The search continues for improved sustainable alternatives to traditional wine bottles, and younger consumers are proving very receptive.

Winemakers across the world are increasingly investing in and exploring sustainable production practices, in the vineyards and through to the winery, but the elephant in the room when it comes to wine is the glass bottle itself.

The Porto Protocol Foundation is an initiative born out of the climate change leadership events that took place in Porto, Portugal in 2018 and 2019. The Foundation, founded by Taylor’s port, recently hosted a discussion about sustainable packaging in wine and, more specifically, whether glass is a sustainable solution for the future.

One of the big obstacles here, of course, is that many consumers expect to see wine in glass bottles, but, as Nicolas Quille MW, chief winemaking and operations officer at the US-based Crimson Wine Group, points out, consumer perception is changing.

He says: “There are younger consumers who are more receptive to different packaging types and also receptive to an explanation of why that packaging might be better for the environment.”

He says that the wine industry has evolved considerably, and producers should think about two key macro trends in particular when thinking

about whether glass is the best option for the wine they want to sell. “One of these is that, where wine was once drunk locally, it now travels long distances, and it doesn’t necessarily do this in a glass bottle,” Quille says.

“Around 40% of wine in the UK arrives in Flexitanks. More places in the world should look at this,” he says.

“This would be good not just for sustainability purposes but cost, and it could drop the carbon footprint of the wine industry tremendously.

“Secondly, there is an expectation that wine is traded and re-traded several times, and therefore requires a container that is neutral. But actually the vast majority of wines are not traded multiple times and are not made to last 100 years, so those wines could use different sources of packaging.”

Santiago Navarro, chief executive and cofounder of Garçon Wines – which makes flat wine bottles out of PET – also highlights the need to reduce the carbon footprint of wine.

He says: “The base of a glass bottle is a circle and when you put two bottles together you lose all the space around it and that means you increase your carbon footprint, and you have financial loss. I think wine should come in bottles but it doesn’t mean these always have to be made of glass. There will always be a place for glass bottles. There are bottles that we use for celebrations and there will be wines that benefit from bottleageing in glass, but they will not be the massmarket wines that are produced and consumed within a year. For those we need to rethink the packaging.

“The wine world needs a 21st-century bottle and It is important to say that just a few weeks ago we announced a collaboration with Accolade Wines [using Garçon’s flat PET bottle]. The fact that a truly forward-thinking wine giant recognises the need for sustainability and the competitive advantage it will have through an innovation in sustainability is fantastic.”

Tiago Moreira da Silva, managing director at glass producer BA Glass in Portugal, agrees that wine does not have to be packaged in glass all the time, but adds: “I think whoever gets to decide that is the final consumer. We have to be humble and let consumers decide on what they think protects the value of what we are incorporating into the bottle.”

Moreira da Silva does agree that there are additional things the wine industry can do to ensure glass is a sustainable option.

He says: “It takes me a long time to convince wine customers to change to lighter bottles and one reason for this is that there is an added value attached to weight, and the heavier glass bottles are often reserved for higher-priced wines.”

He says that within the next five years the glass industries across Europe are working together to produce a new furnace that will reduce emissions by 50%.

He adds: “This is just the first stage. The industry is doing its job. This will see us in a better position concerning this unique point of sustainability. This is the first time the industry has come together in a way I have never seen before and it shows we are able to understand the urgency of the issue.

“In the past 50 years we have reduced C02 emissions significantly and the weight of the glass bottle significantly too.”

Navarro says he is pleased there is acceptance that there is space for an alternative material to glass.

He adds: “I also endorse the point that for certain wines that need the oxygen barrier [for long-term ageing] we cannot use the existing alternative materials, but there are materials out there coming online soon that beat PET 10-fold, but they are still five to 10 years away. I think the important thing is that there is recognition that there needs to be a greater acceptance of alternative materials for wine bottles.”

Quille also points to the issue of the bottle weight and the perception that heavier bottles add value to the wine.

He says: “In the wine business we have a lot of urban legends and the weight of the bottle is one of those where we have been told many times that the value of the heavy bottle is higher.

“To me this is unethical and something that some producers are doing for the sole purpose of selling a product. I believe the most important thing anyone could do in the wine business is to take the weight out of their glass bottle.

“I don’t care if you farm biodynamically and I don’t care what else you are doing. If you are using heavy glass you are upsetting any of your other efforts and you are lying to yourself.”

Plastic is often perceived as “the bad guy” and Garçon Wines’ bottle is 100% PET.

Navarro is often asked whether this material is safe and whether it affects the wine.

He says: “I just support alternatives to glass bottles and at the moment it is PET. If there is an alternative that comes online that offers scalable sustainability – and by that I mean triple bottom line: planet, people and profit – then we will use that and we will be one of the first.

We were one of the first in the world to make a bottle entirely from recycled PET.

“PET is an inert material and there is no reaction with food or beverages. It is a moderate barrier to oxygen and that is its only Achilles heel for wine – it does let in oxygen over time. We treat our bottles with barrier technology to give them a year to 18 months’ shelf life, depending on the style of the wine, and I believe that is enough for the mass-market space. 

There is no reaction from the PET to the wine in the bottle. We use recycled content because it is additionally lower carbon.

“We are far from perfect, but we are considerably better than the status quo and that, to me, is what is important.

The planet has no more time to waste. We are at the highest amount of C02 emissions in 3 million years.

“How long are we going to wait to take action?”

Quille says he is looking at a range of options for Crimson Wines’ products, including bag-in-box and Tetra Prisma packaging.

“We could also consider the aluminium can,” he adds. “They all have something in common, which is the weight. That is really one of the main issues we have in the glass industry: the weight, transportation cost and the material cost.

“We can keep on trying to educate the consumer that if wine is not in glass it doesn’t mean it is a cheaper product, but this is fruitless if the industry consistently puts wine in those packages and sells them at entry-level prices.

The image of something premium in our industry is associated with a glass bottle and I think it is a disservice to our industry.”