Features Changing the Way We Drink

Changing the Way We Drink

Small-format bottles are no longer the preserve of the wedding industry.
© Weddings.com | Small-format bottles are no longer the preserve of the wedding industry.
Different sizes, formats and closures are moving us away from the traditional bottle-cork-glass wine experience.
By James Lawrence | Posted Saturday, 18-Nov-2017

In October 2017, British supermarket Waitrose launched a new range of half bottle, own-label wines in an attempt to lure mid-week diners away from the ubiquitous 750ml format.

"We believe that growth is being driven by customers who want to enjoy a glass of wine or two but don't necessarily want to buy a full 750ml bottle. The new half bottles are designed to meet the needs of the midweek evening meal occasion and to provide customer choice," said Waitrose wine buyer James Bone.

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This follows a decision by Felix Solis in May, to launch a new selection of 500ml bottles, including Viña Albali, Pulpito and its Chilean brands, the Guv'nor, and Piqueta.

The initiative was naturally greeted with universal jubilation by the anti-alcohol lobby, citing such developments as the proof that Brits want to moderate their infamously excessive drinking.

Or is it?

"There's very little interest in half-bottle formats; we keep about six lines, but they hardly sell and the vintages never match with the equivalent in bottles," says Oxford Wine Company owner Ted Sandbach, pouring cold water on Bone's enthusiasm.

"Half bottles barely register – we prefer 500ml carafes. The main reason for this is that we distrust the quality of many half bottles. In fact we're experimenting with halves in our USA sites, but the jury is still out," agrees UK wine buyer Christine Parkinson.

But despite the trade's skepticism over the commercial viability of half bottles, it's clear that the hegemony of the standard bottle format – be it 750ml or 375ml – is increasingly being threatened as global consumers look to other vessels for their wine fix.

"I'm certain that over the next five years we are going to see a dramatic increase in alternative formats, packs and sizes, as the traditional glass bottle becomes less important," argues Lulie Halstead, a senior analyst at Wine Intelligence.

She continues: "We have reached a point where utility and functionality are at least as important to consumers as tradition; our evidence shows that consumers used to trialling new formats in other categories now expect wine to offer the same innovation, particularly in terms of convenience and size."

Halstead underlines the point that in emerging markets such as Africa, small formats will likely dominate the market as single-serve vessels are more reliable, practical and portable.

"In economies such as sub-Sahara Africa, where people are often paid wages erratically, single-serve wine formats such as cans make more sense," says Halstead. "It's easier to preserve quality, there is less opportunity for tampering, breakage and they're easier to distribute. Moreover, they're more affordable and practical for consumers paid on a daily basis."

However, in traditional markets such as Western Europe, one seldom finds premium or even many entry-level wines in can or otherwise; 750ml bottles stubbornly refuse to give up their crown.

Indeed, format innovation continues to be driven by the mass-market segment; Prosecco has been at the forefront of this revolution – in January 2017, a new Prosecco brand called "Gigglewater" launched in the UK, with a range that includes a Frizzante Secco housed in a 200ml can.

It was transparently aimed at Millennials and female consumers, taking its name from a slang term for alcoholic drinks from Prohibition-era America.

Yet Halstead and other commentators argue that small formats will increasingly become important in mature markets as well, and not simply targeted at hipster Millenials.

To that end, they point to the launch of the Gooseberry Bomb hopped wine in a can, pioneered by respected New Zealand winery Allan Scott. Priced at $6 a can, the winery is clearly banking on the convenience USP, and growing lack of slavish devotion to bottle formats.

"If you look at the US market, wine sold in cans is gaining more traction, as consumers become used to various formats," says Halstead.

"Moreover, this is not simply being driven by younger consumers; with experience and age comes confidence, a willingness to accept that, like coffee sold in plastic cups, wine sold in a can does not necessarily indicate an inherently inferior quality, and will travel far more easily."

Of course, even within the US and Europe it's all very dependent on the region; KWV's regional business manager Lisbet Olsen points to Scandinavia as a region where consumer prejudice toward different formats is markedly less apparent than in traditional markets such as France and Italy.

"Over 70 percent of all South African wine is sold via bag-in-the-box, and Finns love innovative vessels – wine pouches and Prosecco in a can are becoming very popular. They're generally a casual people and would think nothing of buying a premium wine – Chablis for example – that wasn't housed in a bottle, secured with cork," says Olsen.

Meanwhile, as the closure debate continues to intensify, leading cork advocates hit back at accusations that the time-honored closure is too prone to cork taint.

Patrick Spencer, executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, told journalists in September that: "The figure that people quote about one in 10 wines bottled under cork having cork taint is a fallacy – there is no evidence to back this up – it's a myth that has never been proved."

The time-honored struggle between cork and alternative closures refuses to die.
© Shutterstock | The time-honored struggle between cork and alternative closures refuses to die.

He also claimed that wines bottle under screwcap were done so primarily for convenience.

"The popularity of screwcaps is being driven by the sin of convenience," he said. "Why would you choose a closure that flies in the face of rational environmental thought? Sustainability shouldn't stop in the vineyard, it should follow through into the packaging."

But despite this rhetoric from Spencer being completely self-interested, there is hard evidence that consumers – at least in some markets – regard screwcap with disdain.

In July 2015, Domaine Laroche announced a major U-turn on their closure policy, and admitted they were returning to natural cork for the majority of their wines from the 2013 vintage onwards.

Elaborating on the brand's change of heart, Sandrine Audegond, head of the fine wine division at Laroche, conceded that the ingrained Gallic prejudice towards screwcap wines had forced their hand.

At the time of Laroche's initial announcement to switch to screwcap in 2010, many industry commentators, including Robert Parker, were predicting the slow death of cork and the glorious rise of Stelvin closures worldwide.

Yet over the past five years, a growing firmament of premium wine producers including Rusden Wines in the Barossa Valley and several wineries in California have moved back to cork, citing improvements in technology and the subsequent reduction in levels of TCA contamination as the main reasons for their decision.

"From what we can see there still exists prejudice against screwcap for fine wines in many markets around the world, despite the evidence showing that fine wines perform and age extremely well under screwcap," agrees Villa Maria's CEO Richard Thomas.

"It's a problem the wine industry needs to urgently address, particularly in France and Spain," adds Domaines Paul Mas owner Jean-Claude Mas.

Yet, the picture that emerges from other markets is far more complex, indicating a divergence of attitudes towards fine wines bottled under screwcap.

London leads the vanguard for the pro-screwcap consumer, according to senior wine buyer Christine Parkinson.

"We experience no prejudice against screwcapped wine in our restaurants. I made a point of checking this with our sommeliers at Hakkasan Mayfair, which has a high proportion of high-end wines and seems to have plenty of older, more discerning guests. If we were going to have a problem anywhere, I think it would be here, but it's not a problem at all," says Parkinson.

Sommeliers and buyers in the US generally concur with her sentiments. "I have observed a definite transition from the mid-naughties to the present in terms of wider acceptance of screwcap wines," says sommelier Max Kast.

"I think this transition was really made possible by the increase in popularity New Zealand, Austrian, and Australian wines during that time period. With consumers comfortable twisting off the cap on their Marlborough  Sauvignon Blanc or Weinviertal Gruner on a regular basis, the idea of all types of wine under screw top has become more acceptable."

However, San Francisco-based sommelier Shelley Lindgren argues that the situation is more complicated, with the wine's color playing a deciding role. "It seems like it would not be an issue with many white and rosé wines, however, issues could arise on the higher-end red wines for instance. For some reason, it causes speculation as to the wine's quality not being pristine," explains Lindgren.

The anecdotal evidence from China is similarly conflicted – Kleine Zalze Wines report that Chinese consumers are wary of fine wines bottled under screw cap, while Villa Maria's Richard Thomas observes that: "Our fine wines are fast gaining acceptance, sales and respect in markets such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and others, and all of those wines are under screwcap."

Ultimately though, the closure debate surely comes down to the individual consumer in question, which calls into question the anecdotal evidence given from the wine trade. In this regard, Gerard Basset MS concurs, underlining the key point that the demographic is arguably far more important when it comes to screw cap prejudice.

"In China I would imagine that the elite who have discovered wine through the classed growths of Bordeaux are perhaps suspicious of the screwcap, but we must not generalize. I have been to China a few times and there is a young generation of Chinese wine consumers who are well-educated and are more open-minded than we think," argues Basset MS.

Moreover, as Millennial consumers increasingly become the key drivers of demand for fine wine around the world, it would be reasonable to conclude that this ingrained prejudice will eventually die off, even in markets such as Spain and France. "The key point with screwcap in Norway – and other markets – is that it's very "acceptable" amongst the younger clientele, obviously since they have grown up with it," observes Norwegian sommelier Erik Jonsson.

And so while cork is in no danger of being usurped anytime soon, we may eventually reach a point where screwcap and cork-sealed fine wines, not to mention wine sold in a can and 750ml bottles, can coexist on the world stage as equals, rather than awkward bedfellows.

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