Sustainable packaging gets the just-drinks management briefing treatment in this, the fourth and final part of our look at environmental sustainability in the wine sector.

The traditionally strong links that exist between wine production and agriculture explain why there has been a greater focus on raising standards of environmental sustainability in the vineyard than in some other areas of wine's broader value chain.

The strides that have been made in Europe, in California and in South Africa as well as in other countries arguably justify this emphasis, and certainly underline that wine is a sector that is firmly engaged with its agricultural suppliers. However, as outlined at the beginning of this briefing the environmental footprint of wine does not necessarily suggest that agriculture should be the first priority.

The lifecycle assessments (LCAs) conducted by Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) detailed earlier show that bottling and distribution are heavy contributors to wine's carbon footprint, particularly when wine is shipped for export. So the finger inevitably points to the overwhelmingly dominant packaging format for wine, namely the 75cl glass bottle, as the villain of the piece.

To suggest that the wine sector en masse must now move to abandon the 75cl glass bottle as soon as possible would of course be faintly absurd. However, there has been comparatively little exploration of alternative packaging in the wine business, with the conservative nature of the consumer base often cited as the primary reason.

Paul Dolan, the organic winemaker and champion of sustainable agriculture in California, sees the significant proportion of wine's environmental footprint represented by the traditional 75cl glass bottle as "the elephant in the room" for the wine sector. It is fair to say that packaging is an area of environmental sustainability that wine producers have in general been slower to address.

Indeed, the impressive strides the wine sector has made in improving sustainability upstream in its supply chain arguably serves to highlight the comparatively meagre amount of development work done in the area of sustainable packaging.

The primary alternative packaging that has taken off in the wine sector is bag-in-box, which has been driven by technical innovations that have greatly improved the shelf life of wines in this packaging format once opened. However, as with wine in PET or carton, it is not the environmental benefits of bag-in-box that have been promoted. These products have largely been sold on convenience.

Wine pouches, such as that launched by Arniston Bay through UK supermarket chain Asda this Summer, are becoming more common on supermarket shelves, while Truett-Hurst, a winery based in Healdsburg, California, has just launched the first paper wine bottle in the US.

The 'PaperBoy' package is a moulded outer shell in the shape of a wine bottle, made from recycled cardboard with a plastic liner, and the entire package is 85% lighter than a glass bottle and easily recyclable. Underlining that there is a strong interest in more sustainable packaging for wine from retailers, Truett-Hurst is partnering with US supermarket chain Safeway in the nationwide launch of PaperBoy.

Interestingly, the wines being sold in the PaperBoy bottle, namely a 2012 Paso Robles Red Blend (US$14.99) and a 2012 Mendocino Chardonnay ($13.99), are super-premium quality. There is much to be said for marketing higher quality wines in innovative, environmentally friendly packaging. Not only can it show that such packages will not compromise the quality of upscale wines but also the innovative and environmentally friendly characteristics of the packaging may itself attract premium customers. As Truett-Hurst winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix says: "If the quality of the wine exceeds a customer's expectation, then new, cutting-edge packaging will become more mainstream". As with other lighter weight packaging solutions, PaperBoy is also being marketed as a convenient pack for enjoying wine outdoors.

Marketing wine in carton

One packaging solution that has been far less actively pursued, but which is beginning to attract greater interest and gather market momentum, is marketing wine in carton. A renewable, lightweight packaging format, the carton has much to offer in environmental terms and also offers some of the advantages of convenience over glass.

Looking to step up its business in the wine sector, leading carton specialist Tetra Pak has commissioned lifecycle assessment research comparing different types of packaging with its own. 

The comparative analysis looked at five indicators, namely global warming potential, air acidification, abiotic depletion, and primary energy and water consumption. The study concludes that the 75cl beverage carton appears as "the least impacting format for all indicators but water consumption where the PET bottle is the least impacting". Even though PET outperformed the carton in terms of water consumption, the Tetra Pak carton still came in well ahead of the glass bottle in that regard.

According to Erik Steijger, global product manager for environmental innovations at Tetra Pak, the 75cl carton has an overall environmental impact six times lower than an equivalent 75cl glass bottle. Tetra Pak is also working to make the carton even more environmentally friendly by increasing the use of certified sustainable paperboard and bio-plastic closures. 

The primary markets where wine in carton is beginning to take off are in southern Europe and South America, as the profile of Tetra Pak's wine business bears out. The countries where Tetra Pak is doing the most business with wine companies are Argentina, Spain, Italy and Russia.

Among its top customers are Fecovita in Argentina, J. Garcia Carrion in Spain, Caviro in Italy, RPB in Argentina, Penaflor in Argentina, Felix Solis and Lopez Morenas in Spain, Hauser in Germany, Concha y Toro in Chile, Gruppo Cevico in Italy and Mineralovodsky in Russia.

Tetra Pak is looking to expand its business with wine companies and clearly expects the market to respond to this push. "What we see is sustainability is playing a more and more important role in packaging solutions so definitely we see a growing trend [in the wine sector]." Steijger says the company is not only anticipating growth in its current principal markets but also in other countries.

As with the PaperBoy and bag-in-box, convenience appears to be a big selling-point for wine in Tetra Pak. "There are still moments where people want to have glass but more and more we see different occasions popping up, maybe for barbecues or picnics, where people are accepting cartons," Steijger says. He adds that airlines are also increasingly interested in smaller Tetra Pak cartons for wine. Along with supermarkets, he expects airlines could be a driving force in increasing the prevalence of cartons in the wine sector. 

While much of the wine sold in Tetra Pak in South America and southern Europe will be at a budget price, Steijger points out that some premium brands have used packaging wine in a carton as a point of difference, citing the example of the French Rabbit brand produced by Boisset. "They really made the move from glass to carton a point of stand-out," says Steijger.

The growth of the single-serve market could also be a catalyst for growth in wine in carton. A 3x25cl package has both convenience and sustainability advantages, including its potential for reducing waste.

While there is resistance to alternative forms of packaging both from within the trade and some consumers, many of those championing new packaging formats point to the acceptance of the screw-cap as a salutary example of how consumer perceptions can change quickly. The rapid acceptance of the screw-cap either suggests some people were overstating the level of consumer resistance in the first place or that once presented with a new option that has advantages over the old consumers adapt fairly quickly.

Michael Othites, senior VP production management at Constellation Brands, observes that consumer perceptions around packaging options such as pouches and Tetra Pak, notably in younger age brackets, are indeed changing. "While it is true that Millennials are more open than older consumers to wine in non-traditional packaging, there has been a shift in consumer perceptions around these packages in general," Othites says. "Part of the appeal is practical.  Wines in a bag or Tetra can be conveniently packed without fear of breakage and enjoyed in locations that prohibit glass, such as campsites, poolside, parks, etc."

In terms of nudging consumers in the right direction, Robert Blue, winemaker at Fetzer Vineyards in California, believes the wine trade has a vital role to play. Blue says the wine trade has to "support the people who take risks" by launching new packaging formats, and also believes a more open view of wine packaging innovation from the wine writing fraternity, particularly its more conservative elements, would accelerate consumer acceptance of new and more environmentally sustainable packaging formats.

For full details of this briefing, click here.