It ‘s entirely appropriate that Backsberg, South Africa’s first carbon neutral winery, also lead the way when it comes to bottling wine in PET soft bottles, the first product coming to market in 2010 under the Tread Lightly label.
PET (which stands for polyethylene terephthalate) is a thermoplastic polymer resin with numerous advantages for the environment when used as a packaging material. First and foremost, there is a reduction in packaging weight. How much of a reduction? A PET bottle weighs a mere 50g, compared to a lightweight glass bottle which weighs about 450g and a heavyweight bottle which is anything upwards of 650g.
Lighter packaging weight essentially means greater transport efficiencies. In addition, the wall of a PET bottle is thinner and the diameter smaller than the glass equivalent, which also helps make it easier to get the bottles from factory to farm to store. PET packaging also leads to a significantly smaller carbon footprint and energy consumption during the manufacturing process.
Much less environmental impact but there are secondary advantages: being lightweight, PET bottles are easy for the consumer to stow and thus lend themselves to an outdoor lifestyle; they’re shatterproof and so are safer; and they’re closed under screwcap so can be easily resealed. No wonder other producers have been quick to follow in Backsberg’s footsteps, notably Boland Kelder, its wines in PET under the Flutterby label and Simonsvlei.
In case PET appears like some miracle packaging solution, there are shortcomings that should be noted. Currently the bottle technology is such that after around two years, there is the risk of oxidation (a wine fault resulting from excessive exposure to oxygen, both aroma and flavour being impaired). Thus, wines bottled in PET are not intended for cellaring.
Then of course there is the matter of consumer acceptance of PET, glass having been the traditional form of wine for centuries. Because PET bottles are smaller than the equivalent made from glass means that they tend to look smaller on shelf and hence less desirable; PET bottles are generally associated with soft drinks, and hence diminish wine as an aspirational purchase; and the uninitiated consumer often has concerns about the wine tasting “plasticky”.
The bottom line is glass is set to be the dominant form of wine packaging for a while yet – it currently accounts for 87% of the 33 billion units of wine produced around the world on an annual basis. Even so, there are a range of factors in addition to concerns around environmental sustainability that suggest that it will come under increasing pressure.
For one thing, the hospitality industry is suffering as “cocooning” (the trend that sees individuals socialising less and retreating into their home more) accelerates. Previously bag-in-box might have been viewed as infra dig but practical concerns increasingly outweigh social niceties and quality box wine will consequently be to the fore.
Conversely, the changing consumption culture with wine increasingly bought to consume immediately and on the go (e.g. while commuting) will precipitate a shift to smaller, single serving packaging solutions.
Then there’s the opportunity for differentiation in marketing terms that alternative packaging offers. If the onus on wine producers is to appeal to new wine consumers, then deviating from the standard 750ml glass bottle in order to stand out on the store shelf makes a lot of sense. You can expect wines packaged in cans, carton or PET plastic to slowly but surely take share away from glass over the coming years.