I’ve often looked at innovations in wine packaging on the blog. There are two reasons for this:
- Innovations might appeal to the imagination of consumers and give them new reasons and opportunities to explore wine
- The wine business, like all others, needs to move with the times and ‘go green(er)’
- (and I quite like checking out new things .. oh, wait, that’s 3!)
When producers innovate with their packaging, moving away from heavy glass towards recyclable plastic or tetra-pack containers, or using new closures such as screwcaps or glass stoppers, we should applaud them for their concerns and their commitment.
But what about the effect on the wine?
Would you drink wine from a plastic bottle, can or carton?
When it comes to some changes, such as the use of screwcaps instead of cork, research has already demonstrated the many potential benefits to the wine itself (in certain conditions). It has actually also helped to improve the cork business and fostered innovation there too.
However, plastic bottles are another issue, and one that has not been explored scientifically until now (that I know of).
So, why use ‘plastic’ bottles? The main arguments are:
- They are MUCH lighter, so transport costs (and therefore the ‘carbon footprint‘ of the bottle) are much reduced
- Certain plastics are less energy intensive to produce and recycle than glass
- The demand for recycled green glass is not high (in UK), so let’s focus away from it
- Usually used where wine is shipped “in bulk” to modern plants near where the wine will be bought, and not in inefficient small lots in wineries around the world
- Better from a health & safety perspective (fewer bits of broken glass)
If all else was the same, then it would seem sensible, right?
The problem, all else does not seem to be exactly the same, but until now wine experts could be accused of being ‘snobbish’ about these bottles if they criticised them. However, the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV) in Bordeaux are conducting a long-term study on the effect of different wine containers on the same red & white wines.
The ISVV packaged the same wines in large & small bottles of glass, two types of plastic bottle (single PET and multi-layer PET) and also in a 3L Bag-in-Box. It is still early days, but there are some key and obvious results already after 12 months. If you are interested, the overview presentation is included here (but I list some key observations below)
For white wines, the cheapest and lightest plastic (single-layer PET) shows dramatic deterioration compared to glass. This is confirmed by the ISVV tasters observations and scientific analysis (and my own tasting). In fact, for the smallest bottles (187ml) the damage starts after only 3 months with oxygen levels increasing (oxidation) and the protective SO2 (sulphur dioxide) levels decreasing rapidly after 6 months. In summary, it would seem that these bottles are really not suitable for white wines for more than a few weeks, not months.
The situation is not much better for more expensive multi-layer PET or bag in box, but in any case there is a marked difference of all alternatives compared to glass.
The results are less conclusive for red wines – so far. It does look like a similar pattern will hold true, but it takes longer to be noticeable on red wines I guess.
The ISVV could not include other alternatives such as tetra-pack or wine pouches as they could not put the same wine they used in the study in these formats.
I can’t say any of these conclusions comes as a great surprise to me, but it is good to have some sort of numbers and ‘evidence’ to point to. Thinner plastic bottles that flex more are more likely to create opportunities for gasses to get in/out of the bottle, and wine is a very delicate product. Smaller bottles will suffer proportionally more as the volume of wine is smaller. A delicate white wine will suffer from oxidation faster than a more robust red.
So, should we simply stop experimenting and stick to glass?
Not at all. We need to continue to innovate and look for opportunities to make changes that will help consumers, be better for the environment and be better value for producers. However, the wine itself should not suffer.
So, next time you are shopping for wine (for example, see below for announcements by M&S), will you be tempted by the plastic bottle? What would make you try them?
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- M&S moves wine into plastic bottles (telegraph.co.uk)
- Greenwash Alert: What’s With The Wine In Plastic Bottles? (treehugger.com)
- Synthetic corks, screwtops stopping more wine bottles (timesunion.com)
- Marks & Spencer’s mini wine range goes a shade greener with plastic bottles (guardian.co.uk)
- What Happens When You Cellar a White? (winevoice.blogspot.com)
- Plastic Bottles for Carbon-Saving Wines (seriousaboutwine.co.za)
- Screwcap v Cork – the photographic evidence (shirazshiraz.blogspot.com)