“This is the single worst flight I have ever tasted at this table.” Such was the sentiment uttered by a wine professional with more than 30 years of tasting experience, most of them at that very same table. You may wonder what the category was, so as to avoid it. The offender was the red-hot category of canned wines—in this case, sparkling ones. We tasted over 30 examples that day, and reassuringly, the percentage of recommendable wines was in line with noncanned wines. But those that got the thumbs-down were howlers—sulfurous, reductive, boozy, or just plain bad.
While I am optimistic about the category, this tasting made me wonder: Does canned wine have to be made differently? What are the potential pitfalls of this emerging category?
First, the good news: Canned wine is surging in popularity. Although it’s brand new and so far has only a little-toehold in the overall wine market, sales shot up to $47 million last year in the United States, a growth rate of 53 percent, according to Nielsen data. (By comparison, TetraPak wines totaled $195 million in 2017, and keg wines reached $330 million; both categories are also growing by double digits.) When the overall wine market is growing only modestly, this trend is particularly noteworthy.
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Further, canned wines stand out because of who drinks them and where. The best can designs are eye candy for the Instagram era. Throw in a food truck or a taco shop, or an outdoor concert or a hike as the place where they’re cracked open, and it’s easy to understand why canned wine is a format ideally suited to trend-setting hipsters.
But let’s get back to that unevenness of quality. These cans are a small format—375 ml or even 187 ml—that’s both nonoxidative and blocks all ultraviolet light. It’s a very stable environment.
“What you put into that can is what it’s going to taste like one or two years down the road—any flaws at canning will be there later,” says Jake Stover, the cofounder of SANS Wine Company, based in Napa, California, which makes about 2,000 cases of canned wine from organically farmed vineyards in California. (The wines are available in four states.) “In general, we make wines in a ‘natural’ fashion, and we’re not making any wines differently than they would [be made] if they were going in a bottle. Pressure to make a wine in that fashion without flaws is harder, since some flaws may be more readily perceptible.”
For Underwood, the leading canned wine brand in the U.S., the philosophy is similar. “We put the exact same wine in bottles that we do in cans. There is no difference between the wine whatsoever,” says JP Caldcleugh, the director of winemaking at Union Wine Co., producer of the Underwood line, which is based in Tualatin, Oregon. Underwood is set to release 244,000 cases in 2018, and is available in 49 states. Citing Pinot Gris, he says that if a variety tends to be reductive, he might elevate the level of dissolved oxygen.
Getting the grape varieties right also matters. Bright, aromatic, playful varieties do well in the anaerobic format; harsh tannins and oaky wines, not so much. In Napa, winemaker Evan Frazier makes wine from Spanish varieties in bottle and can for his label Ferdinand. Currently, he cans an Albariño, and a rosé from Tempranillo, producing a total of 700 cases (about half the Ferdinand production is canned, and the wines are available in 10 states). But Frazier is not planning to can his oak-aged Tempranillo, noting that it is “a variety with a strong tendency to reduction, and I think it could be an issue.”
Rosé has found an easy fit with cans. But Frazier, who also serves as the general manager and assistant winemaker at the highly acclaimed Napa winery Kongsgaard, points out that there is a chance of “a good bit of mercaptan, hydrogen sulfide, and other reduction-related aromas in rosé. I haven’t experienced any issues in my rosé cans up to this point, but it was certainly something I was focused on.” He points out that copper can be used to remove hydrogen sulfide in wines above a certain threshold. “I would think,” he concludes, “that we would all prefer a slightly stripped version to a rotten-egg rosé.”
Getting back to that wretched flight I had the misfortune of tasting recently, while these technical winemaking pitfalls may have been an issue, the larger problem may have been a focus on the bottom line rather than the pride in product exhibited by many artisanal canned wine makers.
Jordan Salcito, a leading sommelier in New York City who two years ago launched Ramona, a wine-based sparkling aperitif, to broad acclaim, sounded a cautionary note about cutting corners to save costs. “Putting cheaply made wine—or cheaply made anything—in a can,” she says, “has the potential to send the wrong message to consumers. Our goal at Ramona is to provide a quality product in an exceptionally convenient package.“
If that attitude becomes pervasive, wine by the four-pack might become a lot more common.
Tyler Colman writes, talks, and teaches about wine. He is the author of two wine books, Wine Politics and A Year of Wine. He also writes the wine blog DrVino.com, which was nominated for a James Beard Award. Colman is a real doctor—he doesn’t just play one on the web. He holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has taught wine classes at New York University, the New School, and the University of Chicago. His wine writing has appeared in the New York Times and the World of Fine Wine, among other media.