Cheers! Or Beers?!
Wednesday 18 December 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 3/5
Look up the word ‘uncanny’ in a dictionary and the definitions focus on something ‘strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way’ as well as ‘something difficult to explain’ or, better still, ‘the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious’. Wine, of course, comes in many different types of packaging beyond the traditional bottle that has been the packaging of choice for centuries. Glass is inert; can be tinted to minimize the harmful effects of wine discolouration; is readily available to make bottles of different shapes and sizes; strong enough for safe distribution; and offers a sizeable surface for labelling and promotion. The alternatives to the bottle range from Tetra-paks, wine-on-tap, bag in a box, pouches, box wines and, recently, the can. All have their merits and disadvantages in terms of their environmental footprint or sustainability pedigree, cost and ease of use, as well as ageing potential. The can itself is not new. Beers, juices, sodas, soft drinks and water have been consumed from cans for over 70 years.
But wine? Wine-in-a-can is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in its current millennial-friendly and hipster format. You might be surprised to read that wine was dished out to French soldiers in 1910 in the First World War in metal containers that looked like jerry cans. 1930s metal technology saw the canning of food and drinks, with the Acampo Winery in California selling Muscatel from 1936 onwards under the Acampa label. Vin-Tin-Age was another brand that was also selling Californian Muscatel at the time. Roll forward 50 years and to the 1980s and Taylor California Cellars tried the canned wine concept again, but it didn’t catch on. It was not until 1996 that Baroke Winery in Australia developed a superior lining inside the can to prevent the wine inter-acting with the aluminium, thereby enabling wine safely to be kept for up to 5 years. Individual wines must nevertheless be analysed for their ABV (alcohol content), pH, free and total SO2, copper and other chemical properties, including whether within acceptable corrosion parameters. The specialist nature of the process and ‘bottling’, or rather canning, plant required has meant that only large companies are able to enter the canned wine market. Mobile canning lines exist in the USA but the minimum order from Ball (the world’s largest can producer) is for more than 230,000 cans, depending on their size.
The rise in the canned wine market has been exponential since 2015. Wines are made from all the major white and red cultivars with Rosé showing the fastest growth (60%) in the USA. One hundred and thirty wineries in 13 countries were producing over 350 brands of canned wine in 2018. This number is increasing daily. Wine drinkers are drawn to the convenience (opening and finishing, portion control); the portability of the can (picnics, hiking, boats, the beach and other locations); weight savings and the increased sustainability/reduced environmental impact of the can versus bottle that includes shipment and transportation, together with improved recycling; faster chilling; and social media-friendly branding. Convenience and the ability to take wine to new lifestyle localities are the largest market drivers. Quality, unbeknown to me, is another benefit. This is because the lack of carbonation means that all the oxygen must be removed from the can (being replaced by nitrogen) together with the dark, light-free environment. Canned wine is intended for immediate consumption so the lack of wine development whilst in the can is no disadvantage. Unsurprisingly, the millennial generation are the most aware of wine-in-a-can and form the largest market segment. Surprisingly, canned wine is appealing to the older generations as well as traditional beer drinkers too.
The United States leads the way with canned wine with further volume increase in 2019. Google ‘canned wine’ and 67 million results appear in just 0.6 seconds. There are articles about wine-in-a-can by the respectable magazines such as Decanter, Forbes Magazine, BBC Food & Wine and more, Top 10 and Top 20 listings included. The Washington Post article in June this year boldly declares as its title “Once a Niche Product, Canned Wine Enters the Mainstream”, albeit currently occupying only 1% of the market but with 70% year-on-year growth to June 2019. What were originally rather indistinct blended wines are being replaced by single variety and even vintage wines in sizes that typically are 250 ml and 500 ml cans. There is even a fleeting mention of wine-in-a-can in the very last sentences of the Trends Review in the front of the 2020 Platter’s Wine Guide: in the US “but not (yet?) here” is the conclusion. Well, not until now.
Enter Uncanny into the South African market. The company was founded in Stellenbosch in early-2018 as a joint venture by Arnold Vlok and Ruan Viljoen with the aim to create South Africa’s first certified and premium quality canned wine. This was no quick and easy task given the need for certification by the Wine & Spirits Board for the declaration of wine cultivar, vintage and region for the Wine of Origin scheme. The first products were launched to the market over a year later, in October this year. It is obviously early days for Uncanny as the website consists of only 3 photographs on a single page and with no narrative. Facebook and Instagram have 351 and 1083 followers, respectively. Presently, 2 wines are offered: a 2018 Merlot (Wine of Origin Stellenbosch) and a 2019 Chenin Blanc (Wine of Origin Swartland). The wines both cost R40 for 250 ml which equates to R120 per bottle. I bought my cans from Liquor City in Claremont, Cape Town. They are sold online via Takealot and Yuppiechef (no doubt hot on the heels of the very successful alcohol-free The Duchess gin and tonic), together with Norman Goodfellows wine outlets. The U branding and multi-coloured cans are edgy and catchy, as is the millennial-friendly ‘No Sulphur Added’, ‘Naturally Preserved Vegan-friendly’ and ‘Packaged in a Can to Reduce your Carbon Footprint’ branding. The ‘Strangely Familiar’ strapline and #uncannywine will no doubt appeal also to the social media savvy target market.
So, what of the wine? Most drinks that I consume from a can are fizzy and carbonated so to drink a flat liquid is disconcerting to start with or, to hark back to the dictionary definition, a little unsettling. I had first to decide whether I was going to drink the wine straight from the can or a glass. This was not an easy choice as the lifestyle, convenience appeal suggests drinking from the can whilst I felt better able to analyse the quality of the wine from a glass. I chose both, taking some from the can before tasting from a glass. I did my utmost to try to forget that the wine was from a can, but this was not easy. The Chenin Blanc showed a very slight ‘pfft’ on opening as if a sparkling beverage. Drinking from the can was certainly a strange experience for several reasons. First, as said earlier, I associate canned drinks with sparkling drinks whilst the wine was obviously still. I was not expecting that 2 of my primary tasting senses – namely, sight and smell – would be removed from the experience. It was akin to eating a steak without being able to see or smell it. I had no idea of the wine’s colour or aromas and so was only able to experience the wine by taste. Second, most alcoholic drinks consumed from a can contain around 4.0% to 6.0% alcohol (beers and lagers) whilst the Chenin Blanc contained 14.5% alcohol. I can well understand that consumers might be caught out by this – especially if on a hot summer day in the outdoors – and given that the can contains one-third of a bottle of wine. This was even more noticeable when I poured the wine into a standard white wine glass. The pouring was much above the standard 150 ml serving. This showed the medium straw colour of the Chenin Blanc that also showed slight bubbles on the inside of the glass. I was now able to consider also the wine aromas. These were limited, being fruity but largely indistinct. I am unsure whether in blind tasting I would have identified the wine as being Chenin Blanc. The taste was similarly simple, with a hint of damp cloth, modest acidity and minimal length.
The Merlot, of earlier 2018 vintage, and from Stellenbosch fared slightly better. The sensation from the can was of drinking a rather alcoholic grape juice and devoid of colour or smell. Once poured into a red wine glass, the wine had a slight soapy or petrol-like sheen on the surface. It was noticeable but not unpleasant or off-putting. The Merlot showed aromas of mostly red fruits, with some darker ones, together with meaty and leathery notes. Again, I struggled to define the exact fruits on the nose. On the palate, the red fruits came to the fore together with a dry sweetness, medium acidity and a metallic feel to the tannins. I wondered whether the latter was auto suggestive knowing that the wine was poured from a can or real.
Throughout the tasting, I mused if I was being fair to the product. Here I was, sampling canned wine in the comfort of my own kitchen and mostly from the glass. I did this to be able to analyse the wine using my standard methodology. This contrasted with the expected and marketed experience of taking the canned wine on an outdoor adventure without the need for corkscrew (unless screwcap) and wine glasses. On balance, I decided that this was sub-optimum. The ease of carrying the ultra-lightweight cans, their compact size, non-breakable container and opening simplicity outweigh my assessed modest quality of the wine (I rated the Chenin Blanc and the Merlot 12/20 and 13/20, respectively). I could easily see myself taking a can or 2 for a picnic, music festival or sports event (so long as permitted) and away from the ‘fine dining’, braai or poolside environment.
One word of warning though. One standard unit of alcohol amounts to 75 ml of red wine or 90 ml of white wine (assuming 14.0% and 12.0% alcohol). The simple legal drink-drive ‘rule of thumb’ for a 68 kg individual who has eaten a meal is not to consume more than 1 unit of alcohol per hour, if driving after alcohol consumption at all. This is the amount of alcohol that the body can process in an hour. The Merlot and the Chenin Blanc, containing 14.0% alcohol and more, thus amount to over 3 units of alcohol or more than 3 hours fully to metabolise. The can label states only that ‘Alcohol is Addictive’ and offers no drink-drive warning. This might appear to be an oversight but is consistent with current labelling on a bottle of wine or can of beer (some also warn of the dangers of consumption during pregnancy). Knowing how easily and how quickly I can consume a 250 ml can of drink, I foresee risks and dangers here and particularly since the concept of canned wine is to take it with you to consume in adventurous and exciting locations, away from the home. Be warned! I foresee lower alcohol wines, or smaller cans, sparkling wines and other cultivars even, to overcome these important limitations in the future.
In sum, and to pick up on the question I posed in the title of this review article, I raise my can with a definite “Cheers!” Canned wine, whether strangely familiar or strangely mysterious, is here to stay.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2019 Chenin Blanc (250 ml) – R40*
2018 Merlot (250 ml) – R40*