Does it matter where a wine is bottled?

Bulk wine shipping means a wine created in one part of the world may be bottled far from home. Does this matter, or is it important for a wine's package to come from its source? Robert Joseph considers the issue.

Photo by Kym Ellis on Unsplash
Photo by Kym Ellis on Unsplash

Does it matter if a Peugeot car is manufactured in Britain, or a Bosch washing machine was assembled in Turkey or Thailand or Russia? Do you care if those stylish Prada sneakers or Armani glasses were shipped from a factory in China?

How would you feel if your Chilean Cabernet was bottled in the north of England or your Californian Chardonnay was poured into a bag-in-box in Copenhagen? 

Many people might have a visceral reaction against this kind of globalisation – an instinctive preference for a product that is produced and packaged by the people whose name it bears and in the region where they are based. With wine, this is especially true, given the oft-recounted, early 20th century, stories of merchants in London or Holland or Belgium ‘improving’ the contents of the barrels they have shipped from the top chateaux in Bordeaux before bottling it in their urban cellars. When I first learned about wine, I was taught to look for the words ‘mis en bouteille au chateau’; they offered, I was led to believe, some kind of guarantee of quality.

And then, in the late 1980s, long after the crus classes had all moved to exclusive estate-bottling I had an encounter with an old bottle that changed my mind. It was a Chateau Palmer 1966, bottled by Berry Bros & Rudd in London, and it remains one of my favourite Bordeaux memories. I haven’t tasted that vintage since, but Neal Martin’s notes from 2015 compare it with the brilliant 1961.

Martin presumably enjoyed a great chateau-bottled example of that wine but, as I discovered when researching a book on Bordeaux, there may well have been a number of different versions of it. In those days – and certainly in earlier decades, wine was sold in barrel to local negociants who either bottled it themselves or sold it to merchants in other countries who took on that responsibility. Even assuming that no ‘improvement’ was involved (and none was needed for Palmer 1966), all of these bottlers may have varied in the dose of SO2 they added, the cleanliness of their equipment, and indeed the date. I was told by one old hand that wines were often bottled to order. Sometimes from a tank that had not been as well tended as it should have been.

Today, around a third of the wine on sale in the UK and US is shipped in bulk and bottled locally, and the figure in Germany and the Netherlands is significantly higher. Wine drinkers in Sweden probably have no idea that the stuff in their glass paused at a Danish bottling plant on its journey from Argentina or Australia.

The beauty of this kind of bulk shipping is that it is doubly justifiable. As documentation produced by wrap, the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme. reveals, on the one hand it’s much better for the environment; a flexitainer of wine uses up to 40 percent less energy than the equivalent volume of bottled wine. On the other, it represents a similar financial saving that can either be passed on to the consumer or added to the distributor’s bottom line. Added to these advantages, there are also the potential benefits of longer shelf-life and the greater flexibility provided by bottling-on-demand.

The issue of quality assurance is dealt with by wine producers in much the same way as Armani and Prada. While the Italian fashion brands have employees working in their Chinese suppliers’ factories, the bigger wine producers treat their UK or European bottler as though it were an extension of their own winery. And just as big motor manufacturers collaborate with rivals to produce engines, Treasury Wine Estates and Accolade bottle each other’s wine in the former business’s Australian and the latter’s British plants.

While local bottling is not appropriate for premium and super premium wine, these represent a relatively tiny proportion of the annual global production. So why isn’t a greater proportion of more modestly priced wine shipped in bulk?

One answer is European appellation laws that have much in common with the ones that insist on wine being bottled with corks – even cheap and nasty ones – rather than screwcaps.

Rules that seek to protect the quality and image of illustrious wine regions make perfect sense – but seem rather less logical when applied to AOP wines that leave the producers’ cellars for prices below €1 per itre.

I treat wine producers in the same way that I treat the manufacturers of clothes, washing machines and cars. If they are scrupulous about quality and are not harming the environment or abusing their workers, I really don’t mind where they assemble or package their products. But I would like the label to be open and frank about the fact – possibly rather more so than Bosch/Siemens who use arcane code numbers on the back of their machines to record whether they were manufactured in Germany or Poland for example. But maybe buyers of these items really don’t care where they came from.

Robert Joseph

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