Behind the glass – the inconvenient truth about wine packaging

While we mostly think of the environmental impact of wine production and of the sustainability standards of the wine we drink as a function of how grapes are grown and processed, there are many more steps to consider on the journey from grape to glass.

In fact, the biggest environmental burden of the wine industry is not tied to the production of wine itself. It is a by-product, rather, of the type of packaging used, which in turn determines the impact of transport and distribution.

In fact, the biggest environmental burden of the wine industry is not tied to the production of wine itself. It is a by-product, rather, of the type of packaging used, which in turn determines the impact of transport and distribution.

A recent case-study that looked at the carbon footprint of one bottle of Spanish Verdejo, concluded that grape growing & processing (i.e. making the wine) accounted for 32% of total carbon emissions. The lion share was a function of the chosen vessel for the finished product – in this case a traditional 750ml bottle. If we zoom in on the packaging slice of the total carbon footprint, we see that the culprit is, with a comfortable lead, the glass used.

An all-encompassing carbon emissions audit commissioned by Jackson Family Wines, a leading California producer, arrived to similar conclusions: the report showed that glass bottles made the greatest single contribution to the company’s carbon footprint (18%, with other elements of packaging such as cartons and corks bringing the packaging total to 24%), followed by the transport of those same bottles (16% of total emissions).

Glass is environmentally costly to produce, using up precious natural resources and an incredible amount of energy. Glass recycling is possible and widely done but is resource-intensive itself: the wine needs to be thoroughly cleaned to avoid contamination; the process uses up a lot of energy; glass often travels long distances to the closest recycling unit. And glass is, whether in the shape of bottles filled with wine or broken disposed vessels, heavy and cumbersome to transport.

If you consider that many consumers  still expect a fine/expensive wine to be bottled in a particularly heavy and thick bottle and that these bottles travel half the world (sometimes even twice the distance, if they get sold in secondary markets or auctioned), you can easily understand how the journey of a single wine bottle leaves a heavy environmental trace.

While choosing to farm organically and/or biodynamically and to use renewable energies in the winery are obvious steps producers can take to reduce the environmental impact of their operations, the true revolution starts with smarter decisions around packaging and transport.
It’s not simply about replacing glass bottles though. There are a number of measures than can be implemented rather easily:

  • Drinking local whenever possible – we all know the appeal of drinking wines from different countries and regions. Travelling through wine is one of the most fascinating aspects of this wonderful product, so deeply connected to its origin and landscape as it is. But we can make a conscious decision to choose wines from regions closer to were we are rather than from an antipodean location.
  • Bulk shipping to market and bottle locally – shipping a full vat of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and bottling it in the UK on arrival is much more environmentally friendly than bottling the same wine in NZ and transporting thousands of bottles. It’s also smarter: if transported in a big container the wine moves less and is less subject to temperature fluctuations that might affect its quality.
  • Choose alternative packaging solutions for wines that will be drunk young – while glass bottles are still the best vessels to keep wine with potential to age, they are actually not the smarter packaging for wines that should be drunk young. Why not choose a lighter, more flexible and more easily disposable container?
This last point accounts for the increasing popularity of alternative formats, such as cans, Tetra Pack and, most notably, bag-in-box. The latter is becoming an increasingly popular format among younger sustainability-aware consumers.

In Scandinavia it now accounts for most volume of wine sold, preferred by both families and single dwellers. The format is indeed particularly friendly when you don’t have someone else to share a bottle with but would still like to have a glass at the end of a hard day. But it was cost that first triggered the Scandinavian boom: the Scandinavian markets are highly regulated and operated by state-controlled monopoles. Discounting is extremely limited and therefore larger formats provide the best value-for-money option.

This is the context in which sustainability-led producer, such as Andrew & Emma Nielsen of Le Grappin, are increasingly choosing to sell their early-drinking wines in bagnums. The bagbums were a natural evolution of the original bag-in-box, the removes the indeed unnecessary ‘box’ surrounding the ‘bag’ that contains the wine, thus removing yet another layer of pointless waste.

The format has been around for over 30 years but was usually associated with the cheap house pours that you would find at the village restaurant in wine-producing countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. The mounting popularity of French rosé also turned wine boxes a summer staple in French fridges. But a change in drinking habits and consumer profile, along with an increasing awareness for the environmental impact of wine industry’s supply chain, means that you can now find outstanding wines (such as Du Grappin’s Côte du Rhône and Mâcon-Villages) in bagnums.

Good reasons to buy a Bagnum:
  • Cost – the most obvious, form a consumer perspective – Price! The cost per litre of wine sold in a bag is considerably lower than the equivalent sold in bottle. Also, you will also save on wastage (see below).
  • No wastage – if you open a bottle of wine and don’t drink it all, the wine will have already been exposed to oxygen and will therefore oxidise quickly. If you’re looking for a perfect solution to drink a glass at the end of the day without having to pour the rest of the spoilt wine, two days later, down the drain, have a bagnum handy and pour as much as you like, from its disposing mechanism. A Bagnum will keep your wine fresher for up to three weeks.
  • Perfect for sharing (without the mess) – place them on the kitchen counter or the garden table and let guests pour themselves. It’s fun, convenient and neat.
  • Easy disposal – no more annoyed neighbours at 3am or heavy-lifting after a dinner party.
  • Light & Easy – Bagnums are lighter and easier to carry, handle, pour from and clean.
  • Saving the planet one bagnum at a time – the carbon footprint of a bagnum is substantially lower than that of a glass bottle.
  • A Magnum in a Bag – what’s not to like?!

Read more about Le Grappin and their delicious Du Grappin bagnum selection