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Technical issues when using non-traditional wine packaging

Introduction

There are numerous reasons why the use of traditional packaging for wine is changing. These can be for quality, environmental, cost or marketing reasons. Changing the form of the packaging can involve a number of technical challenges and problems, as the recent trend to screwcap bottles has demonstrated. In this article we look at non-traditional forms of packaging that winemakers are using and the problems they have encountered in doing so.

Why change packaging?

The main driver of change in Australia in the past 5 -10 years has been related to the incidence of cork taint and the pressure from retailers, predominantly British supermarket chains, for a more reliable package that does not cause product quality issues.

In Australia and New Zealand this has resulted in a huge swing to screwcap closures on glass bottles. This is however not a worldwide phenomena. On a trip to the Unified Symposium in the USA earlier this year I was personally rather surprised to find that nearly all wine in the few bottle shops I browsed through in the USA was still in glass and sealed with cork. This included the very popular Australian wines that are exported to the USA in large quantities. The consumer perception in the USA is apparently that wines sealed with screwcap are the cheap and inferior. This attitude is not limited to the USA, a number of continental European countries also share this view. The problems encountered with changing to screwcaps has been widely covered elsewhere so will not be the focus of this article.

Food miles

Another looming consumer concern with wine in glass relates to the “food miles” issue. The argument here relates to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the transport of wine (and of course other produce) over large distance. The argument being that the smaller the distance and the lighter the packaging, the less fuel is used to transport the goods and so the less greenhouse gases, predominantly carbon dioxide, is emitted.

Whilst there are robust debates about the legitimacy of this argument, it appears that a growing number of consumers are voting with their feet and either buying more local product or imported product with more food mile friendly, that is lighter, packaging.

Fuel costs

A more recent factor that is starting to concern producers and consumers relates to the cost of transport now that the price of crude oil has scaled new heights. Again, the lighter the packaging, the lower the transport costs. The days of the super premium wine being packed in the heaviest bottle possible would appear to be on the wane.

Alternative Packaging

So what are the alternatives being tried by various producers? The list below is not exhaustive but are examples of wine packaging that we have seen come through our labs or that we have been involved with in trials and testing to ensure the integrity of the packaging. Several articles have been published lately investigating issues around some of these packaging choices (1-3).

Before you turn up your nose at the prospect of drinking your favorite wine from plastic, cardboard or aluminium, remember the mighty Aussie bag in a box was controversial when introduced, and is now so mainstream as to not even be given a sideways glance by fine wine drinkers as they parade the corridors of their local wine shop.

And of course screwcaps were considered unthinkable by all the romantic types less than 5 years ago. The huge array of wine under screwcap signals yet another win for the pragmatists, at least in this country.

Aluminium Cans

Who would have thought of packing wine in a can? According to Barokes, the small Melbourne based business that have perfected this process and patented it virtually worldwide, plenty of people have. Many of the major packaging companies worldwide, including Suntory and Gadsden, have tried to do so since 1936, without success.

Barokes CEO, Greg Stokes, has faced many challenges in getting this technology (known as Vinsafe) to the point where their Australian wine in a can is now exported to 30 countries, including France! Although numerous technical challenges had to be overcome, the perception in Australia that wine shouldn’t come in a can was one of the major challenges for them.

From the initial idea in the mid 1990s to the stage where they are now sending 2-3 containers of their wine to Japan every month, has taken much time and effort to prove that some consumers are very happy to buy wine in a can.

The technical issues were resolved by what Greg calls “reverse engineering”. Instead of thinking like a packaging expert Greg and his partner Steve Barics came from the direction of “we have a product called wine, what do we need to do different to a can so it will store the wine safely and be stable”.

After lengthy experimentation both in Australia and overseas 2 technical aspects became obvious. The aggressive nature of wine had to be controlled and the lining of the can had to be made to suit this nature of wine. Specifications for the aggressive parts of wine were established, these included limits for chlorides, sulfates and nitrates, amongst others.

The lining of the can had to be specially formulated with respect to the lining material, application rate, thickness, baking temperature and time of bake. Extensive trials supervised by Peter Scudamore-Smith MW have shown that red wine is as stable in these cans as in bottles for up to 5 years! According to Peter, regular tastings of past batches are performed to ensure that wine quality and stability is sound. Numerous trials were done in our lab with the Barokes cans, particularly with sulfur dioxide analyses to determine the stability of the wine with time.

The environmental aspects of this packaging are also a very positive feature. According to Greg, unlike colored glass which can not be fully recycled and of which a large proportion goes to landfill, cans are fully recyclable. This is one of the reasons why the Vinsafe technology has been licensed to Australian Vintage, who are selling their wine in cans into Canada. The Canadian Government have a tax on any packaging that requires landfill, such as colored glass. However, there is no such tax on the cans. Of course because of the lighter weight, wine packed in cans also has a lower fuel burn and so a lower “food miles” rating. This is also appreciated in the Northern European and Nordic countries where increasing interest is being shown.

Although Barokes wine in a can are now be found in 30 countries, 7500 outlets in Japan alone and on 2 airlines, Greg does still not consider they are yet truly successful. “When the category of wine in cans is present in every bottle shop in the world, we will really see this as a success”.

Plastic bottles

There appears to be an increasing trend to use plastic, particularly PET (polyethylene terephthalate), for both wine and beer.

Fosters, for example, now have Wolf Blass wines in PET particularly for their sales in Canada and for sparkling wine for special occasions.

The main technical issue that Fosters had to investigate was in regard to shelf life of the wine once packaged in PET. The type of PET used is multi layered and has a special oxygen barrier layer to inhibit the effect of oxygen on the wine.

From their website they state (4):
“The Wolf Blass Bilyara Reserve 750ml PET bottle has a minimum shelf life of 12 months. The wines are made in a fruit-forward style that is ready to drink, and the bottles are sealed with a screw cap to protect their fresh taste, so we recommend that they be enjoyed early in their life span”

Many shelf life trials were performed to ensure that the wine was stable for an acceptable period. This also involved the consideration that the packaging itself has a limited shelf life due to the depletion of the oxygen barrier with time in dry storage.

The main driving force for this change was the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). They are asking suppliers to reduce the amount of packaging that goes to landfill and have stipulated that 30% of wine sold in Ontario is to be from non glass bottles.

Again from Fosters website;
“Wolf Blass Bilyara Reserve containers will reduce waste by more than 85 percent compared to typical glass wine bottles. Considering both waste reduction and recycling, PET is among the best of all package choices in diverting waste from landfill, and substantially better than glass bottles. Also worth noting, PET’s light weight means more product can be transported in each load, so less fuel consumption and fewer emissions are generated.”

The use of PET therefore delivers a multiple environmental benefit; reduced waste going to landfill and reduction in transport fuel and emissions.

Fosters assures consumers that the wine quality and flavour is not affected in any way by the use of PET. At this time it appears that only a small volume of Foster’s wine is bottled in PET, and that for select markets.

Paperboard

The best known brand of paperboard packaging is Tetra Pak. This was first developed in the 1950s in Sweden. The use of polyethylene coated paperboard was pioneered by the company and originally used for dairy and then juice products. The use of Tetra Pak products for wine has been around for over 10 years.

The main reason for using this type of packaging is obviously from an environmental viewpoint. The reduction in food miles, ease of recyclability and waste reduction are key features.

The French Rabbit brand of Boisset of France has proven popular in export markets such as England and Canada, being first launched in 2005. in the last 18 months Australian producers using Tetra Pak include Long Flat by Cheviot Bridge,  Banrock Station and Andrew Peace wines.

Technical issues were not really an issue going to Tetra Pak as this aseptic technology has been used in other parts of the world for more than 10 years, according to Ron Treffen of Best Bottlers. In fact Argentinean winemakers pack more than 1.6 billion litres of their wine annually in Tetra Pak.

The shelf life of wine in Tetra Pak is longer than normal bag in a box, according to George Dajczer, Sales Manager for Andrew Peace Wines. “We have had Chardonnay in Tetra Pak for over 2 years, and it is still drinking well”. Andrew Peace Wines will send around 20 containers of wine in Tetra Pak to the UK and USA this year alone.

The Andrew Peace wine in Tetra Pak has not been as well accepted as yet in Australia, although several groups such as 4WD enthusiasts, caravanners and boaties have shown interest. According to George, this is because of the ease of use, compactness and removal of problems of breakage whilst travelling.

Conclusion

The use of alternative packaging for wine seems to be gaining acceptance, particularly in some of our export markets. The main technical issue of stability of the wine for 3 of the main alternatives (aluminium cans, PET bottles and Tetra Pak cartons) now appear to be well resolved.

With the increasing focus on food miles, recycling ability, and reduction in costs of transport and waste disposal, these novel packs appear to have a bright future.


References

1. Jones, L; “Heavy bottles are no light issue for UK consumers” ANZ Wine Ind. J; 23(1), 37-39, 2008

2. Zacharchuk, B; PET; a lightweight option for wine packaging” ANZ Grapegrower and Winemaker, 530, 76-77, 2008

3. Osborne, M; “Packaging in the 21st century: what impact will the green movement and closure alternatives have?” ANZ Grapegrower and Winemaker, 530, 68-74, 2008

4. See http://www.wolfblass.com.au/brands/wolfblass/pressroom/PET.asp

 

Article from the  Australian and New Zealand Grapegrower and Winemaker, Issue 536, 2008
Page Number(s): 108-110

Author: Greg Howell

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