Wine aplenty, but no bottles

Asked about his plans for lighter, eco-friendly glass bottles and packaging, the head of a southern French wine company this week said that simply was not the issue.

“The issue is glass supply. We have a big problem, we cannot get bottles to put our wine in,” said Jean-Claude Mas, director of Domaines Paul Mas, which sold nine million bottles of wine from the southern Languedoc region last year.

“It is not a question of lighter or not, as of this month, for my top selling white sauvignon blanc wines, I have zero glass stock and an order for 36 000 bottles. I have no plan B,” he said at Vinisud, the Montpellier-based wine trade fair for southern France running this week.

“If this continues I will be putting rosé wine in dark bottles.”

The problem of bottle supply has been a nagging one for French wine producers across the board. But in the Languedoc, where wine sales are picking up rapidly after a slump at the beginning of the millennium, the issue now appears more critical.

Another Languedoc producer with supply problems said he was ready to move bottling to Britain.

“I have bottles all right, I had to commit to requirements of two million bottles this year,” said David Rowledge of Alchemy Wines, a Britain-based company that sold 1,7-million bottles of Languedoc wine last year.

But he is still without the particular bottle he needs for his white wine.

A move to Britain, where he has already found a bottler, Broadlands Winery in Norfolk, would solve both his supply problems and meet British supermarket demands for eco-friendly wines by reducing transport emissions.

Britain-based bottling, he estimates, will take one lorry off the road for every two he currently sends, because instead of being transported in bottles the wine will be loaded into an oil tanker type container.

“When I go to see a UK supermarket buyer, the first thing they say after ‘Hello David’ is, where’s your environmental policy?” he said.

The irony of the current situation was that producers were being pushed into using heavier, more expensive bottles, as the supply of lighter, cheaper ones faltered, he added.

“The other option is to get bottles from China, and that’s not eco-friendly at all,” said Rowledge.

A move to bottling in other countries however might not be so easy for others. “I have no bottling line here. It is easy for me to move,” Rowledge explained. “Plus, bottlers in the UK are busy enough with their own needs.”

Another option, for wines meant to be drunk within one or two years of production, is to change the packaging. Current choices include aluminium, tetra paks and PET plastic, although none seem to have the universal appeal of glass.

Aluminium bottles, the newest addition, are seen as having potential for light, easy drinking wines that need to be chilled. Aluminium cools faster than glass and can be enhanced with novelties such as temperature dots that change colour when the wine is ready.

But although it is easy to recycle and light to transport, it is not see-through, and producers believe seeing a wine’s colour is important to a buyer.

Tetra Pak has already gained ground, particularly in smaller “snack” formats. But again it is not transparent — and environmentalists have objected that consumers have difficulty recycling Tetra Paks without the proper facilities because they are foil, plastic and paper composites.

PET plastic is see-through and seems to be the coming thing.

Major French producer, Boisset, which pioneered Tetra Pak with its French Rabbit brand and will soon commercialise the first white wine in a large format aluminium bottle, also does a PET product, Yellow Jersey. It sold 155 000 bottles in Canada last year.

Late last year Castel, another major French producer which produces at least 110-million bottles of Languedoc-Roussillon wines annually, said if glass bottle supply problems continued it would consider a move to PET.

“The situation has not changed,” said Franck Crouzet, Castel communications director, at Vinisud. “We have been told there will be supply problems in 2008 as there were in 2007.”

Local perceptions at Vinisud are that shortages have been created in order to push up prices. “Prices went up in August last year by about five to six percent, and then again in January this year,” said Rowledge.

Contacted for comment, one of the major suppliers, Saint Gobain, would only say they had produced more bottles so far this year than they had for the same period last year.

Commenting on price increases the company said they were due to rising costs of energy and raw materials. – AFP

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