I keep hearing praise for wine packaging other than ‘the antiquated 75cl vessel that only came about because it was the capacity of a glassblower’s lungs’. What has astounded me about setting up a new wine domain is the number of decisions that you make every day. If you are the first generation creating a château and wines, you are starting from scratch with simply everything. So on top of shifting to farming sustainably, looking after soil health, biodiversity and inspecting every product used on the premises, packaging is a whole other area to get to grips with. (Click here for the short overview).
My red wines, Château George 7 and Prince de George 7 are AOC Fronsac wines intended to age and so bottles were the obvious choice (which doesn't mean I won't revisit this going forward). But, as I set about making my first white wine, Château George 7 Blanc, and with sustainability preoccupations as part of daily life, I was determined to look at alternative packaging. So if you are a small producer in a rather, shall we say, ‘traditional‘ wine production region, what are the real options for a small production of a good quality white wine that should keep for up to 4 years?
Not having an in-house packaging or bottling facility means that I am not tied to getting a return on investment for existing equipment. But with a very small production (only 1600 bottles of this first white wine), I don’t have economies of scale for any aspect - from the labels to the boxes. And it also means I have little clout with suppliers. I wanted to use local suppliers, who try and source their raw materials locally and so I asked them about their sustainability credentials and how to best recycle their products so that I could make informed choices. Not surprisingly, I received responses ranging from the Gallic shrug to huge power point presentations full of year on year metrics.
So what were my options?
Bag in box (BiB): Because they keep wine fresh for only 8-12 months, making a new wine which doesn’t yet have a market and with no guarantee all of it will be sold in 12 months, BiBs would be a real gamble. I have no real facility to keep a small quantity in tank and to fill them periodically. Most are a a couple of litres minimum, which would limit selling the small quantity of this new product to fewer customers.
Cans: Again, not really for keeping the wine for more than a year and would need to be taken off-site to can, but I like the idea of having smaller formats and the logistical benefits of packing up quantities to ship. Maybe an idea once I have a market for the wine and an understanding of that market. So far, putting your wine in can only, could limit the reach of the product.
Frugalpac: I did investigate this innovative format, which has an inner sleeve inside a cardboard outer bottle shape. Light it is, but because it needs a closure fitting, I would need to take the wine offsite (you also need to get permission to move unpackaged wine around) and the ‘bottler’ wanted me to invest in an additional piece of machinery which would have added a major cost especially for a tiny run. Once that is overcome, there are still considerations re the shelf life of the wine.
So key is having the infrastructure around you in your wine region to accommodate trying a new style of packaging (other than a bottle). Making a total of 10 000 bottles annually across 3 wines in Fronsac (Bordeaux region), then it is not my small potential business that will influence new packaging or logistics suppliers to branch out into new formats. But put me on the list for when they do. If I had invested in the additional machine part and had got permission to take my wine off site (plus taken on the costs involved in protecting and transporting it while doing so), then would the consumer have accepted the additional costs for the sake of the environment over a similar wine quality in a bottle?
Hitting the bottle
The great thing about glass is that being inert, it protects the wine’s characteristics. It can be recycled endlessly without losing its properties and the raw materials are naturally occurring (sand, soda-ash, limestone etc).
When we talk about the drawbacks of glass, many focus on the shape and weight of glass and the shipping of heavy bottles around the world. Many large-scale producers and merchants now ship long distance in bulk and bottle nearer to the sales point, which is a positive move. But actually, shipping is less evil for the environment than the carbon footprint for producing the glass. The heat in the furnace needed is around 1500 degrees gobbling energy and emitting gases. So I dug into what is going on in glass. Firstly, I learned to avoid a clear bottle, which has to have a higher percentage of new glass to make it clear and so green or brown bottles can have a higher % of recycled glass (aka cullet) in them. Opinions differ on just how successful glass recycling is in different countries. But we all know that each time a bottle or jar is recycled, energy and raw materials are saved and less CO2 is emitted. For example, in the EU, 12 million tons of raw materials are saved and 7m tons of CO2 are avoided each year – equal to taking 4 m cars off the road. For each 10% of recycled glass, 3% energy savings are made. New furnaces are well insulated using less energy and so I looked into a glass manufacturer that is a) transparent on their environment efforts and b) investing in replacing furnaces to dramatically cut energy consumption. Eventually, using energy from renewable bio-derived fuels, hydrogen or renewable electricity can eliminate C02 emissions. And we need to get the recycling right too.
I found a bottle manufacturer that is reducing direct and indirect energy consumed year on year and is reusing water through reuse and recirculation systems to minimise fresh water consumption. They measure this and are transparent about the results. So, the bottle used for Château George 7 Blanc is: produced locally so it didn't travel miles to get to me; has up to 87% recycled glass in it and weighs 400g. The weight of the bottle has to be solid enough to withstand transport but does not need to be ultra-heavy. But what is light or heavy? Some folks say that you can go as low as 350g. But, there is a point where the glass being very thin jeopardises solidity and makes it fragile for handling and transport. I was advised not to go below 400g given that some bottles will be shipped by lorry. If the bottle breaks you waste all the work involved in making the wine too.
But consumers need to be convinced that a heavier bottle weight does not mean a better wine. The quality perception is a huge issue because it impacts what a consumer will pay and whether they see it as ‘good enough’ to take to friends or offer as a gift, for example. I have already had feedback from one French customer, that the bottle doesn’t do the wine justice and should be ‘better quality’. Does that mean I won’t be able to sell it for the price it deserves?
Putting a cork in it
Through their very existence, cork trees are awesome - the CO2 retention capacity of a cork oak forest can reach 14.7 tons per hectare and per year. But putting that to one side, cork is a natural and renewable material.
Most corks are one piece, cut from the tree but that must mean that there are offcuts. So I chose, for this wine, a new product by a leading manufacturer, where they have made a cork from offcuts of 100% natural cork, bound together with beeswax and 100% vegetable polyols with anti cork taint thrown in. We then decided not to add a chemical ink with our name and so lasered it instead which means the name stands out a little less but we haven't added chemicals in where they weren't necessary. This is a great example of technology and nature combined for an optimum solution so you get the oxygen transfer for the wine, a good shelf life while being as kind to nature as possible. Cost wise? A few pennies more than the alternative one-piece I would have used. Contrary to what one might think, cork does not compost easily because it takes so long to break down but it can be recycled and most commonly into flip-flops, flooring or sports' shoes. If you have corks to recycle, bring them back to Château George 7 as I collect them for recycling.
To cap it off
This one needed some investigation. The normal choices for a capsule are plastic, aluminium or tin. I didn’t want to use plastic, not least from a quality perception perspective, but looking at the metal options, aluminium is recycled at a higher temperature than tin, so tin might be the better option for the environment. But tin is more expensive and I would have had to buy 10 000 minimum for a first run of 1600 bottles costing a mere 15 times more than the aluminium ones I ended up buying. And what a waste of resources if I decided not to make the white wine again and 8000 weren’t used? The aluminium capsule top that you cut off before opening the bottle, goes into the recycling and the rest, which is left around the neck of the bottle, is extracted at the glass recycling plant
I chose recycled paper, produced locally and bleached using stones rather than chemicals. However, the normal fine finish was added so that if you put the bottle in an ice bucket for an extended period, the label is still legible. This is standard for labels and I wasn't sure of the customer reaction if the labels disintegrated and couldn't be read. I am fine about using glue that means the label lifts off quite easily for glass recycling purposes, but I didn’t want it to fall to pieces completely. This makes the label about 90% eco-friendly.
A design close to home
Inspired by my Mum's drawings of wild flowers, the label illustrates wild flowers that grow in and around the vines – both naturally and the wild flower cover crops and the hedgerow that we planted in 2018 to boost biodiversity. Of the 13 varieties that I have planted, a selection is illustrated on the label.
The outer packaging
I decided to try out the simplest packaging possible with maximum recyclability. I have had mixed messages on whether the plastic tape on a box prevents it being recycled fully, so I chose a simple brown cardboard box without any chemical printing on it and closed it with paper tape so that the whole lot can be recycled easily. The box manufacturer only uses paper from certified forests and 75% of the material used is from recycled fibre. The insert is made of recycled cardboard and can be recycled again too. Very simple, but I have to say, much less imaginative or impressive than my other boxes. But is that a perception that matters?
So, as a small producer, I might have less clout, but you must not be afraid to ask difficult questions of your suppliers and use ones that are taking sustainability seriously and packaging is no exception. If all producers do that, even the most ‘traditional’ will be forced to change. Also, I try and use local suppliers who are sourcing locally-made materials that haven’t cost the earth to get to me in the first place. It took a lot of time to dig into and extract all this information but packaging suppliers need to ramp up their role in the sustainability challenge. Given the logistical constraints of using other formats, and also the benefits of glass that cannot be denied, I have gone the route of lightest glass possible with the highest % of recycled cullet but as a result, and depending on the market, the wine could be perceived as a lower quality product. And this has already happened in France. What about consumers from the UK or other European countries? We need everyone in the wine industry to help change consumers’ understanding and perception of this so that those who are making the right steps for the environment are not penalised by having the wine inside it being positioned as a lower quality product for which we cannot charge its true value. And as a consumer, we must not be afraid to ask any producer about the choices they are making.
Are you interested in the choices I have made as I have juggled all the aspects between planet and pocket and packaging my latest wine? If so, I would be delighted to hear what you think. Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
 https://feve.org/case_study/glass-is-a-permanent-material-endlessly-recyclable/  https://www.amorim.com/en/media/news/the-cork-oak-and-natural-cork-play-an-instrumental-role-in-the-fight-against-climate-changes/1371/