Shipping wine in bulk and bottling in the UK is nothing new. Early Wine Society Lists identify only a few wines (Château d’Yquem 1888, for example) as château-bottled with others, including first growth clarets, shipped to the UK in cask.
The Lafite 1870 and Margaux 1870 that appeared on our 1896 List would have both been bottled in the UK. More recently, several of our more ‘experienced’ buyers remember rolling barrels of Port up and down the car park in Stevenage to rouse the lees prior to bottling in what is now our Members’ Reserves warehouse. Subsequent comparative tastings (by independent experts) of these Wine Society bottlings with those of other shippers, were highly favourable.
Somewhere along the way, trends (and regulations around provenance and authenticity) have shifted, with bottling at source becoming the norm and mis en bouteille au château, or its equivalent, something members look for, and expect to see, on the label. Certainly, bottling on site ensures the winemaker is on hand to make any last-minute adjustments such as to sulphur levels or dissolved oxygen, both of which can impact the quality in the glass.
Of course, not all winemakers are technical bottling experts and the sight of a third-party mobile bottling line setting up in front of the winery is not uncommon. So there should be no automatic expectation of increased quality through bottling at source.
Increasingly commonplace, particularly for wines being shipped from the southern hemisphere and parts of Europe, is the use of reusable stainless steel ISO tanks, of a standard size and specification defined by the International Standards Organisation, or plastic flexitanks which are filled at the winery and transported in bulk to a bottling line closer to the final retail market.
Managed well, bulk shipping in these containers (the modern version of barrels?) and UK bottling provides a cost-effective solution that also has the potential to reduce significantly the environmental impact of wine.
Shipping in a flexitank can prove advantageous in comparison to shipping in bottles; the most obvious benefit being you can double the amount of volume shipped:
With that comes a significant win on the environmental front, with CO₂ savings of up to 40%. We’ve worked it out as around 2kg of CO₂ per km travelled. [i] HillebrandGori/Greencroft Bottling
A report by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) showed that transport emissions can be reduced by over 30% by importing in bulk rather than bottling at source, irrespective of whether wine is shipped long distance or from Europe – although the greater savings do come with increased distance. Much of this saving comes from the significantly greater volumes of wine that can be transported within the same space when moved in bulk rather than bottle. A standard container loaded with bottles can hold only 41% of the volume of wine shipped in flexitank, effectively, a giant bag-in-box.
UK bottlers have seen a significant increase in demand over recent years because of the growing popularity of bulk shipping. The Wine Society sells several ranges (A Fistful of Schist, Victory Hotel, Peltier Ranch) which are bottled in County Durham at Greencroft Bottling Ltd. Greencroft have seen such a rapid increase in demand that they are currently building a second facility that will become the UK’s most sustainable wine-bottling operation, powered exclusively by wind and solar energy. The bottling line itself has the highest possible quality certification (BRC AA+) and an on-site laboratory ensures that producer quality specifications are always adhered to.
So why doesn’t The Wine Society currently bottle more wines in the UK?
One reason is that we deal with many smaller producers that simply don’t produce enough wine for us to fill a 24,000-litre flexitank. Split ISO steel tanks are available, but in short supply globally and it is a considerable logistical feat to ensure that they are in the right place at the right time. Given the reductions in emissions offered by the bulk shipping approach, we shall be exploring how we might do more in this area, particularly as new options enter the market.
Is there an impact on quality?
Given that shipping over 20,000 litres of wine in one container could be seen as putting all of one’s eggs in one basket, the risk of a defective seal or wine fault affecting an entire container means that wineries tend to prepare wine extremely carefully for bulk shipping. In some cases, this might mean that wine is sterile-filtered and, in the case of sweeter wines, processing aids may be added to help prevent refermentation or other faults.
Taken to excess, these treatments can strip the wine of some of its character and so experienced and sympathetic handling is necessary to ensure a balance between quality and prudence. These are all winemaking choices however and really there is no inherent reason why quality should be compromised by bulk shipping. Indeed, given the thermal mass of wine in a bulk container, it’s far less susceptible to fluctuations of temperature, something that can cause quality issues in bottled wine shipped across continents.
What other opportunities does bulk shipping create?
Economies of scale enjoyed by UK bottlers like Greencroft mean that they can afford to invest in the machinery required for other formats such as cans, PET plastic bottles, bag-in-box and 20-litre kegs which are popular with bars and restaurants. Whilst we have yet to conduct our own analysis of the environmental impact of these formats versus glass, research by WRAP and Nordic supermarket, Systembolaget suggests that significant greenhouse gas reductions can be made by using these options, particularly when combined with bulk shipping.
Members may know that we already list several cans and bag-in-box wines and plan to trial more once we are clear as to the potential benefits. One challenge that currently limits the possibilities of these formats is that such packaging is only suitable for wines destined to be drunk within 12 months. For longer drinking windows, glass remains the only viable choice. Overcome that challenge and options will open up significantly – something that would help us achieve our target to be net zero across our supply chain by 2040.
We are cautiously excited by the possibilities offered by modern bulk shipping but want to understand fully the greenhouse gas impact of our current supply chain. Work is already underway on this and we are in the process of identifying where we need to prioritise action, as well as trialling alternatives. Alongside this, we will be exploring how we can effect changes on standard processes to ensure that our buyers can offer members wines of proven quality that continue to convey a sense of place and character.
We may not be rolling barrels up and down the car park again but who knows? The sight of ‘mis en boite à Stevenage’ on labels isn’t something we’re ruling out.
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