French winegrowers shrug off pride, bottle in plastic

Tradition dies hard in the French Pyrenees, but winegrowers are shrugging aside Gallic pride to bottle their wine in plastic to meet a demand for lighter, unbreakable bottles.

"Plastic bottles are difficult for me," said Pascal Fernandez, a winegrower from the Pepieux cooperative in the Languedoc. "In the French culture, a glass bottle with a natural cork is engraved in our genes."

But Fernandez and the 16 other growers who recently gathered at a local bottler and producer, Les Celliers Jean d'Alibert, say they must overcome cultural taboos and adapt to new consumer demands if they are to survive.

"We've had a crisis for the last seven or eight years. Prices dropped every year until they hit 2004 prices. It's a little better now but I don't know if it'll last," Fernandez said.

Many in his region have already given up - "they've ripped up 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of vines in the Aude," said Fernandez - and without a turnaround, the long-term outlook does not look good.

"There are only two winegrowers under 35," said Fernandez, gesturing to the group, which cultivates 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of sustainably farmed vines.

In fact, none of the winegrowers encouraged their children to follow in their footsteps. It's too difficult, said several growers.

So it's understandable these winegrowers listened when one of their top clients, Robert Joseph of Hugh Kevin & Robert, proposed bottling their Greener Planet wine in plastic, with an initial order of 75,000 bottles for Asda, the British subsidiary of the mammoth US discount retailer Walmart.

"A lot of the wine trade is a one-night stand relationship," said Robert Joseph of his company's collaborative, demand-driven project. "We are trying to create an enduring relationship - consumer to distributor to producer to growers."

Joseph and analysts at Euromonitor International say the move to plastic has been driven by demand from buyers as varied as airlines, Texas supermarkets, Nordic and Canadian state liquor monopolies and restaurant chains in Britain.

"We are in the most brutally capitalistic part of the wine business. We never own the wine," said Joseph of his company. "We are a clear bellwether of what the market wants."

And what a growing number of pragmatic tipplers seem to want are unbreakable, easily resealed, lighter wine bottles.

"We are expecting positive sales over the following weeks, especially as we head towards the summer months and there are more occasions such as outdoor festivals and concerts, where traditional glass wine bottles are banned," said Lottie Parsons, spokesperson for Asda.

Distributors and retailers are particularly keen on plastic bottles - known in the trade as PET bottles, after the acronym for the material from which they are moulded - because they lighten the carbon footprint from freight, weighing three to five tons less per shipping container, according to Philippe Lauret, president of Les Celliers Jean d'Alibert.

The price of the bottle remains the same, however, so producers don't cut costs.

Lauret says his firm expects to supply Asda with 360,000 bottles of wine in plastic bottles this year. He also has an order for over 150,000 bottles of wine-in-PET for the Finnish state liquor monopoly.

"It's a good sign - it's taking off," said Lauret.

Other wine producers in the Languedoc defend the trend.

"PET bottles are interesting for wines that are affordable and accessible for all consumers, like our varietal wines Couleurs du Sud," said Franck Autard, chief executive of Skalli, whose production of PET-bottled wine shot from zero in 2009 to 2.5 million bottles in 2010.

Christine Cornil, export manager for another large Languedoc producer Auguste Bonlouis, said they delivered 20,000 plastic bottles of My PET Wine to the United States in January and will launch another PET-bottled wine in Britain this spring.

Domestic sales hint that the French consumer might be less tradition-bound. Last year Auguste Bonlouis sold one million plastic bottles of wine to French supermarkets, two million small plastic bottles to restaurant chain Flunch and 50,000 plastic bottles of organic wine to retailer Monoprix.

"I think we can have both glass and plastic," said Fernandez, "but there is risk of a huge battle in our profession if we bottle our wine in plastic."

Plastic-bottled wine has met with vitriol in other parts of France, despite consumer demand.

When the Boisset Family Estates lightened the load with PET-bottled Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan, Canada and the United States - "where the environment is important," noted Nathalie Berges-Boisset - producers were outraged.

The Beaujolais winegrowers union has since banned bottling their wine, including Nouveau Beaujolais, in plastic.

Boisset put its Beaujolais back in glass but continues to bottle wines from other regions, including the Languedoc, in plastic. "I'm not ashamed," said Boisset. "We don't have any taboos and we believe in the environment."

And plastic bottles undeniably open new markets for the wine trade. "I'm looking at the boating world," said Joseph. "You don't want glass on a boat."