Is it time to pass on glass when it comes to serving wine?

Why not serve wine from cardboard cartons, plastic or even paper bottles?
  • @gillian_orr

Should you find yourself in a Jamie's Italian, the popular chain of eateries from Jamie Oliver, you might well be tempted to order one of the organic house wines on offer. If you did, you would notice that the unoaked Chardonnay Di Puglia and the Sangiovese Terre Di Chieti Abruzzo come out of Tetra Pak cartons. Staff will decant the wine for you, but you can still see the snazzy boxes on show behind the bar.

Oenophiles might balk at the idea of wine coming in anything but glass with a cork, but get used to it. The glass wine bottle is getting a makeover due to increasing pressure on manufacturers to look for more eco-friendly ways to produce, transportand recycle packaging for wine.

"When we were putting the wine list together we were getting samples in to taste and one of the suppliers sent in some samples in Tetra Paks," Simon Blagden, managing director of the Jamie's Italian chain, says. "We thought that they looked quite cool and they were also eco-friendly and really good for storage.

"We worked out that we could charge about £3 less for 750ml than if it was in a glass bottle because it's cheaper to produce. The suppliers thought we were mad but it's the biggest-selling wine that we do. We usually decant them into carafes or the glass but we have had instances where people ask to actually have the Tetra Pak on the table and then they take them home." There are a number of companies serving wine in Tetra Paks, such as French Rabbit, Ciao, Long Flat, Village Du Sud, Alice White and Green Path, but can they really ever replace the traditional wine bottle?

"The aspect that would put me off – and feel free to call me a snob – is the image," Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter magazine, says. "Do I really want to turn up to a garden party with wine in a Tetra Pak? Probably not. Plastic bottles? Maybe. Wolf Blass, which is a perfectly good, mass-market producer, does several of its wines in PET [polyethylene terephthalate]. Not only don't you need to fret about remembering a corkscrew [they're all screwcap] but you also have a lighter load that you don't have to worry about dropping."

Plastic bottles have come a long way in recent times and can now be found in most supermarkets. Two years ago, Marks & Spencer became the first in the UK to convert its entire range of 25cl bottles to an environmentally friendly plastic. These bottles are 88 per cent lighter than glass bottles, less energy is required to manufacture a PET bottle than a glass bottle and the lightweight bottle reduces distribution emissions.

"Plastic bottles do allow more oxygen into the wine, which over a long period is going to turn the wine flat," Woodward says. "But it makes a great deal of sense for producers to turn to lighter, cheaper materials for wines that are made for more immediate drinking. That way they can work to more competitive price points and consumers don't have to lug around heavy glass bottles."

At the end of last year a company called Greenbottle, known for manufacturing the world's first paper milk bottle, announced plans to launch the world's first paper wine bottle. Weighing just 55g per bottle compared with 500g for glass, transport costs will be reduced and its carbon footprint is 10 per cent of that for a glass bottle. It also decomposes in weeks. Retaining the shape of the wine bottle was merely an attempt to reassure consumers.

Another recent innovation in wine packaging is the single-serve plastic glass of wine with a tear-off lid. It first came to the nation's attention after James Nash's idea was rejected by all four businesspeople on the television show Dragons' Den. Since then, Marks & Spencer has started stocking the product to great success. "The wine they're using [three Languedoc wines – a Shiraz, Chardonnay and rosé called Le Froglet] is actually not too bad, and the idea makes sense," Woodward says. "The trouble is, the mark-up is extortionate."

Be it for eco-friendly reasons, convenience or style, manufacturers are continuing to experiment with packaging and we're likely to see more and more cutting-edge ideas in the future. Whether or not wine connoisseurs can be tempted away from their beloved glass bottles remains to be seen.

They might need some convincing, but as Woodward points out: "Much of the rights and wrongs of the packaging of wine depends upon the context of where and how you're going to drink it. Unless you're planning to lay the wine down for a few years, the material used isn't overly significant."