When I were a lad…the wine box was synonymous with pretty cheap wine. There was a name which sounded made up, what looked like cheap packaging, and a liquid not always likely to convert a young beer and whisky drinker to wine. It was the same if you went down under. The Australians were certainly putting something a little better in their bladder packs, but it was never meant to appeal to anyone lapping up Grosset Riesling or Henschke Shiraz.
In the 1990s my prejudices were challenged when a small Piemontese producer gave me a bag-in-box version of their Barbera, which proved not only delicious but also a very convenient way to enjoy the wine on the second leg of that holiday. But I wasn’t converted.
The prejudice against alternative packaging hasn’t really gone away among people who’d call themselves serious wine lovers. This has never been helped by the dross we’ve probably come across at a family bbq or party. We’ve seen everything from wine in cartons, cans, small plastic bottles on aircraft, and even a plastic glass with a plastic film over the top. For me these wines are usually only marginally better (perhaps I’m being a little unfair) than the original alternatives – the plastic bottle in the French supermarket and the plastic container filled from a petrol pump at a French co-operative that some of us may remember.
Recently I’ve come across two new packaging ideas which I think have a lot more going for them; the #Bagnum (a 1.5l wine bag of red, white or rosé from wider Burgundy) being marketed under Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s du Grappin label, and Prosecco in a keg, marketed by The Wine Keg Company.
What do these packaging ideas have going for them? Naturally, the “Eco” angle is really important, especially in terms of cutting down on the weight of glass and therefore on the carbon footprint of the transportation stage of delivery. Equally, the ease of serving for large events, where a lot of by-the-glass pouring is required, and they are perfect for events where glass can’t be used or is banned for whatever reason.
What most people who scorn such packaging might not know is that so much of the cheap wine they buy in a supermarket actually arrives in the UK in a tank, either by road or sea. This cuts down transport costs, but why then do they bottle it on some decidedly unromantic industrial estate for it only to be consumed within twenty-four hours of it being plucked off a supermarket shelf, by someone who’s been sold the dream of the artisan vigneron instead of a virtually industrial process?
Also, how many people are aware that far less of the glass we put out for recycling actually gets turned into recycled glass than we might imagine? It’s amazing how hard it is to penetrate the world of recycling to get hold of good, up-to-date statistics, but we appear to import so much more glass than we can ever use again, and a lot of it is even re-shipped abroad, not the most eco-friendly way to get rid of our empties. We really could do with waking up to the alternatives for wines destined for swift post-purchase consumption.
If you couple this with the idea that the wine in such alternative packaging can be improved, and can actually be pretty good stuff, then it’s surely only a matter of time before we start to take some forms of alternative (to glass) packaging more seriously. If the wine is good, then there’s no reason to be embarrassed drinking from a bag or a keg.
Du Grappin‘s selection is a real shock to those expecting cheap, over sulphured, plonk in a bag, if the red I tried last week is anything to go by. It’s Gamay, largely from plots around the Cote d’Or, near Morey-St-Denis (where David Clark sourced Gamay for his Passetoutgrain), and south at Paris L’Hopital (a village west of Santenay/Dezize-les-Maranges). It’s fresh, fruity, excellent slightly chilled, not lacking in colour. Delicious, in fact. The du Grappin rosé is made from 40-year-old Gamay from near Fleurie in the Beaujolais (as well as Andrew’s wonderful Cote de Beaune wines, he makes a very good Fleurie as well, available bottled). The white is 25-year-old Chardonnay from the Macon village of Péronne (half way between Lugny and Clessé). There’s also a range of du Grappin wines in refillable bottles (with a Grolsch-style flip-top closure) and larger formats for the trade.
The catalyst for this article was getting in touch with Louise Oliver, after hearing about her company at a local business event. Louise runs The Wine Keg Company from Brighton, where I’m based, but she also studied for a Wine Business Degree at nearby Plumpton College. As part of that degree she wrote a dissertation on alternative packaging. I know I’m a sad wine obsessive, but it’s an excellent analysis of the subject and I truly enjoyed reading it. Naturally, Louise looked at kegs in some detail.
Louise has clearly realised that there’s a whole new world of consumers out there who would love to drink wine, but do not necessarily share the kind of stuffy, awe inspired approach that so often comes with worshipping the bottle as the cork pops. She’s not the first to recognise this, but in the past alternative packaging has always looked at margins and therefore the wine has not been able to appeal to the more discerning drinker. Being a popular wine, but also a quality DOC wine, Prosecco bridges the gap.
Lighter wines can be just the thing for summer festivals and other events, and Prosecco fits the bill perfectly. It’s a fun wine, refreshing too. The keg system delivers a glass of Prosecco in exactly the same way as it delivers a pint of beer, allowing large numbers of people to consume Prosecco by-the -glass (or indeed Prosecco cocktails, or any still wine) without creating a pile of empties, corks and foil for someone to cart away at the end of the day. A 20 litre keg will give 160x125ml glasses from a tap with remote cooling, and it will keep it’s pressure for six weeks.
Although it’s probably not the way to deliver a DOCG Prosecco wine from the Cartizze hill (where the formality of the bottle and cork is perhaps more appropriate, and the prestige producers would wish to retain a certain image), you are getting a DOC wine from the keg, 100% from the region’s Glera grape variety, where before you might have been served an industrial plonk, made from the old “pompe bicyclette” method, with its large bubbles which dissipated within a minute or two. Prosecco at heart is a fun wine and I see nothing wrong with, and a lot to be said for, drinking it from a keg, so long as it’s fresh and fizzy. And there’s no reason why this method of delivery shouldn’t make for a more affordable glass. Prosecco isn’t a bottle-fermented wine like Champagne, but it still comes to market in the same heavy bottle made to keep in all that pressure. To save all the energy used to make the bottles and transport them is admirable, at least for a proportion of the product.
So, this particular wine obsessive has no problem buying a few bagnums to drink at home, or take to the beach, on a picnic or a long walk. And no worries grabbing a glass of Prosecco from the bar when I next require my thirst quenching at a festival or concert. It’s all about looking at the packaging with open eyes and realising how the wine within is better than it once may have been. I mean, we resisted screw caps on wine for long enough, and now, even if we retain a little reticence for that closure on wines we want to cellar for a decade or more, do we really need a heavy glass bottle for wine which will effectively have a shelf life measured in weeks or months rather than years? It would be good to see us starting to accept what people like the Nielsens, and Louise Oliver, are doing, so long as the quality of the wine matches our expectations. We can only judge that by trying it.
Thanks especially to Louise Oliver for letting me read her dissertation, and also to Andrew and Emma Nielsen for supplying more information about their alternative packaging and the philosophy behind it…and for making sure I got to try a Bagnum before I could make it to the market to buy some.
Du Grappin wines can be found at Brockley and Herne Hill markets (except 29 Aug – 20 Sept) and at a host of other venues in London, where you’ll also find refillable bottles (filled from 20litre kegs). See their Facebook page. A number of shops sell the Bagnums, including Prohibition Wines, Hop Burns and Black, and Market Row Wines. A number of restaurants have their 5litre bag-in-box.
For The Wine Keg Company see http://www.winekegco.com (where you’ll find their address and opening times in Brighton), or call Louise on 01273 602687.