Apparently, there’s been a bit of chatter about canned wines lately. This must be a US happening, as I’ve been largely immune to it, especially as we have wine in tetra briks that can run as low a 1€ a liter, so cans matter naught this side of the Atlantic. I would however actually drink some of these canned wines and it’s worthwhile to take a look at the category before anyone decides to wrinkle their nose at it.
First off, what are the ways we store wine to get it to the consumer these days? Well, there are the good ole glass bottles sealed by traditional cork, synthetic cork, screw cap, or glass cap. We all know and love corks which is why they stick around despite the fact it’s a really shitty way to guarantee quality of wine. Wines under cork can easily spoil to smaller or lesser degrees at a rate I find of around 3% of all wines made. We stick with it because of the tradition as well as the fact that for wines needing to be aged (ie Bordeaux, Rioja, etc.) the exchange of oxygen at a microscopic level is supposedly only possible via natural cork.
I find that the more non-mainstream a wine producing country, the less the quality of the corks they get as it seems like cork vendors push off all their shoddy product on them. Anecdotally, in some third-tier markets, I’ve seen spoilage up to 15%. In looking at the corks, you can see the stamp of the maker and in theory, they’re quality brands that should indeed be reliable, whatever that means in terms of a natural, porous material. I’ve heard that one producer in an Eastern European country who can afford it, buys all his corks from an importer in the US, which have actually come from Portugal or other producers in Europe. His theory is that Americans are so litigious that no cork provider would dare to sell a shoddy product to an American winery. I’m not sure how much of this is true, but there is some logic to it.
So if we move away from natural corks, what do we have to seal glass bottles? Synthetic corks are just stupid as they attempt to give the allure of opening a cork but seal it via a non-porous material. I like to think of them as the Kardashians of wine closures. There’s no reason to use these when you have screw cap and glass cap. Both have been used for years now and are a lovely way to seal wines as you have absolutely zero cork taint issues and there are now even screw caps that allow the exchange of oxygen found in natural cork. The Aussies and the Kiwis got wise to this years ago and have by and large shifting to bottling all under screw cap, even with the top-end wines and it has worked out, very, very well for them.
If it then works to use a screw cap, why not a can? Well, for years, cans were an inferior way to transport beverages. If you had the choice of beer from the tap, bottle, or can, which would you choose? You’d start with tap, then bottle, then can. But, thanks to advances in can technology, specifically from the beer industry, we’ve seen canning alcoholic beverages change massively. There is no contact with the metal anymore due to a polymer lining and so you don’t get any container taint, which sounds about as horridly wrong as it should.
Naturally, there has been huge resistance to doing this with wines because it not only does away with the romantic bottle, but stoops the ever-so-fancy concept of wine (the drink of poets, artists, and inbred European royal families) to something so base as to be the same drink Chuck in Iowa slurps while mowing his lawn–shirtless. Gads! But this is exactly what wine needs and why canned wine can actually work.
The winery, Underwood has done exceedingly well with their canned wines. Cheaper to put in containers, easier to transport, store, and just all around more approachable, many sommeliers are saying that these and others have been a great addition to their drink menus. They’re even more useful than bag-in-box while that system allows you to transport larger quantities of wine in bulk, the cans allow single servings and at prices that people can easily swallow–yes, stupid pun very much intended.
There are some caveats to canned wine and the most basic is “garbage in, garbage out”. You put shitty wine in a can and it’s going to taste like shitty wine when you drink it, probably even more so as you will really taste only the base wine given the neutral aspects of the can.
The second issue is that the winemakers need to be careful when making it. I don’t know if anyone has tried putting Syrah in a can, but the variety (as well as others) has a tendency towards being reductive. This is that smell of cabbage or sulfur when you open a bottle of wine and can be the result of a container that doesn’t breath, thus the reason that a can could be potentially awful with certain grapes or if the wine hasn’t been fully fleshed-out prior to canning.
The last issue is that you’re going to still need a glass to drink it. If you just suck wine out of a can, you miss out on all the aromatic notes and the wine simply won’t taste as nice. If you don’t believe me, try drinking a very nice wine with a straw. If you just want alcoholic grape juice, then don’t mind me, and slurp away.
But taking all of this into account, there’s really no reason not to buy the great wealth of canned wine these days. While it’s all wine meant to be consumed young and fruity, I think in the US it’s a market segment that’s been solely lacking and so I find it welcome and potentially enjoyable as it makes wine more approachable to more people.