Shipping wine to pack in the UK offers social, green and financial solutions to the issues of the day, argues Anne Krebiehl MW
The energy and supply chain crises have put the advantages of bulk shipping wine into sharper focus, both financially and environmentally. Sustainability is almost exclusively discussed in ecological terms when it actually encompasses three aspects equally: ecological, economic and social sustainability.
It is the financial incentives that have, until now, driven bulk wine forward but, properly applied, sustainability should hit the bottom line and benefit both the environment and people.
Figures from the Wine & Spirit Trade Association show that the UK imported 340 million litres of bulk wine in 2010, representing 26% of all imported wine. By 2019, this had shifted to 516 million litres, or 39%, of imported wine. Even wines that sell at a considerable premium sometimes leave their country of origin in bulk and are bottled in the UK.
The consumer is usually none the wiser and happily continues to buy them. The business of bulk wine happens mostly behind the scenes.
Many consumers say that environmental concerns matter to them, but price is still a bigger driver of behaviour. Some might argue that to be truly sustainable wine should cost more and be drunk where it is produced, but the world simply is not like that.
“Where a wine is packed is not on consumers’ agendas,” says Paul Braydon, head of buying for Kingsland Drinks, the company that first introduced modern bulk table wine to the UK in the 1960s. “Our own research in 2018 found that 95% of consumers are not thinking about where wine is bottled,” says Braydon.
“Consumers choose wines to match their occasion, and are looking for quality at a great price.”
Braydon says that 90% of bulk wine “is packed into bottles, the remaining 10% split between other formats such as cans and bag-in-box”.
Lesley Cook, director of purchasing at premium bulk wine specialist Lanchester Wines, illustrates the benefits in costs and carbon emissions.
“The most obvious benefit is that you can double the volume shipped. One 20ft container has a capacity of 9,900 litres of [bottled] wine, while the same container with a flexitank can take 24,000 litres – resulting in a 40% saving in carbon emissions.”
The cost saving from shipping the equivalent of 32,000 bottles for the same price as 13,200 bottles respectively makes the retail price much more competitive.
Greg Livengood, president of California-based global bulk wine broker Ciatti, notes that “when bottling wine at source, in many cases the winery needs to import dry goods, such as bottles. Once bottled, you must ship them once again.” Such practices are wasteful and costly.
“There is no doubt that economic sustainability has really helped drive the bulk wine category,” Livengood says. “The people running wineries around the world all see the value in bulk wine, and how the cost benefits relate to their bottom line. The ecological argument is coming, but it is lagging the economic reasoning.”
Dom de Ville, director of sustainability for the Wine Society, says that shipping wine from New Zealand in flexitank and bottling it in the UK can result in fewer carbon emissions than trucking wine to Calais from a French wine region and on to Wine Society HQ in Stevenage from Dover. But he also cautions that savings achieved by sea-shipping in bulk can be cancelled out by road haulage after wine arrives in the UK.
De Ville notes that bulk will take careful modelling of transport and packaging scenarios for the Wine Society, which has a huge range of wines sold in comparatively small volumes. The benefits are more obvious for bigger operators with fewer wines.
But he is clear: “We want to explore bulk shipping because there are financial and environmental benefits.”
County Durham-based Lanchester Wines and its sister company Greencroft Bottling work with “feeder services to move containers to the Port of Tyne in Newcastle or Teesport near Middlesbrough, rather than bringing them through Felixstowe and Tilbury”, Cook says, cutting carbon emissions by 45% over rail freight and 68% by road.
Beyond the obvious cost savings, there is another compelling reason to reduce packaging in the form of Extended Producer Responsibility, a new regulation on recycling otherwise known as ERP. This is being phased in from this year, and due to go live in 2024, and will place an increased cost burden and data recording requirement burden for the costs of recycling packaging on brand owners and importers, assessed on weight.
De Ville at the Wine Society notes that “it will make packaging fees even more expensive” in the future. Anything that reduces packaging weight, whether through glass weight or alternative materials, without impacting the quality of the wine, will bring financial benefits.
There is a lot of room for improvement in the way wine is bought, sold and moved around the globe. Greencroft Bottling’s state-of-the-art facility, which is set to become fully operational in early 2023, reveals what can be done.
The new site will have both bottling lines and “ancillary lines for bag-in-box, cans, pouches, key kegs or any new types of sustainable packaging”, and a new “counter-pressure line with sparkling capabilities,“ notes Tony Cleary, Lanchester’s group managing director.
What is really different, however, is that this facility will be selfpowered, with both solar panels and wind power, and made thermally efficient by insulation.
“We are spending more than we might otherwise on a new building,” adds Cleary, “but we’ll soon get that extra investment back through energy savings, so what’s good for the planet is good for the business too.”
These plans were laid before the energy crisis, but that they are good sense is even clearer now. The coming decade will see much change. The energy crisis has put a real question mark over glass, with its high energy use and smelting costs. Innovation in filling technology poses other questions. Why are key kegs not yet ubiquitous in the on-trade? Will they find use in retail and give a boost to independent wine shops? Will a new infrastructure emerge based on artisanal, smaller-batch bulk wines? Will people buy wine in pouches? Will there be a breakthrough for letterbox-friendly PET-bottles?
Plenty of solutions to improve sustainability in all its forms exist if we let go of old habits. Wine has been with us for millennia and will continue to be with us; it might just get to us in different ways.