Lose your bottle: The rise of canned wines

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

20 December 2019

It’s an innovation that could divide the crowds, but there’s no ignoring the rise of canned wines. Chris Losh explains why the wine world should embrace them

When the wine industry wants to change something, it most often looks to the liquid. More oak, less oak. Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Managed or natural. And that’s before we even start on fruit infusions or CBD.

But how about if we switch the focus; how about instigating change by taking existing products and presenting them in a different format? Of course, I get that packaging is as interesting as rolling a wall with magnolia paint. No sommeliers ever got together on a Sunday night to discuss bottling-line theory. But sometimes a shift comes along that just makes sense, and cans are one of them. Even as recently as a year ago they weren’t really ‘a thing’. But since last summer there’s been a steady trickle of them landing on Imbibe’s desks. There have been conversations on social media and discussions at senior levels among some of the biggest companies. Already a big deal in Australia and the US, they’re appearing in greater numbers at trade shows, too.

Cans are coming. The only question is whether we’ll be ready for them. There will, of course, be plenty of readers of this magazine who are horrified at the idea, seeing it as a cheapening or coarsening of wine’s great heritage. Wine belongs in glass bottles. End of story, they’ll say.

More pros than cons

Except that it isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Bottles themselves were an innovation at one stage. There were probably tavern owners hundreds of years ago complaining that glass cheapened the image of a product that innately belonged in amphorae.

Change, in other words, has always been a part of wine packaging. And if the job of the container is to deliver liquid in the most reliable, convenient and well-priced format, then it’s logical that it will change with technology and our evolving lifestyles.

A can-do attitude

And there are plenty of advantages to cans on both fronts. For starters, they’re free of TCA or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, one of the chemical compounds responsible for cork taint, which removes one of the biggest bugbears of traditional glass-and-cork packaging. They’re 100% recyclable, which puts them ahead of PET and key-keg dispense systems, and they’re lighter to transport, which is good for your carbon footprint.

All of this plays well with younger customers too. Plus cans are guaranteed to prevent light strike. You may not have heard of light strike, but it’s arguably the great ignored wine fault of our age. Essentially, light – sunlight, UV light, lightbulbs – damages wine. At a minor level, it diminishes aromas and flavours, but it can also create off-flavours.

Cans are inert and reliable, and products can be stored in them for a long time with no risk of degradation

We did some research on this at Imbibe a few years ago by leaving wines out in (weak wintery) sunshine over a period of time and tested them. In less than a day, rosé, in particular, started to degrade; it became less aromatic, but also developed an unattractive pondy character. If at any stage from bottling to serving, these wines are exposed to natural or artificial light, they will be affected.

There is a way around it: to use a thick, dark bottle. This is the solution that the beer guys, who are far more switched on about light strike, have adopted. However practical that might be, it doesn’t work for the aesthetics of wine. For rosé in particular, customers like to see that pretty pale pink colour. It looks good, even if it’s harming the actual taste of the wine.

The other solution would be to package and sell rosé in cans, which, of course, is also what the beer industry does. Cans are inert and reliable, and products can be stored in them for a long time with no risk of degradation. If a single-serve tonic is deemed the best way of creating a perfect G&T, why not the perfect single-serve glass of wine?

On-trade benefits

Caterers running festivals are already jumping on the can as the answer to their F&B needs. It won’t smash, it takes up less storage space, and you don’t even necessarily need an environmentally evil plastic glass with it. If your venue hosts events and weddings, they should definitely be on your radar.

In the more traditional on-trade, there’s a clear benefit to anyone serving lots of wine by the glass – especially if the venue is a beer garden or terrace. Those bottles of rosé sitting outdoors in an ice bucket might look good, but it is a sobering thought that after just 10 minutes in direct sunlight the wine is probably totally shot to bits.

Within the next year, we’ll have two or three wines in cans

Charlie Young, Vinoteca

Clearly, canned wine is unlikely to supplant bottled versions on the white tablecloths of formal restaurants. But for the growing number of less formal eateries, wine bars or on/off-trade crossover joints, cans are entirely acceptable. ‘For a hipster bar, selling a 200ml can of good-quality wine can be an alternative for wine by the glass,’ says Gui Mahaut of ETM Group. ‘You know the wine is fresh, and not from a bottle that’s been open a few days.’ Some forward-thinking operators are already considering them.

‘I love cans,’ says Charlie Young of Vinoteca. ‘Within the next year, we’ll have two or three wines in cans. I think they could work for both on- and off -trade.’
Of course, the on-trade might need to adapt how they off er, serve and present wine – just as they did with screwcaps – but Young doesn’t see that as a problem. ‘If someone ordered a can for themselves or for two [people] to share on the terrace, we’d serve them two glasses and the unopened can and
let them serve themselves,’ he says.

Blame the millennials

This might sound like heresy to Imbibe readers steeped in the formality of hospitality, but research shows that Millennials and Gen Z (aged, broadly, between 15 and 40 years) are more accepting of change. This is particularly the case if those innovations make their life easier. Single serve, easily chillable and fully recyclable, cans certainly fit that bill.

And if the practical arguments don’t do it for you, then the aesthetic ones should. Put bluntly, cans look cool. It’s much easier to come up with a funky design for a can than a bottle. And it takes on the craft beer iconoclasts at their own game. The time has come to embrace what could well become wine’s new reality. Time for the on-trade not to ask why or whether, but to meet the brave new world head on and say, ‘Yes we can’.

Feature originally published in print on Imbibe, Autumn 2019.

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