The equivalent of 145 standard wine bottles. That is the global average of how much water is needed to make a 125 ml glass of wine according to the Water Footprint Network. Surprised? I was. 

Wine production is water intensive

While large scale agriculture is heavily criticized for its intense water usage, wine production seems to go under the radar.  Not often thought about, wine production is water intensive – from the vineyard to the winery.  

While water stress is important to viticulture, vines need water. In new world wine regions, 83% of vineyards are irrigated compared to only 10% in the old world.  That said, in the face of climate change, some European wine regions which previously prohibited irrigation are becoming more lenient.  Many regions in Spain, for example, are loosening their restrictions permitting what was once unthinkable, vineyard irrigation. 

From cleaning and rinsing barrels and tanks, for every single use, to employing it to control the temperature of fermentation tanks, water is essential in the winery throughout the wine making process.  A medium-sized Portuguese producer estimates his wineries use 1 to 3 litres of water for every litre of wine produced.  Contrarily, UC Davis Professor David Block previously estimated Californian producers use between 2.5 to 6 litres for one litre of wine. While large producers are likely more water efficient due to economies of scale, water use within the winery is significant. 

In areas where irrigation is legally permitted, vineyard irrigation consumes the most water.  However, its use within wineries cannot be ignored.  

Notably, water used in making bottles and/or other packaging items has not been considered.

How to reduce water use 

Water scarcity is an increasing concern for some wine regions yet, even outside such regions some producers are recognizing the urgent need to be water efficient.  Not only does it reduce their use of a limited natural resource, it ultimately saves money.  

Understanding water usage is key; knowing the amount of water consumed to make their wine stimulates the need for change in some. Larger producers like Australia’s Treasury Wine Estate and California’s Vintage Wine Estates have elaborate computerized systems tracking water usage whereas smaller producers may refer to their water bills.  Awareness of one’s own consumption is a key starting point.  By tracking their water usage, a medium-sized Portuguese producer noted an abnormal amount of water being consumed to only discover a broken pipe, saving water and money. 

Measures to reduce water use in the vineyard and winery are possible, with some options more affordable than others.  

Targeting its usage through water sensors and drip irrigation reduces water use in the vineyard. Installing waste water management systems to reuse it for irrigation is another great example, however, it does require investment.  Notably, in some parts of Australia, processed waste water is being used to irrigate vineyards re-using a precious resource which would otherwise be directly returned to water ways.  Rain catchment systems for irrigation and/or cleaning is another more affordable option. Employing water efficient power nozzles not only creates efficiency when cleaning, but reduces water used and costs.  Reducing the amount of water used for washing tanks, and fewer tank rinses is another option. 

Importantly, water management practices in the vineyard and winery are a key requirement in recognized sustainable certifications including in California and New Zealand.

Water is undervalued 

Water at large is an undervalued resource.  For countries where it is exists in plenitude, it is often taken for granted; where it is absent it is treated as gold.  We need to rethink our approach to water within, and outside, the wine industry. 

Some argue wine is a luxury item for which precious water should not be expended.  Indeed, water is an invaluable limited natural resource, however, wine drives the economy and social fabric of many regions around the world.  As such, the issue must be looked at more holistically.  

All options should be considered on the path to sustainability and a rethinking of the use of all natural resources, including water, is needed within the wine industry especially if it is to remain sustainable in the long term.

Photo by Sven Wilhelm

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