I have a lucid memory of January 2006, standing with a friend in the biting cold (-6ºC) North Italian town of Bassano del Grappa, watching huddles of ladies wrapped in animal furs, generating heat with the ferocity of their chatter, set against the majestic mountain from which the town gets its name, as does a familiar digestivo, itself a warming rejoinder to the icy breeze chapping my lips.
This freeze-framed memory is asserting itself because I am holding a glass of Contra Soarda’s elegantly perfumed ‘Terra’, produced within the vicinity of Bassano del Grappa. Terra is a wine blended from Merlot and Marzemino Nero. Marzemino is a very old grape variety first mentioned as part of a banquet wine list served to Pope Gregory XII on the 6 June, 1409 in Cividale, Friuli. Despite such fine lineage, ‘Terra’ is finding prestige as Europe’s first ‘carbon negative wine’.
Contra Soarda's Vineyard & Winery
Before considering the quality of Terra, or even the ‘how’ in the carbon negative journey, a few thoughts on the ‘why’ are worth recapping.
Choice; our diminishing commodity
Firstly, 2327 jurisdictions in 40 countries covering 1 billion people have declared that we are in a climate emergency. Humanity is currently pumping 40 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, and in the Veneto region, central Italy, southern France, much of the Iberian Peninsula, and even swathes of England, we are experiencing the onset of multiyear droughts, coupled with a tendency to flip without warning into fierce flooding as we see in Italy right now.
Add to this the unprecedented increase in sea surface temperatures in the Pacific (not including the simultaneous oceanic heatwaves in the northern hemisphere), and we have the tangible components of an emergency in plain sight. The resulting chaos, is all fuelled by our profligate carbon emissions.
Wine maybe trivial to many people but for many others past and present, it has provided good company for over the last 10,000 years of this interglacial period, within which our species has thrived.
Now that collective action is required to try and survive the climatic chaos we are bringing on ourselves, it is a perfect opportunity for producers of our favourite beverage to step up and demonstrate a leadership role in eradicating emissions across the production and distribution cycle. The wisened are adopting regenerative approaches to withstand extreme weather impacts and repair our relationship with the natural world. We have the knowledge, we now must choose to both share and apply it at speed.
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To care (be) or not to care (be)?
Having worked with Portugal’s wine commission in Alentejo, looking at the huge efforts being made to reduce emissions and become resilient to hotter temperatures, as well as speaking with iconic actors such as Miguel Torres, President of Familia Torres, and the VinNatur group of producers, we see an accumulation of effort helping to form a new narrative around reducing the environmental impact of wine.
In 1988 Dr James Hansen, then Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute For Space Studies, testified to US Congress (and by extension sending a clear message to the whole ‘boomer’ generation, who have benefitted from the era of gluttonous consumption) that we needed to cut emissions from burning fossil fuels in order to prevent disastrous climate change. Thirty-five years on and carbon emissions have continued to rise with each decade, leading us to the extremely dangerous situation we are in today.
In my last interview with Hansen at COP25 Madrid in 2019, I asked him about the generational divide between the boomers and those rising now. He enthusiastically replied, saying, ‘… young people have different attitudes than the older generation but right now, the politics is still driven by the older generation, the baby boomers, and, the young people are starting to say, “okay boomer!” That is a good sign. I think we will start moving soon because of the pressure from young people.’
It was disappointing, reading about Travis Braithwaite and Michel Rolland’s new money spinning project, to produce a “super premium” five nation Bordeaux blend wine from vines grown across the world. In terms of values, it exemplifies the environmentally blind and profligate consumerism that many of us are trying to move away from, displaying all the relevance and product desirability of a 1980’s Marlboro advert.
That the project emanates from South Africa might imply some sort of climate-immunity but nothing is further from the truth. At COP27 in Egypt last November it was brought home to me how much South Africa is a nation on the frontlines of extreme climate impacts. Droughts, cyclones and floods are becoming more intense. Speaking to Blessing Manale from the Presidential climate commission, he said: ‘We are anticipating more drought and … we are not expecting things to get better… some of the cyclones will be changing… we will no more be shielded by Madagascar in South Africa. We are anticipating in 3 or 4 years that Port Saint Johns, some of the beaches on the East coast, will start to be hit.’
Future facing: decarbonising Contra Soarda’s ‘Terra’
Speaking to Jack Curtis, founder of Carbon Jacked, who are working with Contra Soarda to manage the carbon accounting and reduction process, he said that aside from producing a cool looking product with high quality wine, they wanted to get the message across that “consumers do have power over the decisions they make and… where they put their money, does matter… If loads of people start demanding that the wine they buy, or other products, has to have this [low carbon] criteria in place as a basis… it has to be natural and organic, [it has to be] reducing emissions as much as possible… then it is going to drive wider change in the industry.”
Carbon Jacked approached the project with Contra Soarda by analysing every aspect of the business as far as possible, including looking at the products used in the vineyard and winery and adding the footprint of these products into the carbon accounting process.
Contra Soarda started from a good place in that they are an certified organic producer working in a natural way (note that definitions of ‘natural wine’ vary - see the video clip with Eleonora Gottardi explaining the winemaking process in detail), with a lot of emphasis on low intervention and enhancing biodiversity. Despite the head-start, Eleonora says that prior to working with Carbon Jacked, Contra Soarda would not mention sustainability in their communications. The measuring process has enabled the business to understand fully, the impact of their operations right across the business and make plans to install clean energy and engage with suppliers to request that they also reduce the impact of their products.
Eleonora Gottardi on how 'Terra' is made (watch on Youtube)
Once Carbon Jacked have calculated the footprint and identified where emissions can be significantly reduced, there is always going to be some unavoidable emissions that are called hard to abate, or net emissions. Jack says, “… we wanted to take an analytical, operational approach to carbon emissions, measuring it, reducing it as much as possible. [We looked at] what we can do with the packaging of the product; lighter weight glass, where we can go in the future with alternative forms of packaging. The final bit being that there are still these unavoidable emissions.”
In the wine industry, these hardest to abate emissions are in the packaging and transportation areas and it is hoped that with more people calling for emissions reductions, policymakers and industry gatekeepers will step up to help establish cleaner product supply chains. This is certainly happening in Scandinavian markets and also, now, within the EU.
Carbon Jacked assisted Contra Soarda in identifying where they could invest in projects for social good as a way to offset the remaining emissions. One of these is the fair Climate Fund, who are verified by the Gold Standard for Global Goals, a leading certification standard. Projects include distributing solar cookers to the thousands of displaced refugees in Darfur. The people receiving these kits are among the poorest and most vulnerable on Earth, stricken by conflict but whose situation is compounded by extreme drought and heat conditions.
From net emissions to thriving ecosystems
Donkey's among the vines at Contra Soarda
Compensating for the residual emissions by offsetting is an interim solution used by businesses today but is widely criticised by climate scientists who say that is does not do enough to dissuade the large-scale carbon polluters in the longterm. However, there is movement among wine businesses moving towards regenerative viticulture, what climate scientist Professor Kimberly Nicholas calls “working with nature”. The results are are impressive, as farmers see their local biodiversity and ecosystems thrive, even in extreme weather conditions. This living biomass is itself carbon in living form, resulting in an unquantifiable benefit. If more wineries adopt these climate positive methods for land stewardship, the benefits are far-reaching beyond carbon emissions reduction.
Contra Soarda’s ‘Terra’, Veneto Rosso IGT
I have said a lot without actually mentioning this wine that is opening up in my glass. The Marzemino Nero and Merlot, grown at 300 metres above sea-level on volcanic soils, rich in salts and minerals, are harvested by hand with low yields of 1.5kg per vine. The wine is aged in new and used French oak barrels, with no need for filtration. There are strikingly attractive floral notes giving way to bright ripe berries. It feels distinctly Italian with a great deal of elegance that translates very well onto the palate, with a smooth silky juicy tannin and long clean finish.
As we pour the last drop from the bottle, I am left both wanting and wistful. Wanting for another glass of Terra and wistful for the cold chatter of teeth on January days set among the special landscape of Bassano del Grappa.
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