‘Tis the season to pop the cork
and raise a glass to mark the
end of a tumultuous year.
While Australia’s way of life has undergone a seismic shift in 2020, some traditions appear unchanged: Friday knock-off wines (over Zoom, if not in person), Christmas drinks with family and friends and champagne toasts come New Year’s Eve.
Given the travel and transport challenges posed by international border restrictions, Australia’s wine industry is increasingly dependent on domestic consumption.
Winemakers have seen the revenue stream from one of their most lucrative markets – that of high-end international wine tourists – run dry. Now, they are pinning their hopes for survival on a domestic-led resurgence.
Economic importance of wine tourism
In 2019, Australia recorded over 8.3 million wine tourist visits, with more than one-tenth coming from overseas.
Wine tourism contributed a staggering $9.3 billion to the Australian economy, creating more jobs and generating more economic output than any other aspect of the nation’s wine industry.
Australian wine tourism also stimulates exports and provides vital income for the many small winemakers who rely on cellar door sales.
Economic gain but environmental pain
While a boon for the economy, wine tourism carries a heavy environmental cost.
Selling wine to tourists through cellar door operations leaves a significantly larger carbon footprint than distributing wine through retailers.
Startlingly, the difference can be more than 100-fold per bottle of wine, especially for international travellers.
In compiling the research paper, Measuring the carbon footprint of wine tourism and cellar door sales, we used detailed government data to develop a new method to calculate wine tourism based on travel behaviour, consumption style and industry energy use patterns.
This method showed that for many wineries, wine tourism was responsible for generating more greenhouse gases than all other aspects of the wine-making process combined.
Previously, the largest carbon contributor in a wine bottle’s standard cradle-to-grave lifecycle analysis was thought to be the packaging and freight stage.
However, transporting heavy glass wine bottles only generates a fraction of the emissions caused by wine tourism – essentially the shipping process in reverse.
And the further wine tourists travel, the higher the impact.
A ripe time for domestic tourism
If one positive can be gleaned from studying wine tourism’s carbon footprint, it’s that Australian domestic tourism is economically and environmentally friendlier than inbound international tourism.
Domestic tourists buy more wine and on average spend one-and-a-half times more money at cellar doors than international travellers.
They also emit 40 per cent less carbon per visit without the need for carbon-intensive long-haul flights.
Breaking down carbon emissions further, we calculated:
- A domestic day tourist contributes to 5.3kg of greenhouse gas emissions per bottle of wine.
- An international visitor from the UK generates 23.6kg in emissions per bottle of wine.
Australian travellers seeking to explore the country after months of lockdowns and border closures can lead a much-needed post-COVID-19 recovery while leaving a smaller carbon footprint than their international compatriots.
Supporting and visiting local wineries also plays an important part in keeping small winemakers and family-run wineries afloat. These businesses were identified by the Australian Grape and Wine industry group as being the most vulnerable to folding – predicting earlier this year that up to one-third of Australia’s 2,600 wineries could go under in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Local wineries leading the way
To be economically sustainable, Australian wineries have to consider their environmental impacts and factor in climate change to survive.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) named the wine industry as one of the seven industries most likely to be negatively affected by climate change, for its deep reliance on environmental factors such as weather, temperature and soil.
Wine grapes are highly sensitive to even subtle shifts in climate. Australian wine producers are reporting that warmer temperatures are speeding the maturation process of grapes, forcing them to bring forward harvesting, sometimes up to 40 days early. They are also spending more to counter the heat with higher costs for irrigation and shading.
Yet, Australian winemakers have long led the way when it comes to proactively minimising their operation’s environmental impact – employing measures to specifically target the energy, water and waste management systems of their cellar door facilities.
Case study: Ross Hill Wine Group
Ross Hill Wine Group in Orange, NSW, became Australia’s first government-certified carbon neutral winery in 2016.
Its winery, two vineyards and all of its wine products are accredited under the federal government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) scheme.
Ross Hill Wine Chairman and owner, Peter Robson, said the family-run winery overhauled its business model over six years to actively reduce its carbon footprint and offset the few emissions it couldn’t reduce.
- Upgrading existing 10kw solar panels to a 44kw solar panel system
- Reducing tractor hours by 40 per cent
- Decreasing water usage by 50 per cent
- Installing energy-efficient lighting
- Improving insulation
- Introducing a waste recycling program
- Mulching and re-using waste from skins and seeds
“The family is committed to a philosophy of leaving our land better than when we found it,” Mr Robson said.
“It also makes commercial and financial sense, with our power and lighting costs a fraction of what they were.”
Ross Hill Wines’ carbon neutral certification is subject to regular third-party auditing with the winery continuing to investigate where the business can reduce emissions and challenge its operations for greater efficiency and sustainability.
One plan under consideration is to use grape marc – the solid, organic waste material left over from pressing grapes – to create biodiesel, a creative example of business sustainability producing economic and environmental benefits.
Becoming a sustainable bunch
To best position the industry for longevity and success, producers and policymakers now have a chance to come together to evaluate the environmental trade-offs of wine tourism. Stakeholders need to consider ways of minimising tourism-related carbon emissions, particularly when Australia again welcomes international wine tourists.
Optimistically, Australian winemakers have already demonstrated their innovation and willingness to reduce emissions created during the wine production process.
Our hope is that our research and approach to calculating wine tourists’ carbon footprint will allow industry leaders to understand the carbon-cost-to-economic-benefit ratio with greater clarity.
This knowledge can then be applied to making that ratio more favourable and securing a bright future for an industry that relies on environmental and economic sustainability in equal measures.
Image: Ross Hill
Image: Ross Hill