Backsberg wine in PET

SAs first certified wine in PET

A visit to Mondi Plastics in Atlantis uncovers the connection to Backsberg Estate Cellars in Paarl – the first to launch Wine of Origin certified varietals in Mondi’s multilayer PET bottles, writes Gill Loubser, editor and publisher of PACKAGiNG & Print Media magazine.

An upmarket wine estate in Suider Paarl and a plastics packaging manufacturer in Atlantis,– apart from both being in the Western Cape, there doesn’’t seem much to link the two. Backsberg Estate Cellars is nestled beneath the towering beauty of the Boland mountains, while Atlantis on the flat west coast is less fortunate.

Roughly 40km north of Cape Town on the Atlantic seaboard, Atlantis is home to some 200 000 people, who suffer high levels of unemployment. It’’s a hangover from the apartheid era when industrialists were encouraged to provide employment for Cape Town’s coloured community by relocating their plants to Atlantis. Few of those original businesses remain, but those that are still there are working hard to provide social and economic assistance to help the residents of Atlantis gain an upper hand against the all-pervading poverty. One such company is Mondipak Plastics, now aligned with Backsberg Wine Estate as the provider of its newly-introduced multilayer PET wine bottles.

Backsberg,– the first local winery to achieve carbon neutral status,– has again made history. This time it’s the launch of its Tread Lightly brand in PET bottles, to embody Backsberg’’s philosophy of care for the land.

So says Michael Back, Backsberg’’s proprietor. ‘”The enjoyment of a great bottle of wine should never be at the cost of the environment,”’ he insists. ‘”Every step we take in producing our wines must be challenged. Packaging and transportation contribute significantly to our carbon footprint and therefore need to be addressed.”’

Tackling this issue head on, and following approval by The Wine & Spirit Board, Backsberg opted to launch Tread Lightly (a Merlot 2008 and Sauvignon Blanc 2010) in Mondipak’’s stylish PET bottle,– the first-ever certified Wine of Origin to be sold in a plastic bottle.

Backsberg entered into a partnership with Pick n Pay (PnP) for this launch. Says Bronwen Rohland, PnP director of sustainable development (now marketing director): ‘”We’’re delighted to partner Backsberg in this exciting initiative. As South Africa’’s largest food retailer, we’’re committed to minimising our environmental impact through recycling and packaging initiatives, and this project fits our overarching environmental strategy perfectly.’”

Long-term sustainability

So much for the wine maker, what about the bottle maker?

A visit to Mondipak Plastics in Atlantis calls back the past. Back in the 1980s, this plant was known as Xactics. Later it became part of the Kohler group, then was sold to Lenco Holdings in 1990. Actually, there’’s quite a bit more to this ownership history but, cutting a long story short, three years ago it came into the Mondi stable.

Now, three years on, Jonathan Musikanth, the plant’’s general manager, and Louis Moodie, sales manager for PET and new business development, explain that they’’re busy changing the plant’’s entire ethos in order to enhance its long-term sustainability. This involves upgrading both infrastructure and technology. They’’re busy, for instance, improving facilities such as meeting rooms, staff changing rooms, the canteen, the clinic and the quality control laboratory. At the same time, staff are continuously upskilled either by means of training or, where necessary, by hiring additional skills. All of which, Jonathan emphasises, is considerably improving the plant’s overall levels of professionalism.

Jonathan, a chartered accountant by profession, also brings extensive plastics packaging experience to this business, having previously worked at Versapak in Paarl. He moved to Mondipak Plastics Atlantis two-and-a-half years ago and hasn’’t looked back. “‘It’s great being part of the Mondi family, and our prime focus is on delivering top-quality products to our customers,”’ he adds.

His colleague Louis Moodie is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to PET as a raw material, thanks to his many years’ experience with SANS Fibres. He joined Mondipak when SANS closed its doors last year.

In its first two decades of operation (in the old Xactics days), this plant enjoyed steady growth as a major supplier of clear PVC edible oil, cordial, detergent and cosmetics packaging. During that period of peak demand for PVC packaging the operation grew to house 36 blow moulding machines, 12 injection moulding machines and eight screen printing machines. As a result, a wealth of practical packaging experience and creative expertise has filtered down through the decades.

Today, there are 230 staff members,– highly-experienced, technically-sound and dedicated people operating modern extrusion blow moulding, injection moulding and injection stretch-blow moulding machines, plus automated UV screen printers and labellers, while a talented design team provides innovative packaging solutions to differentiate customers’ brands on retail shelves throughout South Africa.

During the Lenco years, PET production was centralised at the Wadeville plant, but now under Mondipak’’s management philosophy, PET production is once again decentralised and has been running at Atlantis for the last three years.

‘”While extrusion blow moulding remains the largest part of our business at Atlantis, PET is growing fast,’” Jonathan says.

European technology transfer

On the technology front, rather than reinventing the wheel, Mondipak Plastics has worked closely with European suppliers.

When the team started researching enhanced barrier bottles to provide extended shelf life for wine, their investigations led to European PET bottle producer Artenius PET Packaging Europe (APPE) and closure maker Novembal, and ensuing technology agreements with both companies.

The end result is a multilayer PET bottle that blocks oxygen from outside, –essential for wine storage,– and scavenges the oxygen dissolved in wine and caught in the head space.

‘”We have a proven two-year shelf life for our 750ml bottle,”’ Louis reports. ‘”The secret of the extended shelf life is the use of APPE’’s BindOx MXD6 polyamide barrier technology, which functions as both a barrier to oxygen ingress and as an oxygen scavenger,’” he explains.

In Jonathan’’s view, a major benefit to the wine industry is the PET bottle’’s smaller carbon footprint because of its reduced weight and lesser diameter. This means that 36% more product can be transported for the same container cost, saving an estimated 30 to 90 cents/unit.

“Thanks to improving economies of scale, we now have a competitive process,’” Jonathan confirms. ‘”The bottle cost is now comparable to glass but there are significant savings on transportation costs and breakages,”’ he says.

While the PET bottle looks like glass and is the same height as a standard glass bottle, it’s smaller dimensions mean that six- or 12-bottle cartons are smaller too, another cost saving.

The carbon emission from cradle-to-cradle for a PET bottle made from virgin material is 53g. For a glass bottle with 50% recycled material (the average South African wine bottle is about 32%), it’s 89g.

There can be little doubt that PET bottles make economic and environmental sense. A shelf life of at least two years is guaranteed during which the wine’’s quality won’’t alter; and that’’s plenty long enough since research shows that 80% of wines worldwide are drunk within two years (and within 48 to 72 hours in South Africa!).

Overcoming consumer misperceptions

But despite these facts, it’’s sad but true that numerous misconceptions abound; and myths about the quality of wine in PET bottles are something that wine makers and plastics packaging producers have to work hard to dispel.

It’’s interesting to note that the Tread Lightly Sauvignon Blanc 2010 walked off with a Silver Medal in this year’s Michelangelo CCL Label International Wine Awards, which speaks volumes for the organoleptic quality of a wine packed in PET!

As Louis quips, “‘If you can pack mineral water in PET, why not wine?’”

“Despite urban legends about plastics, it’’s important to note that a PET bottle is not inferior. ‘Our bottle has the same transparency and aesthetic appeal as glass, but is lighter to handle and feels softer to the touch. In addition, these high-performance multilayer PET bottles are robust and rigid with a beefed-up barrier performance for wine. If filled under good manufacturing practices there is no leaching of any kind,’” Jonathan contends. “There are strong environmental plus points that consumers need to know,– for instance, a 750ml glass wine bottle is likely to weigh around 400g while its PET equivalent weighs in at 50g, resulting in savings in transport costs.”

These multilayer PET bottles are also recyclable; and are cost-competitive against glass.

Market research in the UK shows that consumers are particularly attracted to the weight saving and unbreakability aspects, with many saying they would choose PET over glass if they were buying wine for an outdoor event. Another aspect of the PET pack that doesn’’t seem to detract from its appeal is the screw closure.

As Jonathan and Louis emphasise, Backsberg isn’’t putting entry-level wines into PET bottles. These Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc certified Wines of Origin are the same as those offered in glass bottles. While they believe some wine producers will be sceptical at first and probably use PET bottles for lower-cost wines, they’’re equally certain that this will change once consumers start seeing the benefits.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, October 2010.