At the Bar with Hal Wilson
What will you be buying wine in, in the future? With drinks coming in ever-more varied and eco-friendly containers, Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants looks at how packaging is evolving
Wine producers have been wedded to glass bottles as the preferred method of packaging since the 7th Century AD. Now I admit the trade is a tad conservative, but the main reason for glass being so popular is that it works really well as a reliable preserver of the quality wine inside and not much can match it.
With ever-more environmental pressures and other practical considerations, though, the wine trade is forging ahead and experimenting with alternative formats, often taking its lead from the craft beer industry which has been quicker to embrace the opportunities they offer.
Comedian Rowan Atkinson appeared as a barman in a Not the Nine O’clock News sketch in 1980 where he successfully wastes so much time in taking a drinks order that the bell goes for ‘Time’ and he doesn’t have to pour the drinks at all. "Pint, half pint, tall glass, small glass, sachet, schooner or pipette?" he enquires when the punter asks for a beer.
Today the choices of packaging can seem equally absurd. I haven’t seen pipettes yet, but cans, kegs, plastic pouches, bags in boxes, paper and card ‘bottles’, barrels, and even stainless bottles are now being used to carry wine around the world. Which of these are likely to replace glass as the future of drinks packaging? Is the glass bottle even doomed?
The chances are that the glass of wine you order in a bar or restaurant no longer comes from a glass bottle. The technology for preserving wine effectively in other formats like bag in box (BIB) has been around since the 1970s and is much lighter to transport than the equivalent volume in glass bottles. BIB now accounts for 4% of the world’s wine by volume. BIBs are recyclable and have 80% less carbon emissions than glass bottle manufacture.
An impressive statistic suggests that if all entry level wine in the US was served from BIB it would be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road. Innovation in design has led to Bibs coming in sizes from 1.5lt (aka Bagnum!) to 10lt. In spite of its longevity, BIBs remain the neglected child of the wine trade.
We have been preserving all manner of products in cans throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, so why has it taken so very long for wine to be available in them? The craft beer industry revived canned beer through design-led innovation and brewers making the case for it being as good quality as glass. Wine has been packaged in cans since 2004 when the Francis Ford Coppola winery canned its Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, but it took till 2019 for cans to make a meaningful impression on volumes and still is a very niche player.
Cans are more recycled than glass, use less energy and can be recycled into cans more often. It is easier to tell the wine’s story on the can and I can see cans being used much more in the near future, particularly for consumption outside.
The other potentially significant container for wine that you won’t see so much is the 20-30lt keg. Already a darling of the craft beer world, improvements in the technical aspects required for guaranteeing quality are being addressed and better quality wine is being imported for use in tap rooms, bars and restaurants, as well as wine merchants where customers can dispense wine into their own reusable bottles. Kegs come in environmentally sound refillable containers as well as recyclable single-use versions. Currently the cost of packaging is the main drawback to use, as well as the kit required to serve it through.
However you serve your wine this year, enjoy it and have a good time. Cheers!
Hal Wilson is the owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has branches on King’s Parade, Bridge Street and Cherry Hinton Road, as well as managing the University Centre Wine Bar on Mill Lane.
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