Genie In The Bottle

What is behind the thousands of wine bottles on our shelves?

Despite the rumoured ‘explosion’ in sales of canned wine (mainly in the USA) and the general acceptance of boxed wine everywhere, the glass bottle remains the packaging of choice for most wine producers.

It will take some time and a lot of convincing for the box and the can to be suitable receptacles for premium wine and putting good commercial quality wine in them may prove risky because of the perceived wisdom that box and canned wine is only for the entry-level low-end market.

The glass bottle, however, has been married to wine for hundreds of years and reigns supreme in the on-trade and for premium wine. It is impossible to imagine anything else. It is recyclable, portable, strong, reasonably cost effective and inert. 

Shane Dean is an Account Manager for the Wine category at Consol Glass, the largest supplier of wine bottles to SA wine producers (and huge suppliers of all other bottles, too). Consol has four plants home to 29 production lines working at full capacity.

Shane estimates that Consol has 75-80% of the wine bottle market in South Africa and that they dedicate as much as 20% of their annual production to the wine industry in SA. They supply nearly all of SA’s 560+ wine estates (some in part) and many contract bottlers who bottle wine at their own centres or who visit the winery to bottle.

The recycling element of glass is important at Consol. Bottles can be recycled as many times as they are returned. Returnable, or multi-use glass is washed by the brand owner and returned to the market many times before being returned to the furnace as recycled glass. In conjunction with the Glass Recycling Company there are systems which enable Consol to collect used glass and use it to add an average of 40% cullet (recycled glass) to the batch mix.  So, rather than time-consuming re-firing of base elements from scratch, ‘Cullet’ can provide nearly half of each batch. Glass itself, says Shane, is remarkable in that it is ‘like-for-like’ in terms of its recycling; one bottle returned can produce another of the same mass.

Consol offer 75cl bottles weighing from 350g to 900g and the variation in shape, closure and colour is vast. The light weight options for wine are the most popular because of price and environmental impact, one hopes. It isn’t a simple matter of Sauvignon Blanc coming in a clear 350g Bordeaux shaped bottle and Pinot Noir in a green 410g Burgundy shape, though, Sauvignon can come in a 700g Burgundy bottle, have a green tint and screw top, Pinot Noir could be a brown 450g Bordeaux bottle with helix stopper, Pinot Gris can be found in the Riesling flute, Bordeaux clear or Burgundy coloured; possible combinations are myriad. The variation of the offering from Consol enables producers many options in terms of packaging.  The brand owner can select heavy weight bottles in antique green for premium wines and light weight bottles for entry level wines.  The producer can also select the closure to suit the market to which the wine is intended.

The most popular colour is dark green (approx 45%), then flint, dead leaf, antique and about 5% in other colours. The almost opaque ‘Antique’ is particularly sexy and premium. Then there are half bottles and magnums, or special finishes or embossments and prices between approximately R3.80 and R11.50 a 75cl bottle. The wine team at Consol know how important this choice is for producers and spend a lot of time with producers to get the choices right. Estimates put total packaging costs per bottle at 20% of shelf price (this includes label, stopper, cases etc) so it is a crucial decision. It wouldn’t make sense for a R50 wine to be in a R11 bottle, for example.

In fact, the more I learnt the more obvious it became that the understanding between producer and Consol was vital. This is not an anonymous product churned out by the ton when requested. Not only is bottle choice a serious and constantly reassessed discussion between the team and the producer but timing – for both - is essential.

There may be some peak request periods for bottles, such as January/February and October/November, but close liaison with producers means that Consol can plan firings of an order so that it fits with other firings of bottles for beer, baby food or fizzy drinks. Decisions to switch to screwcap or the new helix screw able cork range are planned carefully to fit time-lines suitable for everyone. Screwcap and Stelvin, by the way, have some 80% of the wine bottle orders at Consol.

Planning in advance is critical and an understanding of winemaking and harvesting is a vital part of the Consol wine team’s role. They are keen observers of the season, harvest conditions, yields and quantity expectations. Consol also understands producer’s cellar capacity, storage facilities and distribution. It is a very personal contract to ensure that producers have the best product for their brand, in the correct number at the right time. “The better the information, the better we work,” says Shane.

Premium reds present less of a problem for planning as their maturation allows time for preparation, but whites and commercial reds that hit the market a month after picking must have careful pre-planning.

And why the ‘punt’ in the bottom?Stillno definitive answer. Possible inverted storage advantages, possibly to strengthen the bottle, but I think Shane’s answer is the one; “it was due to wine bottles been made by glass blowers.  The seam was pushed up to make sure the bottle could stand upright and there wasn’t a sharp point of glass on the bottom”. Consol now produce bottles with or without a punt, as a deep punt adds weight to the bottle, lightweight bottles come with shallow or no punts. It seems that punts are now, “more of a design element”.