There is nothing in life quite as unsettling as realizing you’re becoming your father. Only, instead of yelling at the football game because the Vikings are, once again, losing to the Packers, you are yelling at the comments section of a New York Times article on bag-in-box (BiB) wines.
“I’m not against boxed wine at all except promoting that a single-use plastic bag is better for the environment over a glass bottle is simply not accurate.” —Wendy
“I’d be interested in sparkling wine in a box if quality lasted. Maybe Costco Prosecco. I do recycle, but those bottles are heavy.” —Frank
“I never expected there to be much chance of vintage variation in box wine, especially coming from the West. I bought a box of the Powers Chard yesterday hoping it wouldn’t be too disappointing. Ugh. No crisp or tangy character with this version. Apparently only the 2019 is currently available here, and I didn’t notice until after tapping the box.” —Joe
Clearly, alternative packaging has outpaced comprehension of the format. Wendy’s concerns are debunked with a bit of googling. As MW Melissa Saunders’s Research Paper (Stage Three of the Master of Wine examination) details, BiB is around one-ninth of the total carbon footprint of a glass wine bottle for the New York market. (Carbon footprint differs by market because of average bottle weight and recycling rate.) Frank’s idea won’t work, because plastic is permeable to gas.
But Joe’s issue is less easily addressed. The chemical considerations involved in packaging wine in alternatives to glass, and the fact that these formats have expiration dates, aren’t widely discussed by the industry, much less understood by the average consumer. This makes it possible for consumers to attribute lower quality to format (or in Joe’s case, vintage variation) rather than recognizing that the wine is outside the recommended drinking window. Adding to the confusion, winemaking considerations for different formats—BiB, cans, Tetra Pak, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—vary based on the chemical composition of the packaging material.
If alternative packaging options are to continue gaining in popularity, an understanding of the unique utility of these packaging options, the considerations necessary to produce sound wine in them, and the appropriate time frame for consumption will become critical knowledge for beverage professionals.
Alternative packaging is not new. Tin cans were patented in 1810 after being invented as a solution to preserve food for military rations. In the years following World War II, aluminum replaced tin because of wartime rationing of tin. Tetra Pak was first used for milk in 1952, BiB was invented for battery acid in 1955, and PET was patented for carbonated soft drinks in 1973. The issue, of course, is that wine bears little resemblance to preserved foods, milk, battery acid, or carbonated soft drinks, so it took some years for each packaging option to be modified for wine chemistry.
Packaging wine in materials other than glass and having it come out tasting as intended has been challenging because of wine’s alcohol content, low pH of around 2.9 to 4 (battery acid is lower, but we weren’t trying to drink that), and high level of SO2 compared with other beverages, such as beer and fruit juice (though wine has a lower SO2 content than dried fruit, frozen fruit, and fermented vegetables). While wine producers experimented with formats other than glass bottles as early as the 1930s (Acampa Brand California Muscatel was canned in 1935), preliminary results marred the reputation of alternative packaging, and progress was slow.
Today, a range of excellent wine packaging options exist, and the association of alternative packaging with lower-quality wine is no longer valid. These factors are at least partially responsible for the increased success of alternative formats.
Since 2017, wine consumption by volume has been on a precipitous decline, hitting the same level of global consumption in 2022 as in 2002, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). The biggest losses have occurred in the sub-$9 (per 750-milliliter bottle) price point. In the US, this category has been declining since 2013. In contrast, per Nielsen, the sales volume of wines over $12 has consistently increased since 2013. Wine professionals are well aware of entry-level wine’s downward slide and the trend toward premiumization.
Demand for wine in alternative packaging, however, has increased at all price points, with the highest growth for the category in the premium segment. In 2019, Tetra Pak grew 14.6% in value over the previous year. In 2021, canned wine grew 62% in value (Nielsen). BiB, already increasing in popularity before Covid-19, showed massive growth in the first quarter of 2020: 53% in the US, 77% in Canada, and 43% in France (Forbes). PET, while harder to pin down, seems to occupy a growing amount of shelf space at grocery stores with the presence of single-serve cups and goblets.
In part, this illustrates a demand for smaller-volume and flexible formats that will allow consumers to drink less without waste. While 375-milliliter glass bottles are used by some producers, they have never done particularly well, partially because the pricing doesn’t work out. Jason Haas, a partner and the general manager of Tablas Creek, has written on the company’s blog that the cost of producing a wine in 375-milliliter glass bottles is roughly two-thirds the cost of producing the same wine in 750-milliliter bottles—and consumers aren’t willing to pay two-thirds the cost for half the amount of wine. This means that, typically, if a winery is bottling in 375-milliliter bottles, it is selling at a lower profit margin to keep consumers interested.
From a producer perspective, alternative formats make sense. But they also have benefits for consumers. Alternative packaging appeals for its convenience, lower environmental impact, and suitability to new occasions. Alternative formats give consumers more control over how much they drink and limit product waste, and they do all this at value pricing. They also allow two people with different wine tastes to drink to their preferences. While the environmental impact of different alternative packaging options varies, they all have a decreased carbon footprint compared with single-use glass, even when that glass is lightweight. This reduction in carbon footprint is surpassed only by reused glass, for which there is limited infrastructure.
As for new occasions, a large body of research indicates societal changes: birth rates are declining, families are becoming smaller and more spread out, and people don’t always sit down for dinner anymore. These changes create a need for new consumption occasions beyond the dinner table. Alternative formats are portion controlled and nonbreakable, suited to consumers who want to drink wine at concerts, on picnics, or while hiking.
Finally, alternative packaging lends itself to impulse buying. Shopify surveys suggest that impulse buying occurs because of a feeling of getting a deal, physical stimuli, instant gratification, product placement, and novelty. Alternative format wine has ample room for branding and is often placed near the front of stores. These wines tend to cost less than standard bottles, and consumers seem to appreciate their casual drinkability and the option to try multiple wines over the course of a week.
With growth in alternative packaging likely to continue, what should wine professionals know about the differences in winemaking and shelf life?
BiB is the most widely available form of alternative packaging. BiB wines are sold in almost every grocery store and convenience store, and this format is increasingly used for premium wines and stocked in forward-thinking specialty wine shops. The package consists of a plastic bladder, or bag, that is held within a cardboard box. While the box makes up 75% of the package, it has no utility beyond protecting the bag from punctures and light and providing support for the tap of the bag.
MW Melissa Saunders bags high-quality wines for her project, Communal Brands. She says that the most important elements of BiB are the liner and the tap, explaining, “Not all liners are created equal. All of them have different OTRs.”
Oxygen transmission rate, or OTR, refers to the amount of oxygen that diffuses through a barrier over a given time. This is an especially important consideration in BiBs because, while glass bottles are impermeable—meaning the only oxygen ingress is coming from the closure—plastic is permeable. Since the entire plastic bag is permeable, lessening the rate of transmission is the top priority.
Saunders says that producers used to believe that bags required an aluminum coating, but new plastics technology has both decreased OTR and made recycling more feasible. “These days, EVOH [ethylene-vinyl alcohol copolymer] allows you to use a bag that is all one material,” she says. “This makes it easier to recycle in markets that recycle soft plastics. With the best liners, we can start to talk about timeline in years instead of months.”
Timeline is especially important when a producer is considering bagging wines for import and must navigate the challenges of time spent in transit. Saunders sells BiBs from Austria, Italy, and France in the New York market. While bag companies guarantee only 9 months, Saunders has been able to push her drinking window to up to 14 months because of the integrity of the liners she works with and her winemaking practices. This requires close attention to every step of the winemaking process.
“You need the cleanest wine possible if you’re bagging,” says Saunders. “Clean doesn’t mean the wine is unnatural. You can get the SO2 levels under what is required for organic wine. But you can’t just run a basic chem panel—you need microbial analysis.”
Like anyone shipping wine, Saunders has limited control over conditions in reefers (shipping containers). If any microbial spoilage organisms are present and the temperature of the reefer increases significantly, the free SO2 in the wine will be absorbed, fueling microbial growth. The reason for this is twofold: at warmer temperatures, microbial organisms generally reproduce more quickly and OTR increases, giving microbes access to more oxygen.
To keep wine clean and correct, Saunders fines and filters her bagged wines. She says, “The level of filtration depends on how comfortable you are with the state of the union. Sterile means you won’t have [an] issue. But you do as much as necessary and as little as possible.”
Because she’s dealing with premium wine, Saunders seeks to balance stability with high quality, recognizing that failing to keep a wine free of spoilage will validate the perception that BiB is an inferior packaging option. Communal Brands always fills to order, keeps the tank at the point of origin topped up, and regularly runs laboratory analysis.
When pushed for free SO2 levels and drinking timelines for bags, Saunders is reluctant to give exact numbers. She says, “You have to consider pH, tannin, alcohol, DO [dissolved oxygen]. It all depends on the condition of the wine.”
Erica Landin-Löfving, a researcher and writer who was involved in sensory trials for BiB wines with the Swedish wine monopoly Systembolaget, is experienced with more entry-level and midlevel BiB offerings and is therefore more cautious in her timeline expectations. “Systembolaget considers BiB freshness to be within six months of the date of filling,” she explains. “When we tasted bottle and BiB side by side after six months . . . 9 out of 10 times, the bottle tasted better. One out of 10 times, the bag tasted better. These were usually the more tannic reds.”
Tetra Pak consists of a layer of paperboard with multiple layers of polyethylene plastic and a layer of aluminum foil. This type of packaging, generally used for entry-level to midtier wine, can be found in most grocery and convenience stores, but it has yet to gain popularity for premium wines. Familiar examples include small-format Bota Boxes and Vita Coco coconut water.
Fred Miller, a packaging engineer, explains that in comparison to BiB, which offers multiple liner options of varying material and thickness, “With Tetra Pak, there’s one wine line stock, and the OTR is pretty low. Because of the aluminum, Tetra Pak can actually have the same reductive issues that cans do, and producers may need to use lower levels of SO2.”
To ensure microbiological stability at these lower levels of SO2, Miller says that many producers use dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC), a beverage preservative and sterilant. Though DMDC is effective against a broad range of fungi and bacteria, it must be used sparingly, as its by-product is methanol, which is legally regulated and cannot exceed 400 milligrams per liter because of its link to birth defects and blindness.
“I’ve packaged wine in Tetra Pak without DMDC but, especially with lower-alcohol wines or with flavored wines, it’s helpful,” Miller says. “Flavor systems can become contaminants quickly if you don’t stabilize.”
DMDC is not used exclusively in Tetra Pak, however, or even wine. Its most common use is as an antimicrobial in canned seltzers and fruit juices.
Tetra Pak suggests that wine packaged in its systems should be consumed within three to six months of purchase.
PET bottles are best known as the packaging for soft drinks such as Coca-Cola. For wine, Copa di Vino’s single-serve wine cups are among the most familiar examples. Like Tetra Pak and BiBs, PET bottles are generally composed of multiple layers, typically with oxygen scavengers or barrier technologies incorporated into the bottles.
Miller explains, “PET itself is oxygen permeable, so bottle manufacturers like Amcor will partner with companies like Constar who make oxygen-scavenging PET. Another option is to incorporate linings like Plasmax.”
In oxygen-scavenging technology, additions are made to the PET mix to enable the packaging to bind and hold oxygen that may be dissolved in the wine or left in the headspace of the bottle. Plasmax is a silicon oxide lining that can be used to coat the inside of PET bottles, providing a barrier that is less permeable to oxygen. As Jamie Goode, a wine journalist and author, points out on his website, the issue with both oxygen-scavenging technology and barrier technology is that they degrade and lose efficacy at higher temperatures. The solution is to ship in bulk and bottle in market.
“Wines crash at different rates,” says Miller. “A 187-milliliter in PET with Plasmax, stored correctly, could go 12 months. In 750-milliliter, you could get two years. But reds keep longer than whites.”
Canned wine is booming and can now be found in most grocery stores. The most common and recognizable brand is Francis Ford Coppola’s Sofia. For wine, the can is the most difficult format to get right. Unlike beer, which has very low levels of SO2, wine has enough SO2 that it reacts with aluminum and leads to reductivity issues, resulting in off-aromas. But liner technology is improving, and consumers are enthusiastic about the format.
Rachel Allison, who received her PhD in canned wine science and reductivity, explains, “There are two main types of epoxy liner for wine cans: there [are] those manufactured in the presence of BPA and BPA-NI [non-intent]. Any producer in California has moved away from BPA liners. They’re both polymers; they just have different monomers that vary according to manufacturer.” These liners are used to create a barrier between the wine and the aluminum.
The epoxy liner is still a plastic, however, and while it does provide a barrier, the plastic is permeable to gas. Unbound SO2 can migrate through the liner, reacting with the aluminum. Allison says, “Hydrogen sulfide production [which causes reduction] is dependent upon the molecular form of sulfur dioxide, and that’s proportional to pH. At a low pH, you have a higher proportion of molecular, which means you’re at a higher risk with high-acid wines. But you also create a second risk factor, because lower pH wines are more aggressive against the liner, which degrades the barrier and exacerbates the issue. Molecular SO2 levels need to be around half what they usually are.”
In the experiments Allison ran for her doctorate, she found that at pHs below 3, reductivity issues became consistently problematic. At pHs above 3, there was more variation in performance. Because the pH of red wine is generally higher than that of white, she didn’t see issues with red wine. She says, “Red wines perform great in a can. The issue is that consumers associate cans with lighter beverages. Consumers want whites and rosés in can.”
Allison found that with unsuitable wines that were too high in molecular SO2 or too low in pH, sensory issues could emerge in as little as one or two months. She notes, “Canning companies will say the shelf life is 12 months, but it’s incredibly variable. I don’t know how they’re doing their shelf-life testing. We ran trials up to eight months, and regular storage wasn’t good enough. Issues with white and rosé wines began at one month.”
For retailers who are carrying cans, Allison notes the importance of making sure the cans are undented, which could cause issues with liners, and prioritizing proper storage. “You’re dealing with general reaction kinetics—applicable to all types of packaging materials,” she says. “The reaction rate doubles for every 10-degree-Celsius [18-degree-Fahrenheit] increase in temperature. Given that, issues can come up pretty quickly.” She explains that current liners were designed for the beer industry, which doesn’t face the same issues relating to molecular SO2.
Allison’s top recommendation for producers is to run predictive testing to see if a wine is suitable for can, and she notes the importance of beginning production with the intention of canning wine. “You can’t equate the casualness of the package with the casualness of using the packaging,” she explains.
Modern consumer needs are far different than they were at the turn of the century. Positioning wine as a dinner beverage that requires multiple people for consumption nearly ensures a narrow appeal. Alternative packaging fills the consumer need for a smaller and more casual format, and it is a more affordable option for producers. It seems certain that the prevalence of well-executed alternative packaging options will continue to grow. Yet both producing and carrying wine in alternative packaging must be undertaken deliberately to preserve the reputation of these formats.
Retailers should pay attention to “packed on” dates and check on inventory that is nearing its lower shelf-life limit. By adopting storage and transport temperatures of under 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), distributors and retailers can extend the life of wines in alternative packaging. These wines should not be back stocked too heavily, and close attention must be paid to packaging integrity when stocking. It is also important to educate guests and consumers about the shelf life of wines in alternative packaging, so that they understand that these wines are meant for immediate consumption and will decline in quality if cellared. Carefully handling and selling these wines will support their future success.
Research Paper: Wine Retailers and The Environmental Impact of Packaging, by Melissa Saunders [Members only]
Winemaking Expert Guide [Members only]
Beyond Sulfur: Viticultural Foliar Spray Programs, by Samantha Cole-Johnson
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Another excellent article from Samantha! Thank you for this informative piece.