Canned wine is the future – so why is it so bad?

A first-time festival experience means David Kermode must confront the truth about canned wine: current standards are embarrassingly low. Here, he explains why it’s time for winemakers to up their aluminium game

Words by David Kermode

wine in a can

Until last weekend, I was a festival virgin. As much as I love music, friends and fun, I am not especially fond of mud, camping or chemical toilets, but when a best friend chose Wilderness for his 40th, it was finally time to invest in a tent.

As shallow as it sounds, a great concern has always been what I might drink. I need wine to refresh the parts that beer cannot reach. Despite the enviable and entirely justified reputation that Wilderness enjoys for its food options, wine is a struggle. Although the Nyetimber tent offered a welcome (if pricey) diversion, the main bars had a limited selection, ranging from uninspiring to unpleasant, usually served at ‘room temperature’, if measured in degrees of sweaty marquee.

Thankfully, as any experienced festival-goer will know, much of the day’s activity actually revolves around the crowded tent city, where revellers sink a selection of smuggled-in drinks, preloading until it is time to hit the main stages. Our colourful base was Camp Daniel’, the name also an apt description of our host. Ice was on sale, so it was easy to keep our bootlegged beauties cool. Glass was banned, for obvious reasons; boxed wine was an option, although tricky to chill, so the can came into its own.

David Kermode at wilderness festival
Kermode found his way to the Nyetimber tent at his first festival foray, but away from its comfortable confines the wine on offer failed to hit the mark

It is a brilliant format: chillable, portable, a perfect portion size, simple to open, easy to hide, and crucially at a time of climate crisis, sustainable. Although aluminium is born into sin – it’s made from bauxite ore, which must be mined – it more than atones for its beginnings with a lifespan that is potentially infinite. The recycling rate for cans is high – currently an impressive 82% in the UK – and it’s a virtuous circular process, as the raw material never degrades. It’s somewhat sobering to think that you could be outlived by a can of Coke.

So far so good, but there’s a serious problem when it comes to canned wine. The experience of tracking down a tasty example rivals trying to find your festival friends after you’ve wondered off for a wee in that it is almost impossible (a tip for the latter: try taking a very tall friend and making him wear a torch on his head to act as a portable lighthouse).

The global market for canned wine is estimated to be increasing at around 13% each year – led by the United States – versus near static growth for other formats, yet the vast majority of what’s available on the market right now is still far from enticing.

copper crew canned wine range
The Copper Crew's selection of canned wines, which Kermode cites as a pleasing, positive example of the direction in which winemakers should be going

Two years ago, I was invited to a conference in Paris to sell the notion of canned wine to a group of French winemakers. The venue was not far from the Folies Bergère, so I called my presentation ‘the can can’. Although my choice of title might have been a little crass, the message was well received, with general acknowledgement that the trade was failing to meet the needs of the market. One of those present now produces a finely packaged Fleurie in a can – how I wish I’d had that with me at Wilderness, as Beaujolais is perfect lightly chilled.

If wine wants to be taken seriously by younger generations, it needs to get with the times

Never mind stuffy appellation rules and old-school snobbery, if wine wants to be taken seriously by younger generations of drinkers, it needs to get with the times and throw caution to the wind. The RTD (ready to drink) sector saw growth of 20% last year alone, mostly driven by new flavours of hard seltzer and exciting twists on the premixed G&T, so where is the innovation with decent, drinkable wine? It’s embarrassing.

Granted, there are a handful of pacesetters. Château Léoube has a classy canned Côtes de Provence and the Copper Crew won an IWSC bronze last year for one of its trio of well-made South African wines. Napa Valley’s Larkin has launched a lovely white blend and Francis Ford Coppola offers an impressive Pinot Noir.

leoube petit rose cans
'Classy': Kermode also approves of Côtes de Provence rosé cans from Château Léoube

By and large, however, it is a wearying world of canned crap, some of which I put to the test last weekend at the Wilderness campsite, hoping to be able to write ‘in tents’ in my tasting notes. Most of the wines were just boring, while a few, such as ‘Babe’, merit special mention – a shocking, carbonated, candy-fruited concoction, described as ‘rosé with bubbles’, which had all the charm of a festival pissoir. Somebody needs to put Babe in a corner.

I’m not suggesting that we should expect cans of Romanée-Conti anytime soon, but surely we can do better than what’s currently on offer? Festival friendly, picnic proof and preferable for the planet, the can’s moment has come – so let’s fill it with a decent drop.

What David has been drinking…

  • Pyramid Valley Sauvignon + from North Canterbury, New Zealand (£19 Hay Wines). A fascinating wine, the signature is unmistakably Kiwi, but the mix of fermenting vessels, touch of skin contact and addition of Pinot Gris and Riesling deliver a delicious textured treat.
  • Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosato 2020 (£16 Justerini and Brooks), subtle pink, like shallot skin, a beguiling blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, with bright red fruit, raw almond and sea-breeze salinity.
  • Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Ried Achleiten 2019 (£25, Fine + Rare), from a superb vintage and the finest plots, a dazzling wine with bright stone fruit, pithy grapefruit acidity, layers of mineral texture and real persistence.
David Kermode 2021

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.