Seeing clearly – alternative packaging

Jessica Julmy of Galoupet

How vital is the clear-glass bottle? And what are its implications? A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

The luxury-goods empire LVMH, most frequently associated by wine drinkers with the likes of Krug, Dom Pérignon and first growth bordeaux, has just launched a wine in a plastic bottle.

Galoupet Nomade is a Provence rosé and there is nothing particularly unexpected about LVMH’s desire to invest in this booming category. They bought the rather run-down Ch Galoupet near Hyères in the summer of 2019, and possibly regretted it when, just a few months later, they managed to acquire a majority holding in Ch d’Esclans, which makes the rosé that kicked off the current boom for the entire category, Whispering Angel.

Thanks to the extraordinary global success of Whispering Angel, Provençal rosé has really taken off in the last decade or so, with producers competing for who can make the palest wine in the most eye-catching clear-glass bottle. But I wonder how many devotees of drinking this sort of pink realise how bad for the planet the packaging of these wines is?

It’s impossible to make a clear bottle from recycled glass and all these distinctive shapes will have required special production in energy-guzzling glass furnaces. Aware of this, the managing director of Ch Galoupet, Jessica Julmy (pictured above) – a Mandarin graduate whose work has included stints in Shanghai, Buenos Aires and with Krug champagne – has deliberately chosen an amber bottle that weighs less than 500 g and is made of 70% recycled glass in which to launch their rosé from the estate’s own vineyards. Glass was necessary for this wine as it is designed to age, although she admits the new bottle ‘created a bit of a tizzy because you can’t see the colour’.

The flat Prevented Ocean Plastic bottle (shown in Glass dismissed) for Nomade, Galoupet’s second wine, made from bought-in fruit, is the result of their undertaking a full life-cycle analysis of various different ways of packaging wine and noting the dangerously high carbon emissions associated with the production and transport of heavy glass bottles. ‘We assume so many myths!’ Julmy assured me during a recent visit to London to introduce the UK wine trade to her first, 2021, vintages. She’s hoping that this innovative bottle will widen the market for Nomade, meaning that, being so much lighter and unbreakable, it should be particularly convenient for sporting events, sailing, festivals and so on.

Richard Lloyd, general manager of the European supply chain at The Park – Accolade Wine’s plant outside Bristol, which packs about a quarter of all the wine sold in the UK – isn’t so sure. They own Britain’s only bottling line for this innovative flat plastic bottle designed by Garçon Wines of London but Lloyd reports that the package, so useful in terms of saving weight and space (good for airlines?), ‘has not quite taken off’. He admits that the pandemic may have slowed take-up but wonders, ‘does the consumer fully understand it’s recycled plastic?’ Partly thanks to Sir David Attenborough’s TV series Blue Planet, plastic is widely seen as the enemy. Even Julmy acknowledges that ‘plastic is a huge challenge in terms of optics’.

For festivals and the like, Lloyd is betting that canned wine will take off in the UK, as it already has in the US (though as a result of her life-cycle analysis studies, Julmy has reservations about the effects of the metal extraction needed to produce cans). Lloyd has seen sporting venues move away from small plastic bottles for wine and thinks cans will replace them.

At The Park they have to offer virtually all possible ways of packaging wine, so popular, and technically reliable, has it become to ship wine in bulk to the UK (although so far they do not have a filling line for Frugalpac’s extra-light paper bottle that has so far been adopted by six wine brands). Lloyd is particularly keen on bag in box and admires Nordic nations which have taken to this convenient format because the alcohol monopolies there have been so good at explaining its exceptionally low carbon footprint.

St John in London has been a fan of boxed wine for 15 years and claims to be the only Michelin-starred restaurant to produce its own range, a Languedoc red, white and rosé. Trevor Gulliver of St John claims, ‘everything is recyclable, from the cardboard exterior to the plastic interior bag’. For Lloyd, ‘there will be a breakthrough for sales of boxed wine ‘when someone cracks the recyclability of the plastic tap and the bag’. He is keenly aware of how difficult it is to recycle packaging made of a mix of different materials, which is not a problem with glass.

Damien Barton Sartorius is a more unexpected champion of sustainability. He’s the 10th generation of the Barton family, who own the highly respected Chx Léoville Barton, Langoa Barton and Mauvesin Barton in Bordeaux. He’s therefore deeply embedded in one of the most traditional wine cultures in the world, one that has taken its time, for instance, to embrace organic viticulture (though seems to be getting a move on at last).

But his perspective is unusually wide. For him (just as it is for an equally wine-soaked contemporary of his, Rob Symington of port producers Symington Family Estates), organic viticulture is just one small part of the jigsaw. ‘What about transport, water use and treatment, human respect, wildlife, our carbon footprint, relationships with local partners, health?’ he pointed out in an interview with the trade publication The Buyer. His eyes were opened when he attended an online conference organised by Sustainable Wine at the end of 2019.

One result has been his returnable bottle scheme. He sources a red, white and rosé in Bordeaux, branded 225 after the capacity of a traditional Bordeaux barrel, and ships them in bulk to London where they are put into reusable bottles by Muriel Chatel's company Sustainable Wine Solutions to be sold by Borough Wines in London. Also included in the scheme is L’Impression de Mauvesin Barton, the second wine of his family’s property in Moulis-en-Médoc, possibly the poshest wine to be packaged in a returnable bottle (though even he puts his rosé in clear glass). He has also learnt that, post Brexit, it takes many weeks longer to ship his wine as part of a mixed load because of the need to check paperwork for each part of the consignment (see Your incoming wine may be a little delayed).

The Gotham Project in the US was founded on wine in returnable kegs, like beer, but has introduced a reusable wine-bottle scheme in several American states. Co-founder Charles Bieler reports ‘it’s proving challenging to get consumers engaged. Keeping the empties and returning them to the bottle shop, despite a redemption incentive and consumers’ good intentions, seems to be a hard new habit for many wine lovers to adopt. I think that we will have to be patient on this one.’ Recycling in general is less developed in the US than in Europe.

UK supermarket Tesco is trialling a returnable wine bottle in 10 of its stores as part of its co-operation with global reusable packaging platform Loop. According to Lloyd the bottle has to be a bit heavier than ideal, 530 g, because ‘it has to survive at least 10 life cycles’. Glass manufacturer O-I now offers a wine bottle as light as 300 g but it’s designed for single-use only. According to Melianthe Leeman of O-I, ‘we are currently also seeing an increased interest in returnable glass wine bottles for local markets, as this is the most sustainable packaging solution’.

For Lloyd, whose work involves being thoroughly immersed in packaging wine, ‘my belief is that the wine industry’s biggest move needs to be a break from linking glass weight to wine quality. That is the fundamental change needed to lower wine’s carbon footprint. And the glass industry has a responsibility to make their furnaces more efficient.’

He is hoping to see glass furnaces, which need to be heated to exceptionally high temperatures, powered by hydrogen. There is huge demand for glass in the UK and Ciner Glass of Turkey, the world’s largest supplier of the essential glass ingredient soda ash, is hoping to benefit from this by building a brand new furnace in Wales to complement their operations in Turkey and Belgium.

I feel I should point out that the liveliest tasting I went to last year was one at the Institute of Masters of Wine last November that was dedicated to wines in alternative (to glass bottles) packaging. Adrian Garforth MW, the Institute’s executive director, observed that it was the noisiest event they had ever held there. Beneath a live screen recording ‘the carbon footprint of single-use glass wine bottles in the UK so far this year’ (726 million kg of CO2 emissions and rising) there was a sense of real excitement. And it was not just young people getting behind cans, bag in boxes, kegs, pouches and Frugalpac’s paper bottles. My co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, 83-year-old Hugh Johnson, was also tasting his way round the tables.

There is undoubtedly a head of steam behind alternatives to the glass bottles, whose production and transport are the most significant contributors to wine’s carbon footprint. Let us hope, therefore, that initiatives to improve the proportion of glass that is effectively recycled continue.

Inert glass bottles – however heavy, fragile and wasteful of space – are likely to continue to be the ideal package for fine wine that benefits from ageing, but there is now a host of alternatives for the sort of everyday wine that accounts for the great majority of all wine sold.

See my tasting notes from the alternative packaging wine tasting.