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Wine’s carbon footprint II: Weighing up the glass bottle

By Jamie Goode |  November 2 2021

The glass bottle
Photography by Getty Images

In the second part of his audit of wine’s carbon footprint, Jamie Goode shifts his focus to logistics and the wine world’s ongoing love affair with the glass bottle.

In terms of attributing carbon footprint to wine, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a robust, universal figure. But most people seem to agree that there is a single hurdle to reducing this footprint: the glass bottle. It’s reckoned to account for about half of it.

In the first part of this three-part series looking at wine’s carbon footprint I examined the contribution of the vineyard and the winery, and what can be done to reduce it. The answer is plenty, but it’s expensive and such measures may take quite a while to kick in. Compared with this, tackling the carbon footprint of the logistics chain, and in particular the glass bottle, is the low-hanging fruit.

The glass bottle: A heavy price?

What’s the issue? Glass is heavy. While it’s an ideal way to store wine because it is totally inert and when allied with a suitable closure it is also ideal for ageing fine wine for many decades, it’s a lousy way of transporting wine. Bottles are also breakable, so need to be well packaged. In addition, even where glass is recycled, this takes a lot of energy, further raising its carbon footprint.

Is drinking more local a solution? This might be a more effective response at the bottom end of the market, where consumers are not so concerned with origin. It’s less appealing for those who are looking for wines that reflect specific places. Terroir—a locally derived flavor—is at the heart of fine wine. If you want classed growth Bordeaux, there’s only one place this comes from.

Champagne and the art of lightweighting

For those categories of wine where there is no alternative to glass, such as sparkling and fine wine, “lightweighting” bottles is the best option for reducing carbon footprint. Champagne Mumm’s new bottle for Grand Cordon Rouge, which features an engraved red stripe, is also extremely light. Designed by Ross Lovegrove, the company says it is the lightest Champagne bottle in the world. In the past, traditional Champagne bottles have weighed in at 900g (31.75oz), but they don’t need to be this heavy even where they are dealing with pressures of 6 bars. In 2010 the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) introduced a new standard bottle weighing 835 g (29.45oz), a 7 percent reduction.

Lightweight Champagne bottle

Cordon Rouge now comes in the lightest Champagne bottle in the world, according to Champagne Mumm. Photography courtesy of Champagne Mumm

For still wines, the average bottle weight is currently around 500 g (17.64oz), whereas the lightest 75cL bottle weighs around 330 g (11.64oz). Unfortunately, in the fine wine market many producers have decided that the top wines in their range need to be in extremely heavy bottles, weighing up to 1 kg (35.27oz). It’s important that this link between heavy bottles and quality is broken. The tasting team at jancisrobinson.com now weigh all the bottles they taste (except for trade tastings where this would be problematic). And this week a letter from wine writers and trade people has been sent out petitioning producers to move away from heavy bottles.

The problem here is in that some markets, notably China, heavy bottles have traction. At a recent tasting of Moldovan wines I encountered some monster bottles, and I was told that this is because the Chinese market is really important for Moldovan wine. Many Argentine and Chilean producers seem to love heavy bottles, too. In contrast, in classic fine wine regions of Europe such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont, and Tuscany, heavy bottles have never really been part of the landscape.

Bulking up

While this isn’t currently relevant to the fine wine market, bulk shipping wine in flex tanks and then bottling in market reduces the carbon footprint from shipping packaged wine, and accounts for around half of the wine sold in the UK now. Large bottling plants in the UK do a really good job of bottling, and the thermal inertia of a 25,000-liter tank of wine probably means that there is less risk of heat damage during shipping. There are some issues here. First, bottling in the UK removes jobs from the origin country, and second sea freight has a much lower carbon footprint than road transport. So it’s entirely possible that a wine transported by road within Europe could have a bigger carbon footprint than one that arrives by sea from New Zealand. These sorts of calculations are complex.

Alternatives to the glass bottle exist. In restaurants, wine on tap using solutions like Key Keg and Petainer have saved enormous amounts of waste glass, and some pretty smart wines are available for these packaging formats. Bag-in-Box has been around for a while, along with variations on the theme like wine pouches. And now wine in cans is taking off. However, I can’t see fine wine moving away from the bottle any time soon, not least because with most fine wines there is an expectation of being able to cellar the wine. Alternative formats only really work for wines destined for immediate consumption, and there are shelf-life considerations with all of them.

Re-using v recycling

There’s also the consumer to consider. People like drinking wine out of glass bottles. The glass bottle has become part of the conception that most people have of wine. Even bag-in-box wines often have pictures of bottles on the packaging. For this reason, perhaps there is a future for re-use, rather than simply recycling. Borough Wines in London has been a pioneer of this, and one of the company’s partners in the project is Damien Barton-Sartorius, one of the tenth generation of the Barton wine dynasty from St-Julien in Bordeaux. He has teamed up with Borough Wines to include a wine from the Barton portfolio in the re-use scheme. It’s the second wine of Mauvesin Barton, L’Impression de Mauvesin, and he’d like to do the same thing with the top wine, which at £15-20 is not an entry-level wine.

If some of the obvious practical challenges can be overcome, this could really help keep the bottle, keep customers happy, and really contribute to lowering wine’s carbon footprint.

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