There was a time when wine aficionados turned their noses up at any wine in anything but a glass bottle. But the times, they are a-changin’. The boxed wine section of the market, along with other types of packaging is garnering greater attention and acceptance.
Traditional glass bottles still dominate, but there is also a rising focus on the environmental credentials and lifestyle advantages offered by quality wines in bag-in-box, cans, paper bottles, returnable glass bottles and other so-called alternative packaging formats. Many wine writers recently signed onto an open letter that said increased use of alternatives to glass bottles could significantly reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
As this alternate market develops, this year’s prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) is giving winemakers their first opportunity to have wines they package in alternative containers blind-tasted by experts, alongside wines in glass bottles. Now in its 20th year, DWWA is the world’s largest wine competition, and this move will help to benchmark quality for this emerging sector of the market.
Glass is fully recyclable, without any degrading of the product, but how many of us really go to the trouble of recycling these days? And glass still uses energy to recycle. So, it’s great to see higher-quality wine now being packaged in alternative, lighter containers that don’t fill trash cans as much, or are biodegradable.
Another argument in favor of alternate packaging is that the carbon footprint is so much more when using glass. Also, glass is fragile. So, you have to package bottles so they don’t roll around and clink into other bottles, and break. Glass is heavier. The packaging has weight to it, and glass itself is heavier than other containers. And when the winemaker chooses to use a cork instead of a screw top, this causes other incidental carbon footprint and the amount of fuel to move these glass bottles increases.
Some producers feel glass can still be part of the sustainability equation, and glass bottles are considered important for wines intended for long-term cellaring. Other producers offer both conventional bottles and alternative formats.
Of course, the picture also varies by market. Bag-in-box (BIB) has a significant presence in Sweden and is also relatively prominent in France, for example, while a new generation of quality-driven BIB wines has only recently emerged in the United Kingdom. And we’re starting to see upscale wines packaged this way right here in the good old U.S. of A.
Needless to say, quality is first and foremost in wine, and if an alternative packaging would have a negative impact on it, then glass is king. The trend toward alternative containers is due to the compelling case for reducing carbon emissions, but also the attraction of not having to open a whole bottle to enjoy a good wine. One can open a BIB wine and store it for four to six weeks, so there needn’t be the reluctance to open a container if only one glass is to be drunk.
Recently, there has been significant interest from airlines and the travel retail sector. There are several advantages of quality wine in a single-serve format, including the potential for winemakers to reach new drinkers. Wine in cans seems to appeal to a younger crowd, too.
Rob McMillan, executive vice-president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, used industry data to estimate the alternative packaging market’s size. He is quoted as saying, “I believe the US wine business is about $61 billion at the retail level. Today glass makes up about $47 billion of the market, so alternative packaging, including PET (plastic), tetra pack, can, and others, is responsible for $14 billion.”
Reasons for producers to embrace alternative packaging range from lower costs to a desire to improve environmental credentials, he added. However, some traditionalists don’t think wine can be put into anything other than a bottle.
One of the biggest challenges is that retailers insist on keeping all cans together in a can section. This segregation isolates canned wines, minimizing their exposure to customers, and reducing the possibility of sale.
Many winemakers feel that the wine should be judged on its merit, regardless of the packaging type. Some think going up against bottles is fun, just because it feels like you’re not being categorized as a canned wine, you’re being categorized as a wine. Period.
Entries to DWWA 2023 that feature wines in alternative packaging will be blind-tasted by leading experts alongside their peers, including those in traditional glass bottles, to accurately benchmark wine quality. Judging of wines at DWWA is organized by country, region, color, grape, style, vintage, and price-point.
Judging alternatively packaged wines alongside those bottled in glass will be a fascinating experiment. Will these alternatives “cut it” in wine quality terms when tasted against those bottled in traditional glass? Is there a canned wine that will best those in bottle? Time will tell.
Why not have your own blind tasting, comparing BIB wine with glass-bottled wine? You can find both at City Vino. Tiza Tempranillo Castilla-La-Mancha Spain 2020 is in the store. Maybe once you have tasted it both ways, you’ll look more kindly on the humble boxed wine!