The bag-in-box is finally making inroads into France's traditionally conservative wine market, according to experts who gathered here in Montpellier for a seminar this month.
Worldwide, wine packaged in bag-in-box containers has been one of the fastest growing segments of the market, catering to consumers who want the convenience and longer shelf life it offers.
However France has been slow on the takeup compared to other countries, as consumers here prefer their wine in the more socially-acceptable bottle.
Bag-in-box must also compete with the personal plastic jug. The French always have the option of buying wine in en vrac. They show up at a merchant or chateau with a plastic jug and have it filled by tap from a large vat.
Producers have also shied away from the down-market image of the bag-in-box packaging, also known as casks.
But now the French are discovering the convenience of wine packaged in the format and producers are loosening their principles in an attempt to cash in on the only growing segment in a generally stagnant market.
Françoise Brugière of Viniflhor, France's national wine industry board, said a 2006 survey by the organisation found that 12.5 per cent of consumers said they had bought wine in bag-in-box packaging, a two percentage points rise over 2005.
The survey also found that 68 per cent said they would serve wine in the packaging to invited guests. Another 30 per cent said they would not.
Meanwhile a total of 74 per cent said the bag-in-box format was good for conserving wine. About 39 per cent of daily drinkers said the format was useful in helping them to control their wine consumption.
As a result of the increasing acceptance growth rates for the packaging segment are beginning to match those of other countries said Frédérique Vimont, a marketing consultant with Vitop.
Bag-in-box packaging now has a 9 per cent share by value of France's wine market, about the same as the UK. The figures do not include use by restaurants and other food service sector businesses.
Meanwhile the market penetration rate is up to 42 per cent in Norway, 33 per cent in Sweden, 25 per cent in Finland, and 12 per cent in Denmark, according to various statistics compiled by IRI France, ACNielsen Infoscan and TNS WorldPanel.
In Australia, which was one of the first countries to use the packaging for wine, the market penetration is about 50 per cent. In the US the market penetration is six per cent.
Vitop is an Italy-based subsidiary of the Jefferson Smurfit Group devoted to making taps, connectors and handles for the bag-in-box segment.
Meanwhile, Alan Dufrêne, an independent consultant to the industry, noted that bag-in-box wine is the only growth segment in the country's generally stagnant wine market.
The French are beginning to appreciate the cheaper price to volume value associated with the packaging segment, he said. The fact that this type of packaging helps extends the shelf life of even the most expensive wines, has helped boost the growth.
Unlike bottles, which once opened allow air to contact the wine, the bag-in-box bag contracts due to gravity as the volume of wine decreases.
Because the bag-in-box prevents the liquid inside from having any contact with the air on the outside, the quality of the taste of the product is retained and oxidation is prevented.
For consumers the container is also convenient as they do not require a corkscrew to open and can be easily transported.
For producers the packaging offers cost savings as more wine can be loaded for transport compared to bottles.
The packaging type can hold volumes from two to 20 litres. The interior is composed of a flexible bag made up of multilayer oxygen barrier films. A gland, which is also called a 'spout' or 'flange', is welded to the film.
The gland connects to a top through which the wine is poured. The whole is enclosed in a cardboard box.
Dufrêne noted that many of France's small wine producers are relying on companies who provide travelling packaging lines at their operations rather than investing in one themselves.
This trend piggybacks on the tradition of contracting travelling packaging companies to fill their wines on site, often from a rollout line in a truck. This service allows winemakers to put the coveted description that it was bottled at the place of orgin.
Only big producers can afford the €1m investment it takes to buy a full bag-in-box packaging line, one that can fill several million bags, he said.
Keeping quality high and standarding the packaging type and the filling proceedures is important to the continued growth of the segment, he said.
There are is growing body of international standards being forged by associations around the world, he said.
Dufrêne and two other experts are the authors of one of the industry's first guides to filling standards for the packaging segment.
The "Guide to Good Practices", in both English and French, was published this January by Performance BIB, an industry association formed to set standards for the sector.
It is aimed at helping small and large producers raise the quality of the final product, he said.
Such standards are helping to change the attitudes of consumers who previously associated bag-in-box packaging with cheap wines.
That perception is also changing as more upscale wine producers have accepted the concept for their more expensive wines, said Dufrêne.
The trend mirrors the general consumer shift worldwide away from the cheaper plonk towards more premium, high-quality wines.
"Don't put low quality wine in bag-in-box packaging," Dufrêne told wine makers at the one-day seminar. "It will only reduce its appeal."
A total of 57 companies and organisations are members Performance BIB, many of them suppliers to the wine and beverage industry.
Bag-in-box packaging, also known as casks, was originally invented 50 years ago by William Scholle as a disposable package for battery acid. Once the US military began using it during the 1970s and Scholle Corp. began expanded its uses into the beverage sector.
Once the barbeque mad Austrialians discovered the easy drinking joys of bag-in-box wine, the segment took off.
Since then bag-in-box has revolutionized the wine industry where it has increasingly replaced traditional bottles and corks. According to Scholl Corp. the soft drink industry now uses it as a delivery system for fountain syrup. In the dairy industry it is the standard container for bulk milk for dispensers.
In the food sector it is being used for packing tomatoes, bananas, pineapple, and other processed fruits and vegetables. These are aseptically packed in bags in either drums or totes.
Scholle remains the largest global supplier of the packaging, manufacturing bags in 15 factories located in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America.
The seminar in Montpellier, held on 1 February, was attended by about 150 industry representatives. It was hosted by the Association des Oenologues de Montpellier.