Big but not bad
Much has been written and spoken about the growth of shipping wine in bulk recently; this phenomenon, increasingly used for transporting South African wine, has spread around the world. The trend has drawn mixed reactions; from a negative point of view it may lead to job losses; from a positive, environmental perspective, it cuts the carbon footprint.
I do not intend arguing the pros and cons here but rather have a quick look behind the scenes of what’s involved in getting the wines from A to B and on to C – the customer.
How much South African bulk wine shipments have increased over the past two years can be gauged from the following figures, supplied by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries:
Bulk shipments from January to December 2011 = 172 621 438 litres
Bulk shipments from January to December 2012 = 248 433 122 litres (or 331 244 162.666 x 750ml bottles, Tetrapaks or whatever)
These compare with:
Bottled shipments from January to December 2011 = 177 793 549 litres
Bottled shipments from January to December 2012 = 160 535 925 litres (or 214 047 900 x 750ml bottles, Tetrapaks or whatever)
That’s one helluva lot of wine and I was intrigued to discover how it’s shipped without affecting quality, where it all goes, what sort of price levels UK customers would find it on the shelves and whether the same certification regulations as apply to packaged wine equally apply to wine packaged in another country.
For some of this information, I turned to the very helpful Monica Blanco of Raisin Social UK Ltd, importers of Du Toitskloof wines.
Blanco began by filling me in with some history. Some years ago, wine transported in bulk was of suspect quality due to contamination occurring during the process. As wine from countries far from Europe became more popular and, no doubt, the rise of sales in supermarkets, so dedicated bulk wine freight specialists invested in research and development to ensure such quality issues are a thing of the past. Blanco, whose company has been bulk shipping wine to the UK for the past four years, confirms contamination is now rare. It is thanks to such improvements Blanco believes demand for bulk has increased.
Something that’s always worried me is temperature fluctuation, as bulk wine doesn’t receive the luxury of temperature controlled reefers which are often used for packaged wine that has to cross the equator. Blanco explained bulk wine is less prone to temperature fluctuations due to the large volume mass of the liquid and so has greater thermal inertia compared to the volume in bottles.
Something else I didn’t know – well, in truth, I knew very little about the subject – is that there are two types of containers for bulk wine: flexi-tanks and ISO-Stainless steel tanks. The former, made from a combination of food quality polymer materials, contains an oxygen resistant impermeable barrier made from metalized ethylene vinyl alcohol – even if one doesn’t understand all the detail, it does inspire confidence that there’s little chance of unintended spoilage. This, once off-usage container holds 240 hectolitres (pictured here by Danie Malherbe, being loaded at Du Toitskloof winery).
The ISO-stainless steel container, with a capacity of between 240 and 260 hl, can be used more than once with a sterile cleaning after each load. These are apparently more commonly used for wine or spirits within the country of origin (presumably, similar to the containers one sees travelling in and out of Distell’s facility in Stellenbosch), but may also be used in trans-ocean shipments.
Cost wise, as one might expect, the ISO containers are more expensive, more especially as these stainless steel tanks need specialist equipment and aseptic cleaning, whereas the one-use flexi-tanks fit into a standard 20 foot container. However, Blanco maintains that pro-rata in terms of cost per litre, there’s not much difference.
Even learning this little about getting wine from A to B with an ocean in between, alerted me to many potential pitfalls; I asked Blanco about the major learning curves experienced since Raisin Social started shipping in bulk. ‘Because wine is susceptible to a number of environmental influences throughout transit, a fully documented quality procedure is vital, as is working with trustworthy, good quality suppliers.
There may also be a question of connections, when it’s not a direct route shipment; a missed connection increases the risk of spoilage. When it reaches the bottling stage, wine stability is essential to ensure a quality finished wine.
There are also regulations regarding the state in which the wine is shipped; on the fine lees requires a confirmation letter to the Wine & Spirit Board, otherwise the wine will be bulk filtered prior to shipment. Prior to packaging the wine will be sterile filtered.
While Blanco admits one can find wines packed in the UK selling for £9.99, the majority fall between £4.49 and £7.99. For instance, Du Toitskloof Fairtrade Chenin Blanc Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and a Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2012 packed in Tetra cartons, sell from Waitrose for £4.99, while similar blends under the Du Toitskloof Vale of Peace Fairtrade label and packed in 2.25 litre bag in box sell from Sainsbury for £14.49. Blanco did point out that all these prices can be expected to be discounted.
Don’t imagine that all wine traversing the equator from the Cape ends up being bottled and sold as South African wine. Wosa CEO, Su Birch advised me that brands such as Kumala or Tesco own label is bottled and sold as South African wine, while other wine may be blended into other brands in countries such as the US and Canada. And your next Russian Shampanski might well contain South African white wine, that’s where most of the just over 30 million litres exported in bulk to that country will be blended.
So what about certification; is wine shipped in bulk subject to same rules as that bottled locally? Hugo van der Merwe, Secretary of the Wine and Spirit Board confirms they are. ‘The Board will certify a wine if all requirements of the Wine of Origin Scheme with regard to origin, cultivar and vintage have been met and has passed a sensorial evaluation by the Board’s tasting panel.’ There are no certification seals rather a certificate verifying the wine’s claims. Final packaged samples have to be returned for analysis, tasted and the labels evaluated for compliance. Transgressors can be refused permission for future bulk shipments.
Even this limited research leads me to believe the rigorous procedures put in place for shipping and certifying bulk wine should reassure the customer that the South African wine they have purchased is what it says it is and that the quality is of a commensurate level to the price paid and the retailer’s own stylistic requirements.