Glass bottles are still the default packaging for wine. Made from silica and with no potential to cause permanent environmental damage, they are considered to be the ideal material. But is this really cut and dried? Consumers and environmentalists increasingly want more flexible solutions. Other containers have their advantages too.
“Glass bottles could be a thing of the past in the wine supply chain eventually.” Many who heard Miguel Torres's direct words at the MUST innovation conference in Cascais, Portugal in June, were somewhat surprised. The 75cl bottle is considered to be rock solid packaging. But the Catalan winemaker and pioneer knows what he's talking about.
If you ask consumers, they often want another size, such as a half-bottle (37.5cl). A meal for two, the glass for lunch, a menu with different wines etc. - here you could win customers who are still grudgingly renouncing their pleasure. Even in top restaurants, where the wine lists seem like thick folios, small formats are in short supply.
Some regions forbid different bottle sizes to protect consumers from dubious formats that make price comparisons difficult. However, these comparisons attract customers to smaller bottles. Since the cost of the bottle, label, cork, packaging, shipping and marketing remain the same though, they contain half the amount of wine but are not half the price.
This is reflected particularly in wines in the lower price range. Additional time is wasted in bottling, there are more sales expenses and perhaps even difficult moments when one format is sold out long before the other.
In the catering industry, bottle dispensing systems such as Coravin are setting new standards. In the retail sector, bottles are losing ground, especially amongst the important younger consumer groups. Accustomed to pre-packaged smoothies and coffee-to-go, they expect single serve sizes, which can be stashed in the backpack for consumption on the move – and they must be as unbreakable and stylish as possible.
THE LIGHTER THE BOTTLE, THE HEAVIER THE WORK
Glass is fragile and makes up more than 40 percent of the total weight in average. With 33 billion bottles of wine sold in 2018, many companies would love to have lighter bottles.
The French group Meffre invested several years of development work in a bottle with a thinner wall, which slimmed down from 520 to 410 grams. “The balance between strength and weight,” said CEO Etienne Maffre, “was the hardest thing.” “The lightest screw-top embossed bottle looks exactly like the original.” With the 2.5 million bottles that the company puts into circulation each year, this saves 250 tons of glass equivalent to 178 tons of CO2.
Torres has achieved similar weight savings with the long-term goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent per bottle by 2020. The Chilean company Concha y Toro has set itself the target to be climate neutral by 2050, and “already uses 98 percent lightweight bottles,” says Sustainability Manager Valentina Lira.
In northern Italian Collio, an entire winegrower’s association agreed on a solution without sacrificing their marketing concerns. 140 million liters of the premium wine’s annual production are filled in a slimmer-walled version of the Collio’s iconically shaped bottle.
The energy used in glass production has been reduced in recent decades, equivalent to 80 percent less CO2 emissions, according to Tiago Moreira, CEO of the glass manufacturer BA Vidra Group (which records annual sales of 850 million euros). Over 100 million tons of waste has also been avoided. The recycling rate within the EU is an impressive 74 percent.
Glass packaging has become 30 percent lighter in recent decades, according to the European Glass Container Federation - but still weighs 550-600 grams on average. Much less than 400 grams is currently not possible.
CANNED BEER BREWER IN CHAMPAGNE MOOD
Meanwhile, canned wine is experiencing a boom. Younger consumer groups in particular - those with the backpacks – have no hang-ups about the packaging. Cans weigh about 50 grams, are unbreakable and tasteless due to their plastic lining. UV radiation and oxygen are excluded. The all-aluminium containers have retained a slightly non-establishment edge which sits well with the craft beer sector. In the United Kingdom, one of the strongest craft beer markets, it is predicted that 72 percent of the product will be canned in 2019.
Lifestyle is foaming into the canning industry in any case. In 2018, Beck's launched an elaborately crafted beer can with laser engraving, in the shape of a champagne flute. They wanted to “put increased emphasis on premium perception,” said the mass beer brewer somewhat laconically. They envisage “Le Beck's” finding its home at art openings, classical music concerts and other “exclusive events”.
While the rock-solid bottle provides sustainability by nature, the can is always the source of the environmental sin in the can. Bottle glass basically consists of silica, soda and lime. However, production requires more than 1000 degrees Celsius and consumes large amounts of energy. Recycling is also complicated, and even large companies don’t manage to accommodate much recycled glass in their supply cycles.
The life of a tin can begins as bauxite, which is mined with heavy machinery and often leaves scars on the landscape. Soil erosion, air and water pollution are additional issues. At 15 kilowatts per kilo, aluminium production is about 15 times as energy-consuming as molten glass. The accumulated toxic sludge has to be stored for a long time before going to landfill. On top of that there are the chemicals for colour coating, whose processing is rarely environmentally friendly.
At second glance, however, the comparison becomes more equalised. The recycling rate of aluminium is 69 percent worldwide - and only requires a fraction of the original energy.
Since the turn of the millennium, more and more sales markets have developed outside the main production areas. Among the eleven largest consumer nations, which cover 70 percent of wine consumption, China, Hong Kong, Canada and Russia all show rapid growth. Looking at the transport routes reveals many complexities. Glass bottles in protective packaging occupy much more space than cans, are fragile and heavy. American industry body The Aluminum Association states that a truck with cans carries as much wine as two trucks with bottles.
The often criticized cargo ships also compare well. “A standard container holds about 12,500 bottles,” explains Pierre Corvisier, Director of New Services at specialty drinks carrier JF Hillebrand Group, “as a bulk product, the volume of 32,000 bottles fits”. This saves 40 percent of the costs and reduces emissions by 55 percent. Further savings are possible due to more flexible delivery, less breakage risk and longer shelf life. “Compared to sea freight, the cost of transport by train is more than triple,” says Corvisier, “trucks are almost nine times the cost, and air freight costs up to 33 times as much.”
In all these numbers games, however, there’s a blind spot. There is still no valid study that covers the life cycle from the extraction of raw materials through the additional consumption in the domestic refrigerator to recycling. Either way, the energy costs are high and neither silica nor aluminium regenerate – even if that would be ideal.
In wine production, packaging accounts for the largest share of CO2 emissions, at between 30 and 42 percent. This is more than harvest and vinification together. “We have saved a total of 30 percent of our CO2 emissions,” says Miguel Torres, whose company is a pioneer rather than a forerunner “but we’ve been accelerating in-house research since 2006”.
As rewarding as such efforts are, they are only a partial solution and even reveal further problems. Many other large players do not have comparable initiatives. For smaller producers there are no economically viable solutions. Even with well-intentioned bottle-deposit systems, the CO2 bill is bad, if return transport is included. Particularly against the background that many small winemakers are pioneers in sustainable cultivation, this is a frustrating realization.
Hardly any conference passes without a contribution that evokes the meaning and benefits of sustainability. Ex-US Vice President Al Gore appeared in person at the Climate Change Leadership Conference in Porto in spring 2019, praising the efforts of many, and with reference to packaging and transportation. In the same tone, Barack Obama also urged participants to “work together to stop climate change.” Otherwise, it would soon be “too late”. Neither provided a practical solution to the packaging problem. There currently isn’t one.
In the forecasts of wine journalists, the glass bottle is regularly declared the victim of the year. “If the wine industry does not act now then consumers are ready to pick up the baton for them and go off and choose to drink something else” warns Isabelle Legeron, who has a finger on the pulse with RAW fair - her series of natural wine tasting events. Craft beer in cans sends greetings.
So far, however, alternative packaging is mostly perceived as low quality. In a vicious circle, producers rarely provide superior wines in kegs, plastic pouches, Bag-in-boxes or Tetrapaks, which are also complicated to recycle. For some in the industry, this is reminiscent of the ‘appalled’ debates on cork versus screw caps in the 1990s.
PET bottles offer a potential solution and can coincidentally also solve a marketing problem. British supplier Garçon Wines has the plastic containers formed as flat-pack bottles. So a single bottle fits through the letter box and can be delivered cheaply. The shelf life is twelve to 18 months. The base material is recycled plastic. It is not biodegradable and the material currently has a bad reputation due to the environmental discussion.
What is completely missing are really innovative packaging materials. Compostable bottles are under discussion, made of cornstarch or sugar, and maybe even edible. Researchers are raving about graphene, an atomic-level modification of carbon which can be used to make carbon nano-tubes.
“We need to get used to lightweight bottles and alternative packaging more quickly,” Lira says, with a sideways glance to the state-monopoly dominated Scandinavian countries, where Bag-in-box and its cousins account for more than half of the packaging. The markets, however, are fragmented. In Germany, aside from the one-litre bottle (which suggests a low-priced farmer’s wine), the market remains conservative. “Wine should first be wine” is the motto. This conservatism remained, even after the record harvest of 2018, when the bottle industry could barely keep up.
In the UK, alternative containers have it easier. In bars and restaurants, wine on tap is common. Innovative and eco-friendly, the quality assurance of serving without air contact, lack of elitist fuss, and maybe even a simple taste before ordering helps convince the clientele. Now even fine dining restaurants are following suit.
In the US, a first Consumer Wine Trends Survey back in 2015 showed that bottlings of 250ml are very popular with wine drinkers of all ages. Bottle and can are on the same level, with cans also liked by first-time buyers without pre-existing knowledge. Everyone likes to hear this. Meanwhile, wine has rapidly become a recreational drink.
Looking at data from Nielsen, who saw growth of wine in cans of 67 percent in 2018, observers are already talking about an exploding market - even if that sounds a bit dramatic with a market share of 0.2 percent in 2018.
Vendors do not tire of mentioning drinking occasions for wine in cans: in-flight, concerts, boat trips, hiking tours and tailgate parties, where fans in stadium parking lots drink straight from the car-boot. In nightclubs, in the park, at the swimming pool party in the pool, at the glamping brunch. Matching bottlings with names like “Barefoot” and “Flipflop” are available, as well as “Canned Champ” canned sparkling, which would have been laughable a few years ago. Among the providers is the reputable Coppola Winery, owned by the famous Hollywood director. Their Brut rosé shines, according to the estate, with “spiced berry accents”. Serving suggestion: well chilled with straw.