Organic and biodynamic badges can be seen on bottles lining even the most modest of supermarket shelves. These offer shallow reassurance of the sustainability accolades of the wines being bought; to most consumers it might come as a surprise that the biggest environmental impact of the wine production chain comes from packaging and shipping rather than the production of the wine itself (i.e. the viticultural and winemaking practices).
In 2018 Jackson Family Wines led and eye-opening audit among the members of the International Wineries for Climate Action, to plot the ‘Carbon emission hotspot’ across the companies’ operations, from grape to shelf. The study concluded (see graph below) that bottles, labels, closures, cases and case transport alone accounted for a combined 37% of total emissions.
These findings justify the growing scrutiny and questioning of the nature of packaging. Can the use of bottles, namely those of bicep-challenging weight, be justified when the wine is not meant to age in the vessel?
While a lot has been said about bottle weight and of the environmental benefits of shifting to lightweight bottles, glass itself remains an issue: inevitably heavy, even in its lightweight iterations, when compared to other materials, and energy and water demanding when processed for recycling. The truly sustainable alternatives are not lighter bottles but different kinds of packaging altogether. And from a technical point of view, there is no reason why a wine should be in bottle if meant to be drunk young. Cans, pouches and boxes offer an equally suitable vessel, if medium to long term development is not a factor.
Nostalgia, innovation and sustainability
Bag-in-boxed wines could once be seen across Europe in the 1960s and 70s – an infamous synonym with cheap wine of questionable quality, that would get families through their camping holidays. This generalisation was no doubt unfair as many producers, namely local cooperatives in Southern Europe, bottled the very same wines in both bottle and bag-in-box, the latter being the perfect choice for local customers, both private and trade.
The negative connotations lead the format to virtually disappear from shelves in the past 20 years only to be rediscovered in Scandinavia, in the early 2000s, by a new generation of environmentally aware consumers, prone to 70s nostalgia and untainted by any previous tasting experiences. Demographics played an important role: smaller households with lean budgets – but unmatched eagerness to discover new wines and discover interesting wine and food pairings – looked for ways to drink less and explore easy possibilities to taste more and different wines.
Sustainability credentials but also, and crucially, convenience, allowed the format to gain a double-digit market share across Northern European markets, where it became a cost-effective and waste-free solution for households-of-one to enjoy a single glass of wine with their dinner.
Scroll down for our selection of wines in alternative formats
In the UK, penetration happened later but quickly. Oliver Lea, MD and co-founder of BIB and one of the driving forces behind the Wine Traders for Alternative Formats (WTAF) association confirms that British consumers are ‘very receptive to new formats’, especially following the changes brought by Covid to buying and consumption patterns.
Oli Purnell, co-founder of canned wine venture The Copper Crew confirms: ‘When I started the business in early 2020 there was always an initial hesitation. People had very little experience [with alternative formats].’ In 2021 this changed dramatically with ‘consistent inbound interest in what we are doing’.
As members of the WTAF, Lea and Purnell are two of the six traders championing canned, pouched and canned wine as an obvious, sustainable alternative to glass bottles. A total of 1.66 billion bottles of wine are drunk in the UK every year. By switching to alternative packaging formats almost half a kilo of CO2 per bottle (0.45375kg according to a study commission by Finnish alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly Alko) could be saved, coming to a total 750 million kilograms of CO2 emissions potentially saved per year, in the UK alone.
‘To put the potential savings into context, saving 750m kgs of CO2 a year would be the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road’, says Lea, quoting an impact assessment by the Department of Transport.
Convenience and moderation; choice and quality
While the entrepreneurs in the WTPF might have sustainability concerns at the core of their founding ethos, the motivations of customers might be quite different.
‘Sustainability might come as a secondary, even tertiary, concern’ says Purnell. ‘Convenience is, no doubt, why people first buy these formats. Followed by a search for ways to drink less.’
Convenience, moderation, wellness: three concepts that have conspired to allow wine in alternative formats to flourish and establish itself as a genuine option to regular wine drinkers.
Lea, however, thinks ‘it is our job to then raise awareness about the ultimate goal’ – allowing people to drink more sustainably. But he agrees that ‘we can only get there if we provide more value than sustainability’. Purnell also stresses the need to offer value, especially against the backdrop of increasing inflation: ‘With less disposable income people will not be simply buying a product because it’s more environmentally friendly’.
Quality and diversity are the main challenges ahead. Ben Franks, of the Canned Wine Co, another WTPF member, says after the first hurdle – making consumers taste the wines – has been overcome, the key difficulty is to maintain a perception of quality and faith in the product. ‘All of us at the WTPF are working to offer wines of great quality, and with a point of difference. But some of our larger competitors are not doing a good job… this makes both consumers and producers sceptical.’
Purnell agrees that this is the greatest market risk for the sector, as ‘major players use the trend to offer wines of lesser quality and not properly conditioned’.
Which is why, they say, working closely with winemakers has been instrumental. Were producers also reluctant to see their wines offered in cans and boxes? ‘We didn’t have much convincing to do actually,’ says Lea. ‘Producers realise that we are helping them do their bit. And they see how well presented their wines are.’
The fifteen wines below show that there’s much quality and diversity to be found. And much carbon – and money – to be saved, by producers and consumers alike. ‘If there’s one thing we don’t have it is time.’ Lea concludes.