Bigging up bulk wine

It's not exactly glamorous. Indeed, as tempting invitations go, it’s up there with the World Remaindered Books Conference, or the Reconstituted Meat Product Exhibition

But there it is in the diary in Amsterdam in November – The World Bulk Wine Exhibition. I can hardly contain my excitement.

OK, so I’m being a bit sarcastic. But who can blame me? Talk to most people in the wine industry and you’ll rarely get them to admit to having anything to do with the trade in bulk wine. It’s the elephant in the room when you taste a line-up of supermarket wines.

You can understand why producers, brand owners and merchants would prefer consumers not to know that their wines got to market via huge tanks on mega tankers. The very concept goes against everything we’ve been trained to think about quality wine and the way it is made and packaged. Generations of drinkers have been indoctrinated with the notion that ‘estate bottled’ on a label is a guarantee of quality on a par with ‘Reserva’ or ‘old vines’. For them, bulk wine is really just a synonym for industrial wine.

Shadowy or not, however, it can’t be denied that bulk wine is a big business that is getting even bigger. According to figures released by the Bulk Wine Exhibition, the share of bulk wine now stands at 38.6% of global wine exports. That translates into 39.49m hl of wine that has at some point made a journey by road or sea without a bottle in sight. For New World suppliers, the figure is even higher, with bulk wine exports now exceeding bottled by 51% to 49%. And that figure is growing by the year, both in volume (adding 5% in market share in the past decade) and, importantly, value (jumping from €0.61 to €0.71 per litre over the same period).

No doubt there will be some die-hard vinous traditionalists who will see those figures as evidence of wine’s increasing race to the bottom. And, as discounters push the supermarkets ever lower in price in all of wine’s major markets, no doubt there is some truth in that. But that isn’t the whole story by any means. There is a positive side to the rise of en vrac that has more to do with environmental concerns and innovative marketing ideas than commercial cynicism.

According to UK-based WRAP, which works with the food and drink industry to improve efficiency and sustainability, importing wine in bulk rather than bottle can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 40%, or 2kg of CO2 per 100km. And, as importers come under increasing pressure to improve their carbon footprints, those savings are not to be sniffed at. It also helps with recycling. In the net-importing countries, such as the UK or Scandinavia, the increased appetite for wine has left a glut of green glass. The more wine that is shipped in bulk, the more that green glass can re-enter the market.

And there are benefits to shipping in bulk once the liquid has arrived. It creates greater flexibility in packaging choices – suddenly it’s that bit easier to put your wine in that funky bag-in-box or choose a Burgundy, Bordeaux or fluted bottle according to the changing demands of your customers.

It’s no surprise, then, that more than 6,000 visitors are expected at the Rai Amsterdam. Clearly they understand it’s time to get over our snobbery and start taking bulk wine more seriously.