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.