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Winemaking With Clean Power

Domaine de Chevalier's new eco-friendly wine-storage building
© Domaine de Chevalier | Domaine de Chevalier's new eco-friendly wine-storage building
Sophie Kevany reports on the innovative moves being employed by vineyards to save energy.

Making your own wine is a powerful dream for many, but a number of Bordeaux winemakers have a new goal: making their own power – cleanly.

“It’s very satisfying to see what we’ve done,” said Thomas Meilhan of Domaine de Chevalier, staring at a brand new wine-storage warehouse covered in solar panels.

Domaine de Chevalier, one of the best-known makers of white wines in the area, produces about 750,000 bottles a year from 45 hectares (111 acres) in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. The estate is owned by Olivier Bernard and the new storage building, plus panels, has just cost him 2.4 million euros ($3.07 million).

“We should recover our costs in about 10 years,” said Meilhan, who oversaw construction of the new building. But cutting costs was not the driving issue. Equally important is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, plus a philosophical "fit" with the estate’s policy of reducing chemical treatments in the vineyard.  

The move to solar panels also matches an initiative launched in late 2008 by the Bordeaux Wine Board – know by its French acronym, the CIVB – to reduce the wine sector’s annual carbon emissions by 20 percent before 2020.

That’s from a current level – last measured in 2008 – of about 223,000 equivalent tons of carbon, or 745,000 tons of carbon dioxide. An interim carbon measurement is to be taken again at the end of this year.

Champagne and Burgundy have launched similar carbon-reduction initiatives, and although representatives of each wine region are unwilling to say who’s doing best, the chronology was Champagne first, Bordeaux second and Burgundy third.

Finding, harnessing and using alternative energy sources are all crucial steps toward reducing reliance on fossil fuels or nuclear energy, but equally important is the reduction of energy needs.

As part of the same building project, Domaine de Chevalier therefore decided to find an alternative to the power-hungry cooling systems that normally keep wine stocks at about 14–15° C – in an area where summer highs can reach more than 40°.

L-R: A closer view of the solar-paneled roof at Domaine de Chevalier; solar panels on display at Bordeaux's Parc des Expositions
© Domaine de Chevalier/Francis Riether | L-R: A closer view of the solar-paneled roof at Domaine de Chevalier; solar panels on display at Bordeaux's Parc des Expositions

The result is something so new that Meilhan thinks it’s the only one in the region. “It’s used by supermarkets, but I think we are the only winery in Bordeaux to have one,” he said.

The "adiabatic" cooling system – to use its technical name, taken from the Greek word for evaporation – is basically a piece of wood that absorbs water, which then evaporates, cooling the surrounding air in the process.

Used together, the solar panels and adiabatic system are expected to reduce the estate’s annual energy costs by an estimated 40–50 percent. “The building’s been ready for only the last six months, and that was six months of winter, so we are still guessing a bit at the results,” Meilhan explained.

Over at Château Montrose, which produces about 350,000 bottles a year from 95 hectares (235 acres) in Bordeaux’s Médoc region, a slightly different kind of alternative-energy project has just been completed after almost six years' work.

Here, the elements are solar panels and a geothermic loop. Geothermic systems take advantage of the earth’s temperature – via water pipes buried in the ground – to provide both heating and cooling.

“On one side, the solar panels produce clean energy, and on the other side, the new geothermic system reduces our heating and cooling needs,” said Montrose’s manager, Hervé Berland.

For Berland, who has spent about 6 million euros ($7.7 million) installing 3,000 square meters of solar panels plus the pipes and other equipment required for the geothermic system, cost reduction is even less of an issue.

“The main aim of the project is to reduce our CO2 emissions by using clean, renewable energy. This is our priority,” he said.

The new installations mean the estate should be able to meet estimated annual power needs of about 500,000 to 600,000 kilowatt hours – rendering it self-sufficient. Again, because the project is so new, the figures are estimates.

Château Montrose is now home to a geothermic loop, using water pipes buried in the ground
© Château Montrose | Château Montrose is now home to a geothermic loop, using water pipes buried in the ground

Meanwhile, the smaller 22-hectare (54-acre) Château Poupille, in the Côtes de Castillon appellation, has also managed to achieve electricity self-sufficiency, by installing a vine burner.

Poupille’s owner, Philippe Carrille, has spent about 100,000 euros ($128,000) on the equipment needed to collect, prepare and burn vine material left from uprooting and pruning. Another 120,000 euros ($154,000) has gone on 500 square meters of solar panels.

The electricity produced by the panels and the vine burner now covers all the estate’s winemaking and domestic needs, said Carrille. He added that peak times for electricity use in winemaking occur during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, and maceration.

Asked about his motivations, Carrille said the goal was to use the natural resources of the estate rather than waste them.

And for him, the thinking doesn’t stop here. Carrille is currently exploring ways of utilizing the carbon dioxide produced during the wine’s fermentation process. “We are trying to see if we can convert it into bicarbonate of soda for sale. France imports about 700,000 tons annually,” he said.

That's a possibility that brings a whole new dimension to the words "cleaner power."

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