Are canned wines the next big thing for quality wine?
By Craig Pinhey
Selling wine these days is not just about the juice; it’s also about the bigger picture, the image, the background story and the package. Producers have to think about the impact of their product and its packaging on the environment, and they have to keep on top of the trend towards low-intervention, organic, biodynamic, low-S and so-called natural wines. Today’s drinkers want to know that companies care about this stuff, and they respond when a winery’s corporate culture aligns with their own.
Putting wine in cans is a trend that speaks to these societal changes. While we have seen other alcohol products, including beer, cider and ready-to-drink beverages, move aggressively to cans for both cost and environmental reasons, wine has been slower to change.
However, there has been a recent increase in canned wines available to the Canadian market, including inexpensive imported wines and non-VQA spritzers and the like. And, even more recently, there have been some quality wines available in small (250 ml) cans, most notably from Between the Lines in Niagara, Ontario, and Benjamin Bridge in Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia.
Between the Lines became the first to can VQA wines in 2016 — starting with Origin, a Charmat Method sparkling wine — and now produces two VQA sparkling wines sold via cans, Outset and BTL Pink. They are also canning wines for other Ontario producers, including Rockway Vineyards, Riverview Cellars and Dark Horse Estate. BTL owner Greg Wertsch and his partner/winemaker/brother, Yannick, saw the opportunity to can wine and were able to get approval from Ontario’s VQA. (BC’s VQA has yet to approve canned wine due to potential concerns with quality.)
Greg Wertsch gives some credit to Vineland Estates’ Brian Schmidt, who was VQA president at the time.
“Our VQA was against canned wines at first, because it opened the way to other containers and possible quality issues,” says Wertsch. “But we persisted, arguing ‘Why don’t we can good-quality Niagara product, and open the canned market so we aren’t losing this market to international competitors?’”
The mentality at the time was that only lower quality bulk-type wine would be suitable for cans, similar to how consumers used to think about screw-capped wines. Eventually Schmidt came to agree with Wertsch and the VQA allowed it.
“Now,” says Wertsch, “We are trying to raise awareness that you can have quality wine in the can.” They submitted Origin to the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York, and it did very well.
“The feedback was very positive,” he adds, “They were excited and found it unbelievable that there could be that high quality in a canned wine. It won Best in Class at Finger Lakes in its category.”
So, yes, canned wine can be excellent, but there are things to watch out for in terms of quality. Some companies have experienced defects, including an overly reductive, sulfury character, and the lining of the cans will eventually break down.
Wertsch explains that quality concerns can be addressed, both in how you grow the grapes and how you make the wines. For instance, low-yield, cool-climate, high-acid wines work better as they are fresher and tend to need less sulfur and other additives/ treatments. Wineries can choose to produce sparkling wines, which need less S, and limit the addition of sulphites before packaging, since a good canning process introduces less oxygen to wines than bottling.
Benjamin Bridge head winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers is equally enthusiastic about his canned wines. They released their nationally recognized Nova 7 aromatic bubbly in cans for the first time in 2019, and also canned their Pet Nat, the first ever in Canada. This dry sparkling wine undergoes a natural secondary fermentation in the can. The winery uses a regional mobile canning line.
“There’s lots to like about the format!” says Deslauriers, “We like the versatility and portability of the format, especially considering the refreshing drinkability of our wines. Stylistically, our low-alcohol wines are ideal thirst-quenchers for any outdoor adventures. The cans, feather-light and unbreakable, have the potential of bringing these ‘crushable’ wines where previously impossible. A single-serve format is also an answer to the growing interest in moderation, while providing an optimal experience every time.”
He also makes the environmental argument that aluminum cans are much lighter than glass, making for a smaller carbon footprint — and aluminum is far more recyclable than glass.
As for concern with defects, he echoes Wertsch’s advice. “There are creative ways of addressing some of the current concerns about cans, such as-sulphur related defects,” he explains, “by making wines with no sulphites added, addressing those technical concerns while simultaneously making a stereotype-breaking statement with truly artisanal wines.”
“We are trying to raise awareness that you can have quality wine in the can."Between the Lines owner Greg Wertsch
“With no sulphites added, our Pet Nat is a perfect example of how to address those storied concerns. Notwithstanding the cans, we have an interest in demonstrating that incredible wines can be made without allergens (such as sulphites), and when those allergens are the source of a technical problem, it is just an additional incentive to make wine more naturally.”
Both Between the Lines and Benjamin Bridge are looking at the possibility of canning other wines. Wertsch has canned a still red wine for another winery, and would like to produce a “soft, easy-drinking red,” such as a Merlot.
There are some limits to what he’d do in this format, though.
For one, the can producer only guarantees the lining integrity for 12 months, so there is not much sense in canning wines that are meant to age. That said, Wertsch has tried two- to three-year-old cans of BTL wines and says they were still fine, if a bit less vibrant and fruity.
The second limit is the size of the can. It really only makes sense for smaller servings, as small cans have a big economic advantage over small bottles. Also, Wertsch thinks small just make sense. “With more people drinking moderately,” he says, “and also living on their own, people like the single-serve size — this is the future.”
Outset, Between the Lines, Niagara, Ontario ($18.60/4 pack)
A fresh and fruity VQA bubbly, made using the Charmat Method. Not much autolytic character, but has an attractive floral and stone fruit/citrus nose. Bubble attack is fine, and, although somewhat off-dry, the finish is fresh and has decent balance. This is super clean and free from any notable S-related defects. Chill for the beach or just pour yourself a (big) glass. It is, after all, a third of a bottle of wine!
BTL Pink, Between the Lines, Niagara, Ontario ($19.80/4 pack)
Another Charmat sparkling wine, this time a VQA rosé. Quite a bit sweeter than Outset, and much more floral, with some red fruit character. Strawberries alongside citrus, and a juicy, fresh finish. Again, super clean with no noticeable defects.
Nova 7, Benjamin Bridge, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia ($7.99/250 ml)
This aromatic blend of Muscat varietals (l’Acadie, Ortega and Geisenheim) is legendary in Nova Scotia and has made its way across Canada. It is pretty pink to look at, slightly fizzy and has explosive floral and grapefruit aromatics. Yes, it is quite sweet, but it also has ample acidity to balance that off. It’s a great brunch wine.
Pet Nat, Benjamin Bridge, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia ($8.99/250 ml)
A proprietary blend of various Nova Scotia grown grapes, canned prior to completing its fermentation. This results in a natural, unfiltered, hazy and lightly sparkling wine. It has pleasant floral and grapefruit aromas and a refreshing, surprisingly dry finish.
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