by Wojciech Bońkowski MW

In Praise of Bulk Wine

“No problem, monsieur, but please, give it some age—at least five years.” We nodded in intimidation as the lady at Roger Sabon proceeded to fill our 20-litre plastic canister with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It seemed strange that Châteauneuf would be offered in bulk, but the confirmation came in the form of a pack of labels with the text: mis en bouteille par l’acheteur. The wine cost five francs (less than a euro in today’s money). The Côtes du Rhône, three. Per litre. We took sixty.

I grew up in France. I was too young to drink wine, but I remember exactly where the little signless shop was, on the corner of the street coming back from school in Villeurbanne, a district of Lyon. A man with a large moustache sat behind a thick wooden counter with a dozen canisters behind him — they were called cubiteners. The wines were labelled with numbers instead of names: there was 11, 12, and the highly regarded 12.5. This referred, of course, to their alcohol content. Provenance was not a topic of conversation, but they were likely table wines from Lyon’s adjacent wine regions, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône. People came to the shop with their own bottles to fill, or like us, with a canister: five litres per week for a family with two adults, or ten if you had guests. Bottled, labelled wine was for Sundays — sometimes.

We moved back to Poland in 1984 but continued to buy cubiteners of wine in France whenever we travelled there. As it was now impractical to keep 20 or 30 litres in the canisters, we bottled the wine in our kitchen, using a hand lever corker, a bag of corks from a French supermarket, and wine bottles we recycled from our own consumption. I got to drink these wines in my university years, including the 1997 Roger Sabon Châteauneuf. It never lived to the recommended five years — it tasted too good to wait.

That was the time of the quality revolution across European vineyards, with the related premiumisation that saw bottled wine gradually take over bulk. My family reverted to bottled wines from Leclerc and Auchan, and having soon caught the wine bug, I upgraded my wine spending so much that I moved safely into mise du domaine territory. But as I found out on several trips to southern Italy and Spain well into the 2000s, bulk wine was still doing fine in many regions. A striking example came at the Produttori Vini Manduria co-op where a press visit stumbled into a long queue of locals dispensing 14 and 14.5% Primitivo from a gas station-like installation. The marketing department had prepared their bottled, Parkerised cuvées for us to taste, but I insisted on trying the bulk red, too, and it was definitely the afternoon’s tastiest wine. It cost 1.30 euros, per litre.

I was reminded of all that during the recent Masters of Wine Symposium. One of the sessions, “The Elephant in the Wine Cellar,” reiterated the crusade against heavy wine bottles amplified notably, and laudably, by Jancis Robinson MW. We shall strive to reduce the wine industry’s shameful carbon footprint by universally reverting to the lightweight glass used for 1961 Pétrus (556 grams). And for everyday wines, let’s now have an arms race between bag-in-box, cans, tetrapaks, pouches, and perhaps even paper bottles.

But do we really need to package wine in anything at all? The truly green alternative has been with us all this time; no need to invent the wheel. If a sizeable majority of the British or Australian public can buy a bottle of wine for supper in the supermarket minutes before consuming it, why can’t we go the shop with our own bottles and fill them from large dispensers of wine shipped in bulk from any region in the world? No recycling plastic pouches or mining aluminium for cans. Plenty of people now pick up their coffee from Costa in reusable cups, and bulk purchases are available for dried goods, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Why not for wine? Instead of half-measures, that would be a real step forward.

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

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