When the American Association of Wine Economists recently published a graph showing global bulk imports, there was a collective gasp of surprise on social media. “Why does Germany drink so much bulk wine?” asked an Australian journalist.
The short answer: it doesn’t. Much of that wine is pouring into Germany to take advantage of the country’s high-tech, low-cost, high-efficiency bottling lines. It will eventually be re-exported.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Bingen am Rhein in the state of Rheinhessen. In summer, Bingen is a magnet for tourists, who come to join the Rhine River cruises that pass by some of the highest vineyard slopes in Germany. Yet pleasure boats aren’t the only craft on the water. The Rhine River remains one of the most significant water transport routes in Europe — and some of what comes down the river is bulk wine.
To see what happens to it, it’s necessary to drive to the edge of Bingen, whose pretty mediaeval buildings give way to a prosaic area studded with nondescript warehouse buildings. One of these is Reh Kendermann.
A vast enterprise
A walk through Reh Kendermann’s bottling area is a surprisingly quiet experience, given how much wine passes through here; the Bingen winery alone has the capacity to store 14m litres of wine.
Founded in 1920, Reh Kendermann is Germany’s biggest wine exporter, with a portfolio that includes Germany’s number one export brand, Black Tower. Along with four wineries in Germany, the company also owns an estate in Romania, Napier Vineyards in South Africa, and a majority share of Yapp Brothers, a major UK importer of French wines.
“You can’t just rely on being German,” says export sales director Alison Flemming MW, adding that last year the company won Best Producer Still Wine South Africa and received multiple major awards for its flagship South African wine.
Despite being such a big company — the Bingen winery produces 50m bottles of wine year, of which 50 percent is exported — Reh Kendermann remains family owned, which Flemming says means the company is willing to invest in innovative technology. Relationships with German manufacturers mean they can also test machine prototypes.
This innovation mentality extends all the way through the company, which has been quick to see market opportunities; Reh Kendermann produces low-alcohol, low-calorie, alcohol-free and private label wines, as well as fruit-flavoured ones. It was also one of the earliest German companies to see the potential in Prosecco, though Flemming admits, ruefully, that, “we were far too early”.
And, of course, Reh Kendermann has invested heavily in state-of-the-art bottling technology. This has allowed it to become a leading German bottler, one of a number that are attracting the world’s wine to their doors. Filling bag-in-box, primarily for the Scandinavian markets, is also part of the deal.
“The fact that we’re in the middle of Europe is jolly useful for all points north, south, west and east,” says Flemming. A container of wine can be shipped from the New World to Antwerp or Rotterdam then be sailed down the Rhine, with only a short lorry ride at the end. “Compare that to a flexi tank coming into the UK. It has to be trucked, usually to somewhere in the Midlands for production or bottling,” she says. “The carbon footprint is actually slightly better going to Germany.”
How it works
An initial wine sample is sent from the client. “We work on a pre-shipment sample basis,” says Flemming, explaining that means the sample is analysed for “all the usual parameters — alcohol, total sulphur dioxide, total acidity, bacteria”. The wine must be in line with the parameters set by the customer and it must conform to whatever is on the label. “If your pre-shipment sample is outside of that tolerance, we will write to the customer and tell them, and they have to send another pre-shipment sample,” explains Flemming.
Once everything is in order, the wine is sent in container. Before being offloaded, it will be checked again. If the wine is destined for bag-in-box, sorbic acid may be added, because BiB isn’t a sterile format.
Expert handling of gas is part of the package, including the ability to adjust carbon dioxide levels in the wine. “In general, the higher the carbon dioxide, the less fruity it appears,” explains Flemming, adding that different markets prefer different levels. The UK market, for example, often prefers wines that taste more smooth and less acidic, so lower levels of carbon dioxide are used. A wine that has been in storage for a while can also be refreshed with a carbon dioxide spritz.
“This carbon dioxide module is something a lot of wineries don’t have,” says Flemming. “They may be able to add it before bottling, but they can’t do it during the bottling.”
Flexible orange pipes snake across the floor between the tanks to allow quick filling of tanks. “The pipes are easily cleaned because they’re removable,” said Flemming. But because every pump movement can add oxygen to the wine, nitrogen is pumped through the pipes — or sparged — to reduce oxygen pickup.
Getting the sulphur right is another issue. “Everyone is trying to reduce the sulphur levels, but you need enough to protect the wine,” says Flemming, emphasising this applies particularly if it’s going to be sold in a supermarket, where “it sits in the worst possible conditions”. She says that stock rotation is often a problem, because shelf stackers will simply push the remaining wine to the back and put the fresher bottles at the front. “So inevitably you’ll have some older wine that sits there for some time and it’s got to be protected.”
Before bottling, the wine is filtered. The testing doesn’t stop, even once the wine has begun its journey to bottling: samples are taken every half an hour and subjected to microbiological testing. Each wine belongs to a time-stamped lot and, if something is found, the problem can be tracked to a specific batch.
Of course, the true nightmare in a bottling facility is broken glass, which Flemming says is inevitable, because there will always be a weak bottle somewhere. To control the problem, bottles are rinsed with high-pressure steam; the pressure will break any substandard glass before it goes anywhere near wine. The steaming is an important part of the process for another reason. “We don’t use any chemicals on the line,” says Flemming. The bottle’s temperature is checked and if it’s not right — indicating that it wasn’t steamed or rinsed properly — the machinery rejects the bottle.
Then the wine is checked for alcohol density, to ensure no water entered the wine, and bottle levels are inspected with gamma rays. Closures are vacuumed, to remove dust or other foreign bodies, then cleaned with ionized air.
Quality manager Sabine Dartsch says the screwcaps can be aligned with the label. “We have 360 cameras to inspect labels and closures,” she says. “We check the legibility of the imprint. We laser on the bottling date and the time. We also use wax ink, which is harmless to the environment.”
Dartsch says Japanese customers are the most particular about their labels. “They take the bottles from the carton and inspect them,” she says. “If there are fingerprints on the bottle, then it’s not clean.”
Flemming laughs and says the level of perfection demanded for Japan is extreme. “You can’t have one wrinkle on a label.”
After all that, the bottles are stored in a computerised warehouse, linked to the stock management system. “We do tastings of older stock to make sure it’s still in good condition,” says Flemming. “There are constant controls.”
The German advantage
Today, 40 percent of all wine exports are shipped in bulk, an amount that’s predicted to grow. Angelo Cotrone from global wine brokers Ciatti told the 2017 Meininger’s International Wine Conference audience that some countries export up to 70 percent of their wine into bulk, much of which goes to Germany. “Germany is a global hub,” he said.
Cotrone went on to say that Germany’s bottlers are so efficient that it costs less for a Chilean producers to bottle in Germany and re-export the wine to South America, than to bottle locally. “We can bottle wines in Germany for about €0.30 ($0.35) per bottle and the costs go down with volume. In the US, bottling costs around $1.00 per bottle, with Australia somewhere in the mid-range. Transport is about €0.10 per litre.”
So who should think about using a German bottling line? “If you have any quantity lower than three flex tanks [24,000 litres] in a year, it doesn’t make sense to use an external bottler,” says Flemming.
Cost is not only a factor when deciding where to get it bottled, though Germany’s prices are extremely competitive in world terms, depending on quantity. “It’s looking at shelf life, particularly with things like bag-in-box,” says Flemming. “It doesn’t make sense to be producing in Australia and then have three months lead time on the ship — that’s only six months of shelf life. That is the key rationale for producing bag-in-box in Europe.”
So it’s not that Germans drink excessive amounts of bulk wine — they just believe in bottling it up.