In many ways, it feels like the concept of sustainability in the era of climate change was made for the wine industry. It is also true to say that the wine industry has been talking about, and trying to mitigate, climate change for far longer than many other product categories.
Why is this? To grow wine grapes and make wine every year is a delicate and continuously evolving experience, often subject to the whims of nature. Growing conditions in a given season, in a given microclimate, have a far more substantial impact on the eventual wine product that emerges compared with, say, beer or spirits. Wine has often been described as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ in terms of climate change. Viticulture is as sensitive to small, incremental and persistent changes in temperature and rainfall, as it is to catastrophic weather events such as frost and hail, which in 2021 in France combined to yield the smallest harvest in half a century.
Climate change and sustainability also lend themselves to the wine industry’s love affair with both data, detail and debate. Sustainability in general is a bit of an amorphous concept, and arguments as to how best to be ‘sustainable’ complex and nuanced: for instance, do you control weeds by using herbicide (bad for the soil, not organic) or burn far more diesel controlling weeds with a tractor and mower (adds carbon and toxic particulates into the atmosphere). This exactly the sort of puzzle that wine industry participants are used to, and feel comfortable with.
Not surprisingly, therefore, there are numerous sustainability marks and certifications available within the wine industry. Most have been going for at least five years, and in many cases more than 10 years. Most align around similar themes of improving biodiversity, reducing energy and chemical inputs, reducing waste and carbon footprints, though each has slightly different prescriptions and emphases.
In all, the sustainability efforts over the last decade have amounted to a staggering investment by the wine industry – in cash terms, but also in time and intellectual energy. And as we have reported previously, its reward in the consumer marketplace has been mixed. Consumers feel good about the idea of sustainability in the products they buy, but appear to be less keen on paying a premium to acquire them.
Which begs the question in many wine industry leaders’ minds at the moment: if sustainability struggles to justify its premium pricing in good times, what happens when inflation and energy costs are decimating consumers’ spending power? Will sustainability, to draw on an old environmentalist analogy, go the way of the dodo?
From the evidence we have to hand, the impact of either an upcoming recession or a significant slowdown in growth in major economies may reduce desire for sustainable products – but more encouraging in the long term, is the fact that the long-run demographic and lifestyle trends are acting as positive tailwinds for sustainable wine.
Wine businesses with a sustainability agenda (and a premium price to match) will need to work hard over the next 12 months to maintain listings, by focusing on fundamental value for money and desirability of the product, rather than more esoteric attributes. Consistent Wine Intelligence consumer evidence suggests that, whatever they might say about how much they love sustainability, consumer purchase decisions are primarily driven by underlying value and personal utility. In the end, consumers won’t buy a product they don’t like the taste of just because it is doing something right in the world. However, if a brand can deliver a great-tasting, good value, interesting and uplifting product and carry a positive message about sustainability, it might win the order.
The long-run play for sustainable wines looks more positive. Desire to buy wine that is billed as sustainable shows a stark generational divide between younger legal-drinking-age consumers, those typically in their 20s and 30s, who are strongly motivated to buy in the category (and in many cases are already doing so) and older consumers, in their 50s, 60s and beyond, who are largely unmoved by sustainability claims. These older drinkers currently dominate most major developed markets in terms of volumes consumed, and they are also, in general, much more price-conscious. Younger LDA consumers in the wine category generally tend to drink less, and to spend more on a bottle when they do choose to drink wine.
Wind the clock on 5 years, or 10 years, and these younger LDA consumers will be entering their main wine drinking years, and their desires and tastes will start to dominate the category. If they can carry a positive view of sustainable wine into this era, their behaviour may fundamentally shift sustainable wines into a more mainstream position within the category.
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