Why it’s good to be a lightweight

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Five years ago, a bottle of Concha y Toro’s excellent Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva was 80g heavier than one sold today. The weight difference comes from the glass. Had you noticed? There is less of it now because Concha y Toro, one of the world’s 10 largest wine companies, has been conducting a deep sustainability overhaul and packaging can make a big difference. “Glass production represents over 30 per cent of emissions in our supply chain,” says Claire Reaney, head of logistics and sustainability lead for Concha y Toro UK. 

And so, by 2019, the Casillero del Diablo Reserva bottle – which is used by 83 per cent of Concha’s wines in the UK – had slimmed down from 550g to 505g. Last year it dropped again to 475g. More than 26 million of these bottles are sold in the UK every year and the greenhouse gas emissions savings amount to over 400 tonnes or “roughly 2.4 million miles driven in a diesel car”, says Reaney.

Glass light-weighting is a hot topic in wine. Granted, not all wine producers have got the memo. Or they have got it but for reasons of vanity (you know how some people like to own a big car?) or sales (you know how some people like to buy a big car?) have ignored it and continued with bottles so heavy it’s a miracle sommeliers don’t break their wrists pouring them. In fairness, sound commercial logic underpins a decision to go big on glass. Wine is a luxury and we like it to look and feel as well as taste the part. Research conducted by Oxford University and discount store Aldi last year found shoppers are prepared to pay almost 40 per cent more for wine in a heavy bottle compared with a light one. 

Still, I think there are limits: some of us now find ostentatiously weighty bottles a bit embarrassing (and wonder if the producer has insecurity issues). Meanwhile, progressive retailers are increasingly shepherding producers towards lighter bottles at least for the cheaper wines in their range. Such wines sell in the highest volumes so one can argue they will have the ­biggest collective impact.

Waitrose recently asked an Italian primitivo producer to move away from its 650g bottle and into a 500g one, and “there will be countless other examples like this”, says buyer Victoria Mason.

The estimable Marks & Spencer has been working on light-weighting for 15 years. “Though I prefer to call it right-weighting,” says Sue Daniels, M&S’s 
in-house winemaker and senior technologist. “Because it’s no good if you go so low you get lots of breakages. That defeats the object.” M&S now uses a 360g bottle for its This Is range; many of its other still wines are in 390g bottles.

Not all light-weighting initiatives run smoothly though. Sparkling wine needs a sturdier bottle to withstand the pressure. When the wine industry first began to light-weight, some prosecco (not from M&S) had to be recalled lest the bottles explode. M&S and its partners have jointly invested in specialist bottling line equipment to ensure this does not happen – for instance, an electronic eye that can spot any weak points in the bottle before it is filled.

Not all initiatives make it far from the ideas board either. Having found that drinks packaging was the “single biggest source” of its CO2 impact, Systembolaget, the state-run Swedish alcohol monopoly, pursued a plan to levy a fee on heavy bottles but met with “resistance on the European Union level”, says Systembolaget’s Gad Pettersson, choosing his words carefully. A move to an encouraging rather than punitive model has been more fruitful.

Systembolaget has also taken packaging sustainability issues out of the back rooms and into the limelight. It shares information with customers so they can make their own choices – for instance, calculating a “CO2 emissions equivalent per litre of wine” for each product and displaying that beside the wine. Expect to see more of this type of initiative here, especially from the likes of the Wine Society, which has committed to becoming certified net zero across its business and supply chain by 2040, and is planning to have “a sensible conversation with our members” not just about bottle weights but also broader sustainability issues – because it is far from ideal to reduce this complex ­picture to a single item of data, in this case the weight of the bottle.

Considering only the bottle, what about how much of it was made from recycled material? Whether it was ­bottled at source or shipped in tank and bottled closer to the point of sale? The level of decarbonisation of the glass production process? And how does alternative packaging compare with a glass bottle?

“Unlike some alternative packaging, glass packaging is 100 per cent recyclable – and easily, too, through local authority household collections or bottle banks. Caps and labels are also recycled as part of the recycling process. The ­latest UK government recycling figures show glass packaging achieved a 76 per cent recycling rate in 2020,” says Phillip ­Fenton of British Glass, whose members have committed to achieving net zero by 2050.

It is now possible to make bottles out of 100 per cent recycled glass; Laithwaites recently launched one for the first time (the wine is a frappato from Sicily). Although “a typical green wine bottle has a recycled content of between 80 and 90 per cent. A low percentage of other ingredients are usually required to achieve the correct colour demanded for by brands and producers,” says ­Fenton. For every tonne of glass that is recycled there is a 580kg carbon saving, though supporters of alternative packaging point out that as wine bottles are single use, energy is still required to remelt the glass.

Systembolaget’s Pettersson says: “We really push strongly for alternative packaging for less CO2 impact.” Around 55 per cent of the wine sold in Sweden is bag-in-box and has been for many years. ­Systembolaget calculates the emissions created by an average three litre bag-in-box equate to roughly 68g per litre of wine, compared with 532g per litre in what they class as a lighter-weight glass bottle (420g or less). “But the one we push for a lot is the cardboard packaging (750ml). Cans we have just started with, but will also be in focus for new launches.” And that’s something to contemplate over a good glass of red.

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