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Chile: wine for the environmentally conscious

Vineyards are beginning to figure out how much fine wines contribute to climate change.

Chile wine, cabernet sauvignon
Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon in the cellar of Viu Manent vineyard in Colchagua Valley, Chile, March 15, 2008. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — The path from vine to wine is easy to trace: grapes are grown, harvested, fermented and then bottled and shipped around the world.

The environmental cost of that undertaking is harder to measure. But Chilean wine makers have little choice than to embrace the challenge.

If they don’t, there could be no place for their merlots and cabernets on international shelves.

Major retail stores and governments want to know just how much fine wines contribute to climate change. And they want consumers to know too.

That means offering a calculation of just how much greenhouse gas is emitted per glass of wine. 

Chile was the fifth largest wine exporter in the world last year and is rapidly expanding. The United States and the United Kingdom are by far the main destinations for its wine, followed by the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil and Japan.

In 2012, the European Union will require all products to carry eco-labels and next year France will attempt a year-long trial with carbon footprint labeling. Japan is also experimenting with a carbon footprint label for dozens of beverage and food companies.

In December 2007, the government export promotion agency ProChile saw a story from the BBC urging consumers not to buy Chilean cherries because they come from far away and contain a great deal of CO2. That sounded the alarm that Chilean exporters needed to start paying attention to this issue, said Paola Conca, head of the Sustainable Trade Department at ProChile.

And Chilean wine producers are now on board, working to measure the carbon footprint of their operations and reduce, or offset, their emissions.

After doing measurements, they realized they needed to focus most of their efforts on the energy-intensive post-harvest stages. A study commissioned last year by the governmental Foundation for Agrarian Innovation found that bottling (40 percent) and storage (25 percent) were the biggest causes of emissions in the wine industry. Several vineyards also found that sea freight contributed significantly.

So far no Chilean wine has yet to boast a carbon footprint label, but many vineyards have been certified carbon neutral, meaning they have offset their greenhouse gas emissions by investing in sustainable energy projects around the world.  

Vina De Martino, one of Chile’s leading organic wine producers, measured all of its carbon emissions in 2007. Two years later, it launched the first carbon-neutral wine in Latin America (Nuevo Mundo) and became the first carbon-neutral winery in South America. It reduced its emissions by building a waste water treatment plant and by buying carbon credits.

Cono Sur, also an organic producer, invested in waste gas power in Germany and wind power plants in Turkey and India to compensate for its greenhouse gas emissions during product delivery.

Learn about the growth of Chile's wine industry:

As Chilean wine companies examine their environmental impact, they're realizing the most urgent target is energy efficiency.

Vina Errazuriz, for instance, built two storage facilities with skylights and large windows to save energy; one of them has a geothermal warming system. Vina Los Vascos installed thermosolar panels and solatubes on the ceiling of its storage rooms, saving 50 percent of energy costs during the winter and 100 percent during the rest of the year.