South Africans are starting to drink wine from cans - and some of the country's top winemakers are now making the move
- Canned wine may once have been a niche product or a way to break into a younger and more dynamic market.
- But as the canning technology has improved, and estates are seeing the benefits of aluminium over glass, even respected winemakers are starting to can some of their whites and rosés.
- Much of this has to do with access to canning facilities.
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Canned wine may once have been a niche product, at best used as a marketing gimmick to push the product into new, younger and more dynamic markets.
And, at least at inception, it was mainly the domain of innovative business people - rather than seasoned winemakers - who were bulk buying wines and repackaging them into designer cans with catchy names like Babe, Lil Fizz, Beach Juice, and Rosé for Daze.
But as canning technology has improved, and estates are seeing the benefits of aluminium over glass, even respected winemakers are starting to can some of their own whites and rosés. It’s showing in the growth of the canned wine market, too - international canned wine sales were up 155% at the end of 2018, and now total sales of more than R45 million, according to Nielsen.
But South Africa has been slow on the uptake. Although the country consistently features in the top 10 biggest wine producers in the world (the country produced 9.5 million hectolitres in 2018, according to Beverage Daily), much of the innovation in packaging and branding is still playing out in the United States market.
Much of this has to do with access to canning facilities. Unless a winery is willing to commit to canning hundreds of thousands of cans, it is nearly impossible to launch a new locally-canned wine product.
But the introduction of mobile canning units to the local market has shifted this momentum. Tiny Keg, based in Cape Town, rolls out their mobile canning equipment at wine farms, right next to the winery’s tanks, and can pack up to 40 custom-branded cans per minute. They have low minimums, and at full speed have successfully canned up to 6,000 litres in one day.
“Although the cost per unit will obviously be higher than if you do a few hundred thousand at a big canner,” co-founder and MD Tom Riley says, “the total cost, and risk, is much lower. We’re proud of the fact that we’re lowering the barrier to entry for the small producers, and allowing almost anyone to can and custom brand their own wines.”
Riley is also predictably positive about the benefits of canning over bottling in the wine industry. “Cans are also better than bottles at keeping out light, they’re more efficient to pack and transport, and are far more recyclable,” he says.
This is borne out in the country’s recycling figures - South Africa recycles just 30% of glass packaging, compared to 70% of used beverage cans, according to Recycling International.
“There’s also no perceptible taste difference,” he says, “except I’m willing to bet that the canned wine will likely taste fresher.”
Local wines canned for the export market
Trizanne Barnard, a respected independent winemaker who worked at Klein Constantia and Anwilka, but now makes her own wines in Noordhoek, has been instrumental in canning South African wine.
She makes wine for a company called Lubanzi, which then sells it in both canned and bottled form to the American market.
“I think that cans can bring an exciting element to our industry, and will most probably appeal to a segment that is more environmentally conscious and focused on an outdoor lifestyle,” says Barnard.
She sees two positive sides to the canned wine movement in South Africa - the practical benefits that come with shipping, storing, and recycling, as well as the ability to market the product to people who may not traditionally drink wine.
“We still need to see if people take to this new concept in South Africa,” says Barnard, “But I think the millennials are a lot more aware of conscious living, and also always looking for products that are 'new and exciting’. So I’m hoping that this will get millennials into wine - even if it's through a can!”
Lubanzi co-founder Walker Brown agrees. Selling canned wine has been a dream of theirs since they launched.
“We’ve long been galvanised by this idea of launching our wines packed in cans, because we believed in the sustainability of it, and we also believed in how important the portability was. These wines can go places others just can’t.”
For the moment, though, Lubanzi’s cans are only available abroad - mainly the United States and Canada - while the company looks for the right local partner to help them launch locally.
Initially Lubanzi had to transport Barnard’s wine in bulk back to the United States and can it there, but with the arrival of businesses like Tiny Keg this is starting to change.
“It felt important to us, for ethos reasons, that we house the full supply chain of our wines here in South Africa, including all the dry goods that make them up as so much of what our brand is about is sustainability, all the way from the vineyard to the customer,” says Walker.
Although there’s been some resistance to the concept of buying wine in a can, Walker says this is starting to shift.
“750ml bottles aren’t going anywhere. There’s real tradition in bottled wine, and that’s a great thing. I think there are always going to be traditionalists who believe wine belongs in a glass bottle, even if just for the romance of it, and that’s ok,” he says.
“But I absolutely think the canned wine category is here to stay. Everyone who tries the canned wine walks away pretty impressed,” he says, “because, at least with us, they’re tasting real, minimal intervention, craft wine, that just happens to be packed in a badass can.”
At Tiny Keg they’re seeing similar results. Although the company originally focused on the craft beer market, they’re increasingly canning wines from respected local winemakers.
In the last year Tiny Keg has canned wines for at least half a dozen brands, including Ben Wren, Vinette, Uncanny, and Cloof Wine Estate; and in the pipeline are projects with two well-established, household names in the South African wine industry.
“Ultimately, the idea of wine in a can, at least for us,” says Lubanzi’s Walker, “comes from the notion of ‘imagine what it would be like if you could bring an awesome wine anywhere.’ I think there’s real demand for that, so we’re here to ride the wave.”
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