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.
Leading wine writers in the UK recently signed an open letter spearheaded by the Wine Traders for Alternative Formats (WTAF) group, which said a greater focus on viable alternatives to traditional glass bottles could significantly cut the industry’s carbon footprint.
As the market develops, the 2023 edition of the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) is giving producers an exciting opportunity to have wines in alternative packaging blind-tasted by leading experts alongside their peers in traditional glass for the first time.
Now in its 20th year, DWWA is the world’s largest wine competition, and the move will help to benchmark quality in this emerging sector of the market.
Ronan Sayburn MS, co-chair at DWWA 2023, said, ‘I think for those that drink wine on a relatively regular basis, the bottle count per month can get quite high.
‘Even though glass is fully recyclable, without any degrading of the product, it still uses energy to recycle. So it’s great to see higher quality wine now be packaged in alternative, lighter containers and hopefully more winemakers will follow suit.’
The alternative packaging market: a snapshot
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.
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 UK.
Oliver Lea, co-founder and managing director of UK-based BIB Wine Company and a founding member of the WTAF group, told Decanter that feedback from consumers shows quality is crucial first and foremost, with sustainability and lifestyle factors then coming in.
Lea believes the UK BIB and alternative packaging market has strong growth potential. He said this 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.
‘When you’ve got four to six weeks to drink a box, that can work really well,’ he said.
‘I think the start-ups in boxes, and in cans, paper bottles, returnable glass bottles and kegs and everything in the UK are actually really exciting, in terms of quality of wine, communication and everything that goes with it,’ he said.
Jennifer Browarczyk, the Berlin-based founder of premium canned wine specialist Kiss of Wine, told Decanter she has received significant interest from airlines and the travel retail sector.
She noted several advantages of quality wine in a single-serve format, including the potential for winemakers to reach new drinkers. ‘I think cans is a really nice way of attracting a younger crowd,’ she said.
More producers are now getting in touch, she added, recalling how some previously would not take her calls. Kiss of Wine operates its own canning line and recently opened this up to third-party clients.
Among other recent developments, UK-based paper bottle manufacturer Frugalpac announced in November that French distributor Somewhere in Provence would become France’s first filler of Frugal Bottles, on a contract basis.
Meanwhile, When in Rome, a specialist in offering Italian ‘craft wines’ in bag-in-box, cans and paper bottles, has launched a campaign to raise further investment via Crowdcube, in order to support new listings in the UK and expansion into Asia.
There are plenty more examples of activity in the sector, as highlighted by Rupert Joy in this recent Decanter article.
Alternative wine packaging in the US
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.
‘I believe the US wine business is about $61bn at the retail level,’ he told Decanter. ‘Today glass makes up about $47bn of the market, so alternative packaging including PET (plastic), tetra pack, can, and others, [is] responsible for $14bn.’
Reasons for producers to embrace alternative packaging range from lower costs to a desire to improve environmental credentials, he said.
But he highlighted ‘social barriers’, among other challenges. ‘Some traditionalists don’t think wine can be put into anything other than a bottle,’ he said. In a US wine retail market struggling for volume growth, he suggested canned wine may be ‘topping out in growth’.
Kenny Rochford, co-founder of California-based canned wine producer West + Wilder, said the group wanted to ‘make wine more accessible’ and as a business it also supports parkland and wild spaces. West + Wilder was seeing growth, he said, but he added, ‘We do see a lot of brands enter the market and then peter out.’
Both Rochford and BIB Wine Co’s Lea noted the importance of making alternative formats more prominent in retailers. ‘One of the biggest challenges is that retailers insist on keeping all cans together in a “can section”,’ said Rochford.
Judging on merit
Many in the sector feel that the wine should be judged on its merit, regardless of the packaging type.
Going up against bottles is fun, said Browarczyk, ‘just because it feels like you’re not being categorised as a canned wine, you’re being categorised as a wine, and that’s kind of where we want to take it long-term’.
DWWA 2023 takes a lead
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 organised by country, region, colour, grape, style, vintage and price-point.
DWWA 2023 co-chair Michael Hill Smith MW said, ‘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.’
Alternative packaging formats allowed for DWWA 2023 include:
Bag in Box (up to 3L) – quantity required: 2
Wine Pouch (up to 3L)- quantity required: 2
Aluminium Can – quantity required: 4
Carton (eg. Tetra Pak) – quantity required: 4
Paper Bottle (up to 1L) – quantity required: 4
PET Bottle (up to 1L) – quantity required: 4
DWWA and sustainability
The inclusion of alternative packaging in the judging process also cements the DWWA’s reputation as a leader on sustainability issues.
At the awards, all plastic and cardboard is collected and recycled, while every bottle is crushed and remelted, ready to be remade into usable glass. All leftover wine is also collected, recycled and sold back into the national grid as gas, as this Decanter Youtube video on the process explains.