8 Mar 2020

Wine bottles

I've drunk wine all my adult life. Just how much, I hate to think.  It's an infectious habit for sure, one which I share with probably half the UK population. It seems, from a trawl of the stats, that we consume something like 25 bottles each per annum. Seeing as half the population doesn't touch the stuff, that must be about a bottle a week for those of us that do.

But this blog post isn't about the wine we drink, but the way we drink it, which is almost always poured from glass bottles. Wine as a product is around 40% packaging by weight, which is incredibly wasteful, and would shame most other food and beverage suppliers into extinction.

A typical bottle of wine is 75cl by volume: the wine itself weighs about the same as water (i.e.750gms), the bottle anywhere between 500 and 600gms. And the great bulk of the wine we buy is bottled at source, which may well be on the other side of the world. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, California — we just love their wines. But what a waste it is to ship their wines in heavy glass bottles. Not that it's much better from nearer European vinyards — it is still a very strange way to organise a business based on the pleasure of drinking.

So why is wine placed into glass bottles? The short answer is that it is tradition. We consumers like to see a nice bottle with an attractive label, and to most of us the pleasure of drinking wine starts when we handle the bottle unopened in the shop. Ever wondered why there are just so many wine varieties in a supermarket? The idea here is that you are making a personal choice that says something about you, your wallet and your taste, something that can't be said for Diet Coke or any other soft drink.

The producers also like it because bottling at source gives them some protection over the content. As much as 37% (by volume) of the international wine trade is done in bulk shipping containers, to be eventually bottled in the country of consumption. But by value, that 37% volume reduces to just 11% in value, which shows you that bulk wines are really aimed at the bottom end of the market. Put another way, the average bottle of table wine enters the country of consumption at €2.84/bottle: with bulk wines, this figure per notional bottle reduces to just €0.60, a quarter as much.

Which begs the question, why don't quality producers think about BiB (Bag in a Box)? It's been available as a method of supplying wine for over 30 years but it only really covers the bottom end of the wine market, except in Sweden, where premium wines are widely available this way. There is nothing intrinsically difficult about pouring wine into bags, and it stores much longer than opened bottles. Only the very finest of wines, bought for their ageing potential, actually require a glass container: 99% of the wine market is designed to be drunk within a few weeks or months of purchase.

And the packaging? Instead of 500 to 600gms of glass per bottle, the equivalent weight in BiB is no more than 40gms,  a mix of cardboard outer and a plastic pouch. It makes sense both economically and environmentally, as currently the world's shipping lanes carry something like 9 billion bottles of wine each year.

The question which of course will bother wine drinkers is whether there are BiB wines on the market that are any good. I'm no expert in this. Maybe I can report back at a future date when I have sampled a few. But to get me started, I have ordered a red and a white from the BiB Wine Company and so far I have been impressed. At £10-£12/bottle equivalent, their offerings are bang in the middle of my price range sweet spot.

To learn more about the international wine trade, I found this site. And calculating the environmental impact, I found this site most helpful.

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