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When it comes to wine, is plastic actually fantastic?

With the carbon footprint of wine’s packaging under increasing scrutiny, David Kermode considers whether the plastic bottle could be the solution, particularly with its latest advance into the luxury wine world

Words by David Kermode

wine bottles

I don’t think I ever expected to write a paean to plastic. However I am coming around to the idea that it’s time to smash the glass ceiling and accept that there’s a better material for our beloved wine bottle.

In recent years, plastic has been considered the devil incarnate. We are making more of it than ever before with at least eight million tonnes of the stuff ending up in the sea every year. Thanks to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, we now understand its impact on the planet, with traces of plastic waste found as far afield as Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench, its micro particles boomeranging back into our lives as part of the food chain.

With its proclivity for unintended consequences, sustainability can sometimes seem like a game of whack-a-mole, played blindfolded, inside a hornet’s nest, but it has never been more important – so we really need to try, and that’s why it is worth posing the question: is plastic actually fantastic?

glass wine bottles
David Kermode: 'We tend to think of glass as a sustainable, recyclable product, but it is more complicated than that'

If you want to have an honest discussion about wine’s environmental impact, then you have to start with the bottle, because it is responsible for around half of its carbon footprint. Thanks to Jancis Robinson and others, there is mounting pressure on producers to bin those hideous heavy bottles and use thinner glass instead. But I fear this amounts to fiddling while the earth burns.

We tend to think of glass as a sustainable, recyclable product, but it is more complicated than that. Forged in a blazing furnace, it is energy-intensive to produce, expensive to transport and challenging to recycle, requiring colour separation and sorting.

Though glass recycling is admittedly well established – the box of shame entered our lives in the 1970s – the process for plastic is gaining ground, but the real advantage comes from its weight… or rather, lack thereof. A typical Pet (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottle is around 85 percent lighter than its glass equivalent, with the new breed of bottle usually flat and therefore stackable, meaning a pallet can take more than twice the load.

New plastic is made from oil and petrochemicals, but a bottle doesn’t need so-called ‘virgin’ material. ‘R-Pet’ sounds like it comes from the mouth of Bet Lynch behind the bar of the Rover’s Return, but it actually means the plastic is recycled. Even better, there’s ‘ocean prevented’ R-Pet, recovered from the shore to start a new life as another product. Rather neatly, supermarkets are now using it to package fish products (look for a triangular label with arrows around a wave).

banrock station plastic wine bottle
Banrock Station's plastic wine bottle release

For mackerel that’s fine, but we’re talking wine?’, I hear you say. I accept that embracing a plastic bottle at the dinner table certainly requires a shift in mindset, but we have done it before. We used to rent our television sets, drive without seatbelts, and go to roller discos to have fun – all of which seem ridiculous now.

I accept that embracing a plastic wine bottle at the dinner table certainly requires a shift in mindset, but we have done it before

There are other challenges: a plastic bottle tends to bob about like a buoy in an ice bucket, so chilling it and keeping it cool are trickier, though perfectly possible.  There’s also a significant question mark over how long you can keep a wine in plastic, though most of us buy it for drinking, not ageing.

The climate crisis requires leadership, and we must applaud the bravery of those producers who have already been bold. In late 2020, the mighty Accolade Wines launched a flat plastic container for its Banrock Station brand. I actually squealed with delight when the sample bottle popped through my letter box and I now see it gracing the shelves of my local Co-op, where it is a pioneer in its own right. Besides the cheaper transport costs, retailers like plastic bottles because there are no breakages and you can squeeze more of them onto a shelf.

galoupet nomade rose plastic wine bottle
Château Galoupet's Nomade rosé has just been launched in a flat, R-Pet plastic wine bottle

If plastic is really going to prosper, however, it needs to be associated with aspirational, premium products – and I think Provence rosé could be the perfect partner. We drink it young and we lap it up by the pool, or at festivals, where glass is usually banned, so as long as the wine is served cold, what’s not to love?

A couple of years ago, Möet Hennessy purchased a Provence Grand Cru Classé property, Château Galoupet, installing the young commercial director of Krug Champagne, Jessica Julmy, to lead a root and branch revolution. Aside from changing agricultural practices, she rightly regards packaging as crucial to cutting carbon footprint, so Galoupet’s second wine, Nomade, a classic Provence rosé, has just been launched in a flat R-Pet bottle. It looks great, it tastes great, but – most of all – it is a really great idea.

They say that what goes around comes around. If we can embrace recycled plastic for our wine bottles, then surely we have a chance to breathe new life into that old adage.

What David has been drinking…

  • Maison Mumm RSRV, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Grand Cru 2013 (£70) From Grand Cru Pinot Noir, with six years cellar ageing, an aromatic feast of stone fruit and fresh croissant, with perfect precision, intensity and a long luxurious finish.
  • Yalumba, The Virgilius 2018, Eden Valley, Viognier 2018 (£40) Widely regarded as Australia’s finest expression of Viognier, from the cool slopes of the Eden Valley, the scents of sourdough and zesty citrus, leading into a delicious, mineral-driven, stone-fruited, finely textured wine that has an ethereal quality greater than the sum of its parts.
  • La Fiorita, Brunello di Montalcino 2016 (£65) Sangiovese at its most sublime, from an organic estate transformed by its charismatic American owner, Natalie Oliveros, the wine is perfumed, elegant and incredibly pure, with juicy red berries and tannins so silky you could spend the night on them.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

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.