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Updated: 1 Jul 2022

How to buy more sustainable wine

The labels to look for and the most important aspects to consider when choosing more environmentally friendly wine. Plus, find out whether to opt for a screw-top or a cork.  
Olivia Howes
Group of people clinking wine glasses

Wine ranks fairly low in terms of its overall environmental impact. But there are still ways to minimise the environmental damage it can do.

According to the largest meta-analysis of food systems to date – Poore and Nemecek’s 2018 study, each kilogram of wine we consume generates 1.79 kgCO₂eq of greenhouse gas emissions. That's low compared to animal products and other more carbon-intense plant-based options such as coffee and cane sugar, but it's still worth knowing how to bring that number down. 

Wine ranks fairly low when it comes to the amount of land and water it needs for production, as well as eutrophication (pollution of waterways). These are the other factors studied in the life cycle analysis of agricultural products. Those figures are based on global averages though, so impacts will be different depending on local methods.

But the fact is wine production can still be damaging – from the impacts of monoculture to packaging to transport. Here are some easy things you can check as a conscious consumer when choosing your Chablis or Shiraz.

For more on decoding your wine, find out how to read a wine label

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Vineyard with ground cover

Is wine sustainable?

Like nearly all sustainability considerations, it's far from a simple equation.

Grape vines, like many crops, can be examples of damaging monoculture if they're grown at scale without respect for biodiversity and soil health. However, if they're managed responsibly and regeneratively, vineyards can be diverse ecosystems and net carbon sinks.

But that’s only one aspect of sustainability. A sustainable wine certification scheme is likely to also consider factors such as the energy used in the wine cellar, the rights of the workers harvesting the grapes, the environmental impact of transport and packaging, as well as the overall carbon emissions of the entire process. 

There’s no one global certification scheme yet that covers sustainable wine production, though there are internationally recognised labels, including Organic and Fairtrade.

Red wine being poured into glass

Common eco-friendly wine terms

Here are some of the more widely used international terms that you might find on your wine bottles:

Biodynamic
Demeter label

A holistic, ecological and ethical approach to agriculture. All tasks associated with the wine-making process must be timed to align with the biodynamic calendar (with particular attention to lunar cycles). Soil is fertilised with natural products to improve its richness. Biodynamic wines will also be organic and may carry dual certification.

The two main certification organisations for biodynamic wine are Biodyvin (European only) and Demeter (global). 

Fair for Life
Fair for Life Certification Label
A certification programme for Fair Trade created in Switzerland. Focuses on responsible supply chains as well as fair pricing.
Fair Trade 

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade certification for wine requires fair pricing for producers and rigid health and safety standards to protect workers, nearby communities and ecosystems.

Organic
EU Organic Certification label


Certified by one of the UK or EU-recognised organic certification bodies. Find out more about these below.

Natural

'Natural wine' is becoming increasingly popular, but it does not have a legal definition or standard label/certification. It will often use organic grapes, and makers usually use a non-interventionist approach, which means no additives, enzymes or fining.

Vegan

Wine producers use fining agents to clarify wine, some of which are animal-derived. These include albumen (egg white), casein (milk protein), gelatine or isinglass (made from fish air bladders). 

Vegan wine uses other fining agents such as bentonite clay, plant casein or silica gel. Head to our taste test results to see which our panel rated the best vegan wines.

What is organic wine?

For a food or drink to be labelled as organic in the UK and EU, it must be certified by a recognised organic certification body. When it comes to wine, organic certification will mean that the grapes are grown under organic conditions, which equates to very strict limitations on pesticides, fertilisers or herbicides. Just 20 are permitted (all of which derive from natural ingredients) compared to over 300 permitted under EU law. 

In the EU, organic certification also comes with very strict controls on sulphite levels, meaning sulphites are found at lower levels in organic wine. In the US, organic wine cannot have any added sulphites at all.

In practice, organic farming methods are likely to mean an organically certified wine is produced in ways that would generally be regarded more sustainable – for example, biodiversity and ground cover plants are likely to be encouraged because of the absence of weed killers. But organic production does not necessarily consider other aspects of sustainability such as workers’ rights (though some organic certification bodies do include some social aspects), and there’s not a direct requirement to reduce the carbon impacts of wine production.

How to tell if wine is sustainably produced

As things stand, there’s an array of different sustainability labels and certifications that you can look for on wine bottles and packaging, which can be confusing.

The Sustainable Wine Round Table (SWR) is a global coalition of over 60 members, including businesses involved in wine production, distribution and retail (Waitrose and Lidl are members). The group is working towards creating a global reference standard for sustainability using the best practice from the existing sustainability schemes around the world. The aim is to produce a standard that winemakers can align themselves with, to encourage a holistic and regenerative approach to wine sustainability. Much of the emissions footprint of wine is in its packaging and distribution, so the SWR is developing tools and guidelines for all aspects of wine production.

But what can you look out for now? If the word ‘certified’ is on packaging, it suggests that the product has been assessed against a standard and should indicate third-party, independent assessment. It's a good step in the right direction, but bear in mind that some schemes may be more rigorous than others. 

If you want to know more, carry out your own research into the certification scheme to find out how it aligns with what you consider important when it comes to sustainability. 

The absence of a label also doesn't mean a wine producer isn't sustainable - some small-scale producers may be doing regenerative farming but not have the resources to apply for and achieve certification.

And when you're thinking about which countries to buy wine from, Tobias Webb, founder of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable recommends that consumers consider regions or countries that need their custom. The South African wine industry was hit very hard by national alcohol bans during the country’s COVID-19 lockdowns. And some Eastern European vineyards and wineries are being badly affected by the war in Ukraine.

Wine sustainability schemes

Here are some of the most widely recognised regional and international wine sustainability schemes to look for:

Bodegas de Argentina Certification Labe

Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol 

California Sustainable Winegrowing Certification Labe
Certified California Sustainable /California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance – Wine bearing the CCSW logo must use at least 85% or higher grapes from certified vineyards and be from a certified winery
Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile Certification Labe
Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile – covers 80% of Chilean exported wine
Equalitas certification label

Equalitas – Italian sustainability certification


Fair'n Green Label
Fair’n Green – German sustainability certification
Live Certified Sustainable USA Label
LIVE Certified Sustainable – US sustainability certification covering the Pacific Northwest
Sustainabilty in Practice USA Certification Label

SIP Certified – stands for Sustainability in Practice and covers California and Michigan. 
Sustainabel Austria
Sustainable Austria 


How recyclable are wine bottles? 

The largest single contributor to the carbon emissions of a bottle of wine is the bottle itself.

Unlike many packaging materials, glass is endlessly recyclable and doesn't lose purity or quality. The British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation’s most recent statistics show that a green glass bottle made in the UK will contain 68.1% recycled material on average. However, it's common for clear glass bottles (such as those used for rosé) to be made of virgin materials. 

There is no reuse scheme available at any scale for glass wine bottles, so when they're collected for recycling they will be melted down in a furnace and reformed. This is an energy intensive process, though significantly less so than that for making virgin glass. Of course, the emissions can be lessened if renewable energy is used to heat glass furnaces, something that the industry is attempting to increase in its efforts to decarbonise. 

But there are better glass options and alternative packaging you can consider instead. And with fuel price rises driving up the cost and availability of glass, alternative packaging is becoming more attractive to winemakers too.

Comparison of carbon impacts of different types of wine packaging

Sustainable wine packaging alternatives

Boxed wine

Boxed wine

Bag in a box wine may once have been scorned as a low-quality choice, but it has come a long way in both quality and perception. And as well as economical, it's also an eco-friendly option.

Lockdown had a marked effect on box wine sales in the UK – in July 2020, Sainsbury’s Plate of the Nation report found a 41% year-on-year growth in bag in box wine sales.

In some countries, bag in box wine makes up a majority of sales. More than half of the wine sold in Sweden is bag in box. Even in France, boxed wines now make up around 40% of the sales in supermarkets.

Boxed wines use fully recyclable cardboard and a thin inner plastic bag with a hard plastic tap. These too can now be recycled, though you may have to take the inner bag to local collection points for flexible/soft plastic – commonly found at supermarkets.

According to a study by ALKO, the Finnish alcohol monopoly, bag in box wines generate around 10 times less carbon than drinking from a glass bottle.

And there are cost benefits too. Lower packaging and shipping costs means savings can be passed on to consumers. And if you don't drink particularly quickly, bag in box wines can last up to six weeks when opened, much longer than a bottle.

But boxed pouches aren’t a suitable vessel for some wines. They usually expire after a year or so, as oxygen will gradually permeate inside the plastic. Aged fine wines can only be kept in glass.

Sparkling wine also has limitations when it comes to packaging type. It can be canned but won’t last as long and legislation means that some sparkling wines such as Champagne and Prosecco must be bottled.

Aluminium cans, PET bottles and other packaging

Wine Traders for Alternative Formats (WTAF) is an alliance of wine brands using alternative format packaging. Rob Malin, CEO of When in Rome, one of WTAF’s members thinks this alt-format packaging is the right solution for a large proportion of the wine we buy and plan to drink within a few weeks of purchase.

The Swedish Systembolaget, the government-owned monopoly of off-licences (and the only place you can buy alcohol stronger than 3.5% in Sweden), says that all still wine should be packaged in this format unless there is a good reason to use glass.

When in Rome offers boxes, aluminium cans, lightweight 100% recycled PET flat bottles (that can fit through a letterbox) and paper bottles.

Another member of WTAF, The BiB wine company, has a freepost return scheme for its wine pouches, creating a closed loop recycling system. 

Keg wines

You may have seen wine on draft or tap in pubs and bars, and it's generally a more eco-friendly way of packaging it than glass. Even sparkling wines can be kept in this way. It's not suitable for all at-home consumption and not usually available for consumers to buy, but could be worth considering if you're planning a big catered event like a wedding.

Lighter weight glass wine bottles

Pile of empty glass wine bottles

In the past the weight of the wine bottle reflected the quality of the wine, but this is an outdated concept now.

Empty wine bottles can vary in weight from an average of around 500g up to over 1kg. This has a big impact on the manufacturing and transport emissions of each bottle. Some producers are now using light-weight glass bottles that come in at well under 400g.

Sparkling wines tend to be housed in heavier glass but even some of these have come down in weight in recent years. 

Chris Foss, chairperson of Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB), says reducing bottle weight should be a goal for all wine producers. A large proportion of wines made in the UK are sparkling, which means that doing away with glass altogether may not be a possibility, but reducing bottle weight certainly is. 

All SWGB members add the total weight of all their glass purchased into a carbon calculator annually so they can understand the carbon footprint of the glass they use and work to reduce it. Some other sustainability schemes have similar initiatives.

Peter Ball, Head of Materials at The Park, Europe's largest wine packaging company, agrees. This year The Park will pack over 80 million bottles of wine in the lightest weight bottle available - which is 330g.

Find out where your wine is bottled

Wine being bottled

The way that wine is transported has a big impact on its sustainability credentials. Some wine is bottled in its country of origin and then shipped by road or rail. The weight of the glass bottles makes this a carbon hungry process.

Other wine (more commonly those from further afield) is transported on boats in big bladder-like containers or Flexitanks, and is then bottled at its final destination. This is known as bulk wine and it’s far more space and weight efficient on a container ship, bringing transport emissions per litre/kg of wine down. Richard Lloyd, General Manager of The Park, says more than double the volume of wine can be shipped per container.

There are cost benefits to transporting wine like this too which should be passed on to the consumer. And it may also be better for the wine – it is kept at a more stable temperature (research has shown temperature fluctuations are around 2.5 degrees centigrade compared to up to 9.5 degrees in bottles) and may be less susceptible to air getting into the wine, thus extending its shelf life.

It’s usually easy to know from reading the back of the label whether your wine has been transported like this or not. A UK name and address on your imported wine tells you that the wine is bulk wine and has been bottled here.  

‘Estate bottled’ tells you that the wine was bottled at the vineyard. It also means that the wine is made of grapes entirely from vineyards at the winery, and they were pressed, fermented and aged at source.

Corks or screwtops?

For the last decade or so, screwtops have become more and more prevalent. Consumers have been won over by their easy-to-open convenience and the much reduced risk that the wine will suffer from cork taint.

But this approach comes at an environmental cost. It has reduced the demand for cork forests, which act as carbon sinks. Cork is harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree, which means they don't need to be cut down and the same tree can be used for many harvests.

Two independent studies commissioned by Amorim, the world’s biggest cork processing group, found that the carbon captured in a cork stopper significantly helps to negate the carbon footprint of a glass bottle of wine. So opt for a cork when you can.

Corks can't be put in your home recycling bin. You can put them in your at home compost bin, but not a collected food waste bin. Alternatively, take them to Majestic stores, which now have cork recycling bins by the checkouts nationwide, or send them to cork reycling schemes such as Recorked UK.