Packaging wine and why it matters

By Jamie Goode | 16th June 2022

On the face of it, the issue of wine packaging might seem to be rather dull. But it’s actually really important on two fronts: sustainability and wine quality. And that’s why it’s an issue that is under a lot of discussion now in the wine trade. Here, I’m going to try to sum up some of the discussions.

Back in the day, most wine never saw a bottle. One of the reasons that the South African wine industry started back in the 17th century was because Cape Town was becoming an important stopping point for ships, and a thriving colony was developing. Both the visiting ships and the local population had a thirst for wine, and so vineyards were planted and wine made. This wine would have been shipped in barrel to destination markets. Even as recently as the 1960s it was still common for wine merchants to receive fine wines in barrel and then bottle them themselves. In local markets in classical wine-producing countries, a lot of wine would have been sold directly. I remember in Spain in the 1980s my parents used to take a selection of containers to the local bodega and have them filled out of a pump, paying by the litre. This still happens in some places.

Packaging wine and why it matters

But the modern wine industry is largely about selling wine in glass bottles. While this is good for wine quality – bottles don’t allow any oxygen in and they are neutral (although as we’ll discuss later the same can’t be said for wine closures) – it’s not great for the environment. Bottles are heavy, and shipping wine from country of origin to market in bottles comes with a high carbon footprint. There are alternatives: it’s now common to ship in 25 000 litre flexi-tanks and then bottle in market, and much of the wine in UK supermarkets is bottled in the UK. If the bottling is done well, and it usually is, then this isn’t bad for wine quality and it reduces the carbon footprint of wine significantly. But, as with many aspects of wine, there are complications. For example, if South African wine is shipped in bulk as opposed to finished packaged goods, this is taking jobs away from South Africa and creating jobs in the UK, which may be an unintended consequence of this move.

Another problem with bottles is that of waste. Glass is recyclable and much of it does get recycled, but to create a new bottle requires quite a bit of energy, so there’s another carbon footprint hit. And in the UK, there’s too much green glass of the sort that is used for most wine bottles, so some ends up not being recycled. What about glass bottle re-use schemes? This could be something for the future, but it’s logistically challenging and washing bottles apparently uses almost as much energy as making a new bottle.

What about alternatives to glass? These have been around for a while, and there’s a lot of discussion about them. Bag-in-Box is tried and tested, and works well, although any wine packaged this way will have a limited shelf life so the logistics chain needs to be tight. A variant on the theme is the bag without the box: the pouch. This was pioneered in the UK by South African brand Arniston Bay some years ago. So far, the various wine in bag solutions have been a bit of a niche category, and they haven’t threatened glass bottles too much, but their green credentials are impressive.

Then we have wine in can, the new kid on the block. It’s already a popular category in the USA, and in recent years the range available in can has expanded a lot. Cans are highly recyclable, but they do present technical challenges for wine, which have mostly been overcome. Even though cans don’t allow any oxygen in, wine in them has a shelf-life because of potential interactions between wine and the can liner. It seems to be a slightly more expensive way of buying wine if you do the sums.

And plastic bottles are back. Small ones have always been used for airlines and festivals, but full size plastic bottles are touted as an alternative to glass, being much lighter and unbreakable. They were trialled a decade or so ago, and then kind of stalled, but a new flattened plastic bottle is finding its way onto shelves. Moët-Hennessy-owned Provence rosé producer Galoupet is using them. Will plastic be part of the wine packaging ecosystem in a more significant way in the future? One of the problems is that people associate plastic with environmental degradation, although these bottles are made from post-consumer recycled plastic.

So let’s turn to closures. Since glass bottles began to be used for wine, they have been sealed with a plug of tree bark: the cork. Corks do a good job, mostly, in sealing wine bottles. They let very little oxygen in, they can create a seal that lasts 50 years or more, they have great environmental credentials, and when it comes to fine wine we like the way that the wine develops in a glass bottle sealed with a good cork. But the problem with them is taint. Cork is a natural product and a certain number have issues with compounds produced by fungi growing in the wood, which creates a musty taint known widely as cork taint. This is why you’ll often be asked to taste a small pour of wine in a restaurant. In the 1990s cork taint rates became very bad because of the growing demand for cork which caused quality to fall. For this reason, alternatives were trialled, and one really took off: the screwcap.

Now, screwcaps are probably the most widely used closures in markets that will accept them. The UK has been a fan and many supermarket wines are sealed this way. The quality implications? No taint, and they tend to preserve fresh fruity flavours for longer. The big discussion is whether or not they will ever be used for fine wines from classic wine-producing countries. This is because we like the way that wine ages under a good cork, and wines sealed with screwcaps can certainly age, but if you taste really carefully, they do taste a little different. It’s not enough to alter the closure decision on a wine for early drinking – which is pretty much all wines – but for fine wines, it means there are some differences in opinion. Screwcaps are much cheaper than a good cork and a capsule, or a good cork and wax, so producers would quite like to switch if it didn’t scare consumers away, and they could be sure that the wine would age well this way.

So we have a situation where some wines are sealed with traditional corks, some with screwcaps, and increasingly some that are sealed with what are termed technological corks, which are composite corks made from small bits of cork that have been cleaned and then joined together. Fortunately, cork taint is rarer than it used to be but it still occurs.

What’s the future for wine packaging? There are lots of discussions ongoing, but ultimately it depends on us, the consumers. Are we stuck to the glass bottle, with its environmental issues, or are we happy to begin exploring greener alternatives?