Is wine in cans any good? Yes. And it’s getting better.
Outdoor socialising is set to become as big a part of this spring as it was of last summer, so perhaps you’d like to splurge and add a glass of wine to the meet-up? If so, I have just the thing: wine in a can.
There are a lot of upsides to canned wines. Light and compact, they are very portable and slip easily into a handbag or a coat pocket (though the latter may only work if your style standards have deteriorated as far as mine over the last year, and you now consider a cagoule or puffa to be quite smart if it’s not covered in mud).
They can be endlessly recycled, making them a sustainable packaging choice. Most usefully of all, they come in small serve sizes – typically 187ml or 250ml (a quarter and a third of a bottle, respectively) – so, whether you’re out and about or at home, you can have a glass of wine or two without feeling the need to get through a whole bottle.
Of course the vital question is: can you buy decent wine in cans? The answer is – well, see above. Advances in technology have made it possible to retain integrity of flavour. And a new generation of entrepreneurs and more casual drinkers are busy adapting to the possibilities this has created.
The trend towards canned wine began in California and has been growing here, too. However, according to Alex Gittins, of Boutinot Wines: “The can format has been one of the big losers of the pandemic… its natural habitat of on-the-go and outdoor events virtually disappeared.”
Gittins developed one of the best canned wines I have tasted – a truly brilliant malbec called Pablo y Walter Malbec (see wines of the week below). Yes, red wine in a can is a thing: the cool, hard nature of the packaging might suggest that a crisp white or refreshing rosé is its natural ally, but red can work too. “Fresh, vibrant wines with good aromatics seem to be the way forward, whatever the colour,” says Gittins.
Boutinot is a large wine importer, but many of the new specialist wine-in-a-can businesses are being set up by those from outside the industry. If I have any issue with them, it’s not the cans, or the wine in them, but branding, which tends to be female-oriented, and the names: I give you Babe, NICE, Kiss of Wine and Hun – that’s Hun as an abbreviation for “honey”, as in “U OK Hun?” a cliché of the social media generation, not a reference to Attila’s marauding hordes.
Mark Woollard, of Hun, explains the thinking behind the name for his start-up: “To create a brand in this space, you need quite a lot of money, which we didn’t have, so we needed to skip a few steps. I have a WhatsApp group called ‘The Huns’ – the word is almost already a brand, so we thought if we could just attach our tone of voice to it, maybe people will remember it quicker.” Woollard, previously a commercial director at TV company Endemol Shine, rapidly assembled a heavyweight board that included James Bailey, CEO of Waitrose, and Andy Shaw, former managing director of Red Bull, then made waves with a clever social media campaign. And the wine? Woollard once sat next to a guy on a plane who worked for a very large South African supplier, so he called him up and within three weeks a deal was done.
If good wine in a can is what you’re after, there are better places to find it. I was impressed by Kiss of Wine, which was set up last year by Jennifer Browarczyk, a former wedding planner, and two of her friends. They were in Switzerland when lockdown hit last spring, and they decided to rent a house and spend a few weeks in the mountains rather than returning home to Berlin and London. “There’s a group of us who love going to Piedmont and visiting wineries when we have down time,” she says. “We’ve often talked about buying a winery or doing some other wine project together. We finally had time to chat.”
The initial goal of the Kiss project wasn’t cans but “better quality wine in smaller portions”. The group looked at a number of different packaging solutions, including small, “test-tube-like glass bottles” and TetraPak. Says Browarczyk: “No packaging is perfect, there’s always a compromise somewhere, but cans are pretty amazing.”
There is still a lingering mistrust of cans – an idea that the wine maybe won’t taste quite right. Browarczyk stresses that, in blind tastings, “people aren’t able to tell which wines are packed in a can and which in a bottle,” but Kiss is working with smaller, quality-focused producers, and even some winemakers can be nervous. Kiss has also put nebbiolo – the grape of arolo and barbaresco – in a can, which I think is a first: was it hard to persuade a winemaker to can his nebbiolo? “Yes,” says Browarczyk very firmly and with a big smile. “It took a lot of convincing. It was also important for him to see we didn’t change the taste of the wine. I think he was surprised.” I like all six of the Kiss wines, and the packaging is contemporary and upbeat, too.
I also rate The Copper Crew, which was set up by two childhood friends and Sam Lambson, a rising star of South African winemaking, who sources all the wines. (Two of the three are redheads, hence the name.) Like Hun, this business was set for launch in early spring 2020 with a business plan that was heavily dependent on festivals and big outdoor events, and has had to scramble to make things work in a different way. I think the quality of Copper Crew wines is very good and I am excited to see how they develop.
Finally, if you’re planning lots of outdoor drinks, I recommend investing in some Govino plastic glassware – these brilliant beakers look like glass, are fantastic for drinking from, and don’t shatter.
IGO Organic White Wine Can NV
Spain (12.5%, Waitrose, £4.99/250ml can)
Canned wine isn’t all about start-ups: Igo (so named for its portability) is owned by Pol Roger Ltd. It comes in three colours, of which my favourite is the white, made from white grenache, which isn’t an obvious choice but works brilliantly here: textured but also fresh with subtle hints of orange blossom and orange rind.
The Copper Crew Merlot 2018
South Africa (13.5%, coppercrew.co.uk, £24.99/6x250ml cans, shipping is free)
Merlot isn’t top of my list of favourite grapes, but this is a smashing red: juicy, vibrant, a little bit chewy (it’s aged in French oak), with bright flavours of plums and a hint of leafy redcurrant. The wine bounces out of the can all lively and ready to drink – it doesn’t need to be poured into a glass to come alive.
Kiss of Wine
(£19 down from £29 until mid-March/6x250ml can taster pack, kissofwine.co.uk, p&p free for 24 cans or more)
Kiss has gone for a single-grape-variety approach and offers a compact range of six wines (three white, two red, one rosé), each of which you can taste in this pack. My two favourites are the nebbiolo, which is soft and fruity for a nebbiolo but still authentic, and the off-dry riesling, which tastes like lime juice and crystallised lemons.
IGO Organic Rosé Can NV
Spain (12.5%, Waitrose, £4.99 for a 250ml can)
A pale rosé from the Spanish region of Navarra (up in the north-east). It’s made from the grenache grape which is the mainstay of pinks from Provence, and has gentle berry scents with a little more blowsy texture than Provence rosés. One other thing about these cans: I like the matt labels which give the can a more upmarket feel in your hand.
Balfour Hush Heath Estate Pink Fizz NV
Kent, England (11.5%, hushheath.com, £60 for 12 x 200ml cans)
Launched on 1st February this year, this lightly carbonated rosé is made in Kent from a blend of seven different grapes. It has gentle flavours of raspberries and hawthorn and is very easy to drink.
Govino red wine/475ml
(govino.co.uk, £14.95 for a 4-pack)
Ideal for outdoor drinking or just for clumsy people, these stylish stemless ‘glasses’ are made from shatterproof polymers that show off the wine in much the same way as fine crystal. The best picnic investment you will make.