The Climate Change Leadership Conference, Porto: wine industry solutions

duoroterracesJames Mayor reports on the 2019 Climate Change Leadership Conference, Porto.

Last week Porto, Portugal, was the place to be for wine industry leaders engaged in combatting climate change. The second edition of the Climate Change Leadership Conference attracted 850 people from 30 countries. The Conference focused on solutions to climate change for the wine industry, and its keynote speaker, Nobel Laureate for Peace and former US Vice-President, Al Gore, declared, “the leadership role taken on by Portugal is an example for the entire world.”

On the eve of the Conference I talked to Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor`s Port, the Conference`s main organizer. Bridge is convinced that wine consumers care about sustainability. “We need to listen to consumers. There are lots of solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, we just have to know which are the most effective.” Gregory Jones, Director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education and the world`s foremost wine climatologist, believes the wine industry, as one of the only branded agricultural industries in the world, is well-placed to lead the agricultural sector in combatting climate change.

The Climate Change Leadership Conference focussed on `Solutions for the Wine Industry.´ The Conference supports the Porto Protocol, a platform created in 2018 by Adrian Bridge to share wine industry solutions that push the envelope and offer new, often radical ideas that actively address climate change.

This initiative ambitions, however, to reach out beyond the wine industry, and provide inspiration and benchmarking for other sectors. My Douro Valley wine tourism company, Grape Discoveries, is a Founding Member of the Porto Protocol, and today the initiative is doing well with 130 businesses signed up.

Several speakers at the Conference cited increasingly frequent examples of erratic weather in vineyards throughout the world, from the Napa Valley to Champagne. 2018 was one of the hottest years ever recorded, resulting in later grape harvesting, faster ripening and increased sugar levels and loss of acidity, and freak rains and hail destroying vineyards. There are few climate change deniers in the wine industry, in this sector the evidence of climate change is irrefutable.

It does not minimize the undeniable threat to sustainable wine production to recall that the grapevine is not only a resilient plant but equally an adaptive one.

Vines are often grown in remote and arid regions which have difficulty in supporting other forms of agriculture. There are a staggering 10,000 known grape varieties in the world, although as few as twelve of these account for 80% of the world`s total wine production, and probably about the same number benefit from consumer recognition.

This indicates that there is room for experimentation, and one of the Conference`s speakers, Miguel Torres the President of Bodegas Torres, has been doing this in Penedes in Spain, working with variables such as variety, vineyard altitude and sun exposure. Torres has also teamed up with the Jackson Family Winery, in California, for an initiative, International Wineries for Climate Action, which aims to dramatically reduce climate impact in vineyard and winery operations.

As the climate changes, some traditional wine producing regions are experiencing shifts in the suitability for vineyard planting. New regions are emerging, often not previously considered wine producing, such as the south of England, while countries such as Chile, are suddenly finding that they now have the ideal climatic conditions to produce fine wines. A European project, ADVICLIM, is conducting research which focuses on clonal adaptation rather than changing variety, often a key component of terroir and a wine region`s identity.

Many wine industry leaders are seeing climate change as an opportunity to adapt. Pau Roca, the Director General of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, also believes the wine industry has an important leadership role to play. Roca told me, “climate change is an opportunity to review our conservative thinking, and the wine industry is the canary in the cage.” In his opinion we are on the threshold of major changes in the economy, with sustainability as the next paradigm, in the way the Gold Standard once was.

`Leaving no one behind´ is the theme for this year`s edition of World Water Day, on 22 March. Water scarcity is indeed going to be one of the most critical issues in the next decades, with agriculture using 70% of all fresh water. Vineyards in the Cape, South Africa, have now experienced three years of severe drought.

The vine is a hardy plant, however, and many varieties possess roots that dig deep into the soil to reach water. Irrigation is often not a necessity, and the practice of dry farming is on the increase. UC Davis, in the US, has been awarded a LEED Platinum for its teaching and research sustainable winery which practices the multiple use of water. Krug Champagne, in France, has achieved a 50% reduction in its water use, through using only what is strictly necessary. Just as we think about wine`s carbon footprint, we will now also need to consider wine`s water footprint.

Many vineyards are owned by families, who take a multi-generational view of their businesses. They often consider they are long-term caretakers rather than owners. In the opinion of Cristina Mariani-May, CEO of the US wine importer Banfi Vintners, and the owners of extensive sustainably-farmed vineyards at Castello Banfi in Tuscany, it is essential “as the climate changes to share our research.” So that the new generation of winemakers are educated to adapt, Banfi has endowed the Cornell University Wine Professorship.

It is interesting to reflect that our English words `economics` and `ecology` both have the same Greek root `oikos`. This Greek word in fact has three meanings: household, house and family. The 2018 Nobel Laureate for Economics, William Nordhaus, has worked on the interdependence of economics and ecology and how they are affected by climate change. Antonio Amorim, CEO of Corticeira Amorim, the world`s leading cork producer, commented at the Conference, “sustainability is not the end of profitability.” Incidentally, a cork forest retains CO2 for two hundred years!

The Wine Anorak blogger and Sunday Express columnist, Jamie Goode, remarked to me, “the wine industry can achieve a carbon negative footprint,” observing, however, that the wider combat to mitigate the effects of climate change will only be won if the financial interest versus truth battle is won first.
The Porto Protocol Summit followed the Climate Change Leadership Conference. Afroz Shah, an Indian lawyer and United Nations Champion of the Earth for the world´s largest beach clean-up project in Mumbai was one of the most moving speakers. Shah believes we need to “move from confusion to hope.”

One cause for hope is undoubtedly a 16-year-old Swede, Greta, whose name seemed to be on many participants´ lips. Greta has challenged the European Union to double its objective for 2030 to reduce carbon emissions by 40%. She has also set in motion a global movement of school children who are taking a day out of school each week to pressure their governments to engage more vigorously in measures to combat climate change.

The Summit keynote speaker, Al Gore, has been a climate change activist since 1976, before many of the people attending the Conference were born. An immense force for generating international awareness about climate change, Gore has lost none of his passion for this fight and thundered up and down the stage with the energy of a hurricane. He compared the exponential rise of renewable energies in many countries to that of the mobile phone a generation ago: more cause for hope!

With the world`s population today approaching eight billion individuals of differing socio-economic conditions, we share this planet and its resources with a dwindling number of other species. One of the key messages of the Climate Change Leadership Conference was that we need to manage change that we cannot avoid. The mood was one of restrained optimism, with several participants saying that we are currently experiencing an accelerating cultural shift, embodied by greater awareness of climate change and a growing desire to enact mitigation strategies. Younger generations, such as Millenials, are increasingly concerned by the provenance of the products they consume.

Mike Veseth, editor of The Wine Economist, said, “you buy products that reflect your values.” The production of organic wines is increasing by 15% annually, compared with a 0.5% increase for wine production overall.

We will need to be practical in the way we implement solutions to climate change, and wine can be granted no special status. As Linda Johnson-Bell, CEO of the Wine & Climate Change Institute in Oxford, England, put it, “wine has to take off its mink coat, it`s an agricultural product.”

The Porto Protocol and its annual Climate Change Leadership Conferences are powerful vehicles for disseminating these practical solutions as we engage in our existential combat to mitigate climate change. Closing this stimulating Conference, Adrian Bridge declared, “we have pushed the snowball off the top of the mountain… and it is now rolling.”


The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company.

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website

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