Red white and green

Have you wondered why a wine-bottle should traditionally have a punt, that depression in its base? In fact no one seems entirely certain how it originated – perhaps to make the base stronger or to give a non-rocking bottom to hand-blown bottles. Nowadays, the flashier sort of wine-waiter likes to use it as a thumb-rest, balancing the bottle on two fingers while pouring, but that’s mere elegant opportunism.

Unfortunately, the main reason for punts these days seems to be furthering the aim of making the bottle heavier and thus – the marketing logic goes – more impressive. Which will irrefutably indicate, along with embossed and torn-edged label, that the wine inside must be worth its exorbitant price. Many punts will now swallow the sommelier’s thumb up to the wrist.

These big, macho bottles are increasingly being attacked from those concerned about their environmental cost, given that they serve no real purpose that less pretentious and egregious bottles don’t. Glass is a great container (let’s ignore the cork-or-screwcap closure debate for now), but whether a 750 bottle weighs 400 grams or 1200 makes no difference to the contents – though a heavier one might break less easily under rare circumstances.

South Africa’s biggest producer by far, Distell (makers of brands like Nederburg, Fleur du Cap and countless others) is amongst those progressively introducing lighter-weight bottles. Distell claims that for the year to June 2010 it saved 333.5 tons of glass by reducing the weight of 2.9 million wine bottles; it is also aiming at more glass bottle recycling.

It’s not just sheer production volume that is affected by lighter bottles. Transportation has a huge impact on the carbon footprint of any wine producer. Many of the chest-beating bottles have travelled empty from Europe to here, weighing as much as filled standard bottles, and then a good proportion of those will travel back weighing more. It’s insane. It’s wrong. Think of that next time you weigh in your mind and your hand a bottle like those of Rust en Vrede, Mvemve Raats De Compostella, Paul Cluver Seven Flags, Vergelegen V or Boekenhoutskloof Syrah. They’re not the only grotesqueries by any means, and most expensive wines need to lighten up. Roll on the time – and it’s surely not far off – when wines like this are going to look old fashioned and clunky.

A radical alternative, already in use elsewhere, has recently been introduced in South Africa. Bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, more cheerfully known as PET, weigh only 50g, and are fully recyclable. A pair of modestly priced wines called Tread Lightly has just become available at Pick ‘n Pay (a Merlot and a Sauvignon Blanc, R39 each). Untasted by me as yet, they should be decent enough, as they’re from Backsberg Estate – which is perhaps, incidentally, the local producer most sincere and most advanced in keeping its carbon footprint small.

PET will never replace glass at the top end – image apart, it’s unsuitable for maturing wine in. But it will be interesting to see its acceptability in the market – producers around the world are watching closely, as they’re aware of growing concerns about the implications of wine packaging.

As to the ultra-heavy bottles, they are the SUVs of the wine world, and like suburban SUVs they should be sneered and taxed to death.

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