Maybe they can can

Robert Joseph admits to having underestimated the sales potential of natural wine, and draws parallels with the way others may prematurely make similar mistakes when considering the future of other recent arrivals on the wine scene.

Cacolac, the French chocolate drink maker that is putting wine in cans
Cacolac, the French chocolate drink maker that is putting wine in cans

An article has just crossed my desk from the US which suggests that the canned wine boom is over. No producers or distributors were quoted in support of this assertion but, apparently, more than one ‘analyst’ believes it to be the case. Canned wine, it was implied, like chocolate-flavoured-wine, has had its 15 minutes of fame.

I am planning to write - or commission - a proper, in-depth, study of this subject in the very near future which will appear here. It might of course support the cans-are-dead argument, but somehow I doubt it. I suspect that canned wine has, more likely, hit a plateau in the US, as many brands and products do in various markets at various stages of their evolution. My scepticism was bolstered by the absence of any comments from producers of canned wines or, more importantly, distributors. And by the lack of of any reference to the shortage of aluminium that led to many launches being postponed.

And then there was the fact that within a few days of reading the US piece, I came across the news that a Bordeaux-based chocolate drink producer and packaging business called Cacolac is investing €5m in a new canning plant that will expand its annual capacity from 9m wine cans to 25m, with the aim of getting to 40m within five years. Those cans already represent 15% of the 60m packages that pass along the Cacolac conveyor belt.

The company quotes research findings by Norstat that half of French wine drinkers aged under 25 tried canned wine during the pandemic lockdown, while a third of all wine drinkers apparently  told the researchers that they’ve done the same, or would be prepared to do so.

To be honest, I have no more faith in these statistics than I do in the analysts’ negative prognoses, but Cacolac’s experience in this sector and the size of its investment certainly weighs heavily in the balance of the way I view this story.

The slow ascent of boxes

I recall the days in the early 1990s when half of the wine that was consumed in Australia and New Zealand came out of taps on the sides of bag-in-box cartons, For many years, BiBs stubbornly refused to take off elsewhere. Today, however, while their share of the market in both those countries has shrunk, they have gained an even larger share in Sweden, and now have over a third of all supermarket sales in France, a country that took a particularly long time to embrace them. To make any definitive assessment of the canned wine market now is like judging a new TV series halfway through the first episode.

However, cans and bag-in-box are not the focus of this column, any more than red blends, bourbon barrel-aged, ‘Clean’ or orange wines or pet nat. All of these have their fans and those who disapprove of, or prefer not to believe in their appeal. And who allow those feelings to influence what should be factual assessments of the market.

I have to raise my hand here and admit to having been among those who underestimated the momentum of the natural wine movement and listened to others who shared my belief. I had tasted too many poor examples and happily concurred with people whom I respected who, like me, thought this had to be a short-lived metropolitan fad. 

I was wrong - and guilty of what psychologists call confirmation bias. The average quality of natural wine has improved, and a growing number of sommeliers and specialist retailers have included examples in their ranges. They still represent a statistically tiny fraction of the global wine market, but they are not insignificant and they are here to stay. I’m not sure if it is in my defence to say that I was similarly mistaken in 2016 about the prospects of Brexit and Donald Trump, but if confirmation bias were an imprisonable offence, many, many millions of us would have been placed behind bars for our thinking that year.

Natural wine fans who rejoice in my admission of underestimating the appeal of the wines with which they have fallen in love, might have to reconsider their own attitudes to that earlier list of controversial beverages as well as hard seltzer and Penfolds’ blend of red wine and the Chinese spirit, baijiu which - until the recent contretemps between China and Australia - defied much scepticism to become a highly successful export.

I have no idea whether any of the analysts who said the last rites over the warm body of the canned wine boom dislike the idea of wine in an aluminium tube as much as some of my friends hate the notion of whisky-flavoured Zinfandel, or I hated cloudy, cidery, overpriced natural wine. What I do know is that, in a polarised, bubble-think world, we all need to think carefully whenever we see any news that happens to suit our particular worldview.

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