Back in 2012, the respected Margaret River winemaker Dr Michael Peterkin began bottling his wines in lightweight glass. He was worried about his winery’s carbon emissions — the production and transport of glass bottles is a major contributor — and by using lighter glass, he was able to reduce his carbon footprint by as much as 44 per cent.
Dr Peterkin was a happy man. His cellar door customers were happy because, he says, they understood his reasoning and applauded it. However, some of his trade customers weren’t convinced. “They thought we were being cheapskates, especially when it came to Pierro chardonnay,” he remembers.
Pierro chardonnay, a celebrated wine, sells for $110 a bottle. Various writers have described it as “classic”, “beautiful” and “staggeringly complex”. But for some the vessel used for this top-flight wine presents a challenge. Great wines and heavy bottles have gone hand in hand for decades — the greater the weight, the more we seem to prize its contents.
But it’s been 11 years since Dr Peterkin (a former GP) began “lightweighting” and he remains convinced of the wisdom of his decision. “These days we really don’t even think about it,” he says. “It’s just a normal part of what we do.”
Glass bottles, together with packaging and transport, represent a whopping 68 per cent of a typical wine producer’s carbon emissions. The heavier the bottle, the more fuel that gets burned in its production and transportation, and the more emissions soar.
By switching from a heavy bottle (weighing about 750 grams or more — there’s no agreed industry definition) to a lighter one (typically 300–400 grams) producers can make a huge difference to their emissions bottom line. The Italian winemaker Banfi estimates the energy required to produce, transport and dispose of one kilogram of glass (a percentage of which is recycled) is equivalent to about 2.7 kilograms of Co2 emissions. By reducing the weight of its Bordeaux bottles by 170 grams, Banfi believes it has cut emissions for each bottle by almost 460 grams. According to the company, if it uses one million of these bottles, it will save the equivalent of the emissions produced by 100 cars each driving 23,000 kilometres.
Lightweight bottles are part of the wine industry’s transition to alternative packaging, which includes PET bottles, Tetra Paks, kegs, pouches, cans and bag-in-boxes, or wine casks. But there is also resistance.
Not every Australian wine producer is on board, despite leading industry body Australian Grape & Wine setting a goal for the sector to become carbon neutral by 2050. Nor is every drinker or retailer in agreement. “Some wineries are adopting [lightweighting] for economic choice,” notes leading independent wine retailer Phil Hude of Armadale Cellars. “But some are old-school and still love the heavy-punted ‘doorstop’ bottle due to the psychological aspect of ‘big is better’.”
There are definitely savings to be made by moving to lighter bottles, with 300-gram 750-millilitre bottles costing about 35–40 cents each. Heavier bottles can cost as much as $1. For his part, Hude questions the use of lighter bottles as a vehicle for ageing wines. “Sturdy” bottles, he says, offer better “insurance” for the packaging and storage of wine, especially during extended ageing in a cellar.
One producer that might disagree is Tahbilk, which has been carbon neutral since 2012 and has used 400-gram mid-weight bottles for its top wines since the 1940s. Tahbilk’s entry-level wines — those not intended for long-term ageing — go into lightweight bottles.
While the Australian wine industry aims for carbon neutrality by 2050, many wineries are thinking shorter term. “For us, we are working on strategies for net zero by 2030 and this [lightweight bottles] is a no-brainer,” says winemaker Clare Burder at Eminence Wines in Victoria’s King Valley. Lightweight bottles were on her to-do list from the start, and she used them for all her 2021 wines (with the exception of sparklings). “We didn’t do any opinion testing or feedback seeking,” Burder says. “My sense is that no-one even notices, really.”
Larger companies are also moving fast. Midway through last year, Taylors Wines introduced a four-centimetre-deep flat bottle made from 100 per cent recycled PET plastic, which is about 85 per cent lighter than its glass equivalent. Dipping its toe in these sustainable waters, the company produced the One Small Step range of wines — a shiraz, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and rosé — in plastic bottles for sale through Coles Liquor. It has been a great success and Taylors now plans to put its 80 Acres range in PET bottles from midyear for its entire retail trade.
“We have invested a lot of time and money into making a real difference in reducing our carbon footprint,” says managing director Mitchell Taylor. Being a family business, she says they wanted to hand over Taylors Wines “to the next generation in better shape than the previous one [did], from both an environmental and economic perspective.”
Accolade-owned Banrock Station has also moved into flat PET bottles, with a pinot grigio and pinot noir available through Liquorland and First Choice stores. The company also sells wine in cans, on tap and in casks, as well as in 1.5-litre wine “bags” that can hold a magnum, called “bagnums”.
To encourage producers and drinkers to think about the container that holds their wine, some wine writers around the world are starting to note the weight of (filled) bottles in their tasting notes. The initiative was started by one of the world’s most respected critics, Jancis Robinson, in the UK. “Any full bottle weighing more than 1,250 grams is probably heavier than it need be,” she writes on her website, JancisRobinson.com. She and her writers record the weight of particularly heavy or light bottles “in order to respectively condemn or praise those producers who had chosen them”.
As the world struggles to contain carbon emissions and limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius, it must be asked: why do we persist with heavy wine bottles, which are often consumed and thrown away within days of purchase? “Undoubtedly glass bottles are the ‘elephant in the room’ with respect to the carbon footprint of wine,” states a paper that was written and delivered by a group of Australian wine industry leaders at last year’s 43rd World Congress of Vine and Wine in Mexico. “When faced with a modern climate crisis, the industry should question reasons for maintaining the devotion to a package designed over 390 years before, the glass bottle.”
It might also be said that consumers, too, should start questioning its use.