Tahbilk goes carbon-neutral

Huon Hooke
Leading by example: Cullen winery in the Margaret River has been carbon-neutral since 2006.
Leading by example: Cullen winery in the Margaret River has been carbon-neutral since 2006. Photo: Supplied

Only seven wineries worldwide have declared themselves carbon-neutral, according to the website Mother Nature Network (or mnn.com). It lists Backsberg (South Africa), Cono Sur (Chile), Cullen (Western Australia), Grove Mill (New Zealand), Parducci (California), Taylors (South Australia) and Tinhorn Creek (British Columbia), but it seems they've missed at least Temple Bruer (South Australia) and Yealands Estate (New Zealand).

And now, our latest: Tahbilk.

The primary motivation of these wineries seems to be concern for the environment, and sustainability. Cullen of Margaret River was the first Aussie to claim carbon neutrality, in 2006. In June this year, southern Victorian winery Tahbilk declared it hoped to be the first Australian winery to be ''naturally carbon-neutral''. Before we look at what this means precisely, let's hear the rest of the story.

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Tahbilk had no sooner issued its statement (on June 12) than it was announced as the 2013 winner of the President's Medal, awarded by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW for the best agricultural producer - an award based not only on the quality of its wines but on its use of ''sustainable practices that are crucial for the future of Australian agriculture''. Obviously there was a connection: the RAS judges had cottoned on to the revolution that's been happening at 153-year-old Tahbilk, which is Victoria's oldest family-owned winery.

Tahbilk also revealed that its efforts on carbon neutrality had been pivotal in winning a significant tender to supply a shipment of wine to Sweden. Alister Purbrick, Tahbilk's chief executive and head winemaker, said wine quality as well as ''Carbon Balanced'' status had won it the contract.

It's been no secret in recent years that, in a crowded wine market, many wine trade buyers such as retailers and importers use criteria such as organic or biodynamic certification and other ''green'' initiatives to help them decide whose wine to buy.

To win the President's Medal, Tahbilk not only had to excel in the Sydney Royal Wine Show, it had to compete in a finals judging against food producers from other sections of the RAS shows - seafood, meat, dairy, even an ice-cream maker. Judging was conducted by a panel including ABC broadcaster and foodie Simon Marnie and the chief economist for the Department of Trade and Investment, Scott Davenport.

RAS president Glenn Dudley said of the President's Medal: ''It is the only produce competition in Australia that takes a whole-of-company approach so, to be in the running, entrants must have savvy business plans in place covering everything from finances and marketing, to environmental and social responsibility.''

As of calendar year 2012, Tahbilk is officially a carbon-zero wine producer. This means it balances all carbon emissions associated with its wine production against carbon offsets. These are made up of carbon sequestration in the form of a long-term planting program for trees and native vegetation, with the purchase of carbon credits making up the difference.

Tahbilk plans to be naturally carbon-neutral within five years. This means it will achieve a zero balance purely from its revegetation program, and cuts to its emissions, without having to buy carbon credits, which now cost $25,000 a year.

Alister's daughter Hayley Purbrick, a fifth-generation family member who has a degree in agricultural science, manages the Tahbilk Wine Club and looks after the environmental strategies.

''Our family has been at Tahbilk for five generations, and if we don't look after it properly it may not be here for future generations,'' she says. ''We're in a unique situation that we have the land to plant. Most wineries don't have a lot of land. The property is 2000 hectares overall, most of it used for other farming activities. We have earmarked 180 hectares yet to be planted. I'm told that one hectare of planting can sequester five tonnes of carbon.''

Tahbilk's commitment to becoming carbon-balanced started in 1995 with the revegetation of more than 100 hectares of native plants on the estate, and the restoration of eight kilometres of wetlands along the Goulburn River. Tahbilk has had the most comprehensive analysis possible of its carbon emissions, conducted by Carbon Balance Consulting. This included a four-year assessment and two audits.

''Tahbilk achieved a net zero balance of carbon emissions through on-site reductions and sequestering 31 per cent of their footprint through revegetation,'' CBC consultant Steve Andrew says. ''The remainder was offset by purchasing carbon credits from accredited projects that have further improved Australia's biodiversity.''

Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the research work is that Tahbilk is directly responsible for only 10 per cent of its overall carbon footprint. More than a third of it is tied up in the making of bottles: 37 per cent of the carbon emissions come from the embedded energy used in bottle-making. A further 23 per cent comes from ''third-party indirect emissions'' in the supply chain.

While Tahbilk is not motivated by the commercial benefits of its sustainability program, the Purbricks are thrilled about the big Swedish order.

''It was the wines themselves first and foremost, but they were also looking for wines that satisfied the ISO standard for carbon accounting. We are well above the ISO,'' Hayley says. ''This was an initial order. It was reasonably large and we're hoping it will lead to repeat orders.''

Hayley is disappointed at the carbon emissions policies of both major political parties in the lead-up to the federal election. She believes carbon, like water, is a finite resources that must be valued.

''Setting the carbon price too low means people will be able to buy carbon credits on the open market, and won't have an incentive to lower their emissions.''

Alister sums up the Purbrick family's position: ''It is very satisfying today to know our revegetation program withdraws 980 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually; a figure we intend to triple over the next five years, increasing the natural biodiversity of the landscape.''

Leading by example

Cullen winery has been carbon-neutral since 2006, and is certified by the organisation Carbon Neutral/Men of the Trees. It costs $12,000 a year to purchase carbon offsets, which are used to replant wheatbelt areas with trees.

Chief winemaker Vanya Cullen says: ''It is only one part of the solution for sustainability for the world. The important thing is that the awareness of consumption of power - using solar, wind, thermal, or whatever method best suits - helps us think about how much power we consume and what effect that is having on the world.''

Cullen is totally biodynamic, which Vanya says is a carbon-neutral way of farming, which creates a stronger sense of vintage and terroir.

Glass and freight are Cullen's two biggest carbon outputs.

Cullen favours Carbon Neutral to offset its emissions, as its tree planting helps re-establish local flora and fauna, and control salinity. Carbon Neutral is operated by Men of the Trees, a worldwide, voluntary, non-profit organisation. As well, Cullen has recently applied for a solar power grant.

huonhooke.com

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