Can do attitude
Jo Caird looks into canned wine market
Wednesday 08 December 2021
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It’s fair to say that canned wine has something of a reputation problem.
It’s not surprising that so many of us feel sceptical, says Barry Smith, founding director of the Centre of the Study of the Senses at the University of London. Our culture is rich in rituals around wine, many of which are associated with the container it comes in. We love the reassuring weight of a glass bottle, the pop of the cork, the glug-glug-glug as the wine is poured – a can cannot provide any of these things.
“Could you imagine: your waiter comes, looks very serious, shows you the can? And then very ceremoniously opens the ring pull: ‘would you like to taste?’ Nobody wants that!” says Barry with a laugh.
It’s not just that we love the ceremonies that come with wine in bottles. It’s also that cans have such strong associations in our minds with particular types of beverage – soda and beer chiefly, but also cider and mixed drinks – that our brains struggle with the very idea of them being used for wine. The sensory cues are pointing us towards one experience, but the smell and taste of the wine are providing another.
Mark Woollard, co-founder and CEO of canned wine producer HUNWines understands the confusion better than anyone.
“If someone picks up a can of craft beer, and they don’t like it, very rarely does that person say all craft beer is crap,” he says. “We want to get to a similar place, where people don’t write off all canned wine because of a single bad experience, where they recognise it’s not down to the vessel.”
The canned wine market has seen massive growth in recent years. You can find wine in cans at all the major UK supermarkets, and new brands are launching all the time, presenting consumers with a dizzying array of options.
But while increasing numbers of people are jumping on the canned wine bandwagon, many wine lovers remain unconvinced, unwilling even to give cans a go. Clever branding and packaging can help canned wine producers differentiate their product from other canned beverages, Mark suggests. Different textures on the outside of the can, playing with the acoustics of the ring pull, opting for visuals that “put you past the can and back to the production” could all be useful. Anything to get consumers to the point where they can set aside their preconceptions enough to be able to evaluate the wine inside the can on its own merits.
A good experience, of course, is not guaranteed. Even once you’ve overcome those preconceptions, there’s still the sticky issue of quality. Federica Zanghirella, vice president of the UK Sommelier Association, has a lot of reservations about canned wine, but her primary concern is around the standard of the wine being selected for this market.
“Winemakers wouldn’t use their good quality wines to be sold in cans in supermarkets that brand them as cheap and easy drinking,” says Federica. “They will, for sure, use very cheap wines.”
South Africa’s Lubanzi Wines is a relatively new winery venture specialising in quality canned wines, with a wider mission to raise industry standards for ecological and socio-economic sustainability. For co-founder Walker Brown, the views espoused by Frederica are quite typical, but make the mistake of conflating questions of accessibility, quality and choice of vessel.
“I don’t think people in the world right now want to view wine in that way. In fact, especially the younger generation is actually quite tired of being told that every time they buy good wine, the only time that they can drink it is from a beautiful crystal glass with a white linen tablecloth. I think it would be a real shame and a real disservice to wine, if it got boxed into that very narrow, prescriptive setting.”
HUNWines’ Mark sits somewhere between these two views, acknowledging there has been a problem with quality, but also that it is largely the result of conservative attitudes among the wine establishment. “Some of the larger producers don’t really want to change consumers from their bottled products to their aluminium canned products because it’s more expensive to can,” he explains. “They’d rather keep that kind of market where it is. If the big wineries really wanted people to drink wine in cans, they’d just suddenly flood the market with all various types of canned wine.”
It’s true that there is cheap and nasty wine available in cans, but that’s not the fault of the packaging. At least, it doesn’t need to be, given the magic of modern canning technology. Canned wine makers these days use lined cans, ensuring that there’s no chance of a reaction between the metal of the can and the wine inside it.
Cans are a great means of enabling wine afficionados to drink a small quantity of good wine
That’s not to say that the can makes no difference at all. Jennifer Browarczyk, co-founder of Berlin-based Kiss of Wine, whose USP is sourcing wine direct from independent winemakers, recommends decanting: “Wine is enjoyed in a glass much better,” she says. “You also don’t drink out of a bottle!”
She knows that isn’t always an option, however, and it’s partly for this reason that Jennifer is particularly careful about sulphur levels in the wines that go into Kiss of Wine cans. Sulphur, which is sometimes used as a preservative during the wine-making process, can let off an “eggy smell” when you first open a can of wine, she explains.
“It disappears normally quite quickly, but that’s just not cool. For somebody who doesn’t know, and they smell something like that, they think something’s off.”
For Barry Smith, it’s all about the grape variety. Some just work better from a can than others. Take the “honeyed and straw-like taste” of chenin blanc, for example, or the “slightly vegetal note” of cabernet franc, he says: “Whatever tang is coming from the can just doesn’t distract you from the flavour.”
Those buying canned wine are doing so mainly because cans are so convenient for outdoor socialising and travel. These scenarios cry out for easy drinking styles of wine, which is why whites and rosés make up a disproportionate number of the wines available in cans, and why canned reds tend to be lighter varieties.
There are those in the canned wine world, however, who want to move the conversation beyond the grab-and-go market. For Jennifer Browarczyk, cans are the best means she’s found of enabling wine afficionados to drink a small quantity of good wine.
“For us it’s the quality of the wine that’s our primary focus,” she explains. “We are very passionate wine drinkers and we thought there must be a better way of spending an evening if you’re around a group of people that want to drink beer, without having to open your own bottle [of wine] by yourself.”
Jennifer also sees cans as a great option for people to understand wine better, their smaller volumes making them perfect for tastings, as well as helping drinkers feel braver about taking risks on unfamiliar styles of wine. Cans, she says, are more “approachable”.
Jennifer acknowledges that there is considerable resistance to cans, both from consumers – older people mainly – committed to the bottle tradition and from wine makers fearful of what canning might do to their product. She’s in no rush to persuade them.
“We have to let the product speak for itself at this point. If we can change some minds as we go along, then great. We don’t need to convince everyone.”
Lubanzi’s Walker has a similar attitude to letting the wine do the talking, and argues that stripping away some of the pomp and ceremony from wine culture will focus attention on the things that matter.
“People are more interested in where their wine’s come from than whether their waiter has a starched towel over his arm,” he says. “It’s the stories, the people at the vineyards, and ultimately the juice that’s inside of the vessel. That’s what we’re buying, right? Getting the best wine you can afford; that amazing juice that some person probably halfway across the world has made and packaged with so much care. If that’s what really matters to you, I would say maybe you should think about buying some canned wine.”
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