Champagne Radar

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Hands-on with the next stage in Ruinart’s sustainability commitment

Viticulture is a long-term endeavour, one which is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the planet. Much more than being an organisational buzzword, to Ruinart, sustainability is the realisation of their responsibility to preserve. Extending this responsibility beyond the vineyard, for the past 10 years, Ruinart has progressively implemented eco-conscious practises across the entire business, from project proposals to service to packaging. Having already redesigned their existing gift boxes, the second skin is the evolution of this aspect of their commitment. The result of 2 years of research & development, the entirely recyclable second skin saw 7 prototypes prior to completion, is 9 times lighter than previous gift boxes and achieves a 60% reduction in carbon footprint compared to the current solution. Beyond this, working with manufacturer James Cropper and packaging expert Pusterla 1880, the manufacturing process itself is both efficient and sustainable. The impact of climate change on viticulture simply cannot be understated, effectively tackling this is a much broader undertaking than working the land. With the help of Chef de CavesFrédéric Panaïotis, I took a more detailed look at the second skin packaging.
For those whose glass remains half full, whilst our lives may seem at this moment swamped by a pandemic-induced crisis, there are in fact positives that one can extract. Video conferencing app, Zoom, saw daily users balloon to more than 200 million in March from a previous maximum total of 10 million. Though this connectivity may have been available to us before, we almost certainly took it for granted. And although there are inevitably downsides, particularly from an in-person engagement perspective, it’s never been easier to connect with friends, family or colleagues wherever they may be in the world. This renaissance in online connectivity meant that yesterday (17/07/2020) myself and fellow writers around the globe spent an hour with the team from Ruinart in the comfort of our own homes.

Lead by Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaiotis (with whom I have previously discussed ripeness) I found out a little about their new eco-designed second skin packaging.

Making it happen

Since 1845, manufacturer James Cropper, on the shores of the Lake District National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has specialised in paper products, innovation and generating category-leading solutions. Over the course of 2 years and 7 iterations, the primary characteristics of the casing were outlined through digital modelling. Following this, a series of moulds were made, moulds engraved with textured detail. For anybody who has themselves worked with injection moulding or processes alike, you will appreciate the difficulty of achieving a product like this through such measures. The moulds are then dipped in baths of liquid cellulose which is pressed, bringing the fibres together to form a three-dimensional paper case. The finished product requires no plastic or glue and forms a single, continuous component which seals without the need for exogenous fixings.

The cellulose used, in this case, composed of 100% natural wood fibres, solves two fundamental challenges faced by the teams at James Cropper and Pusterla 1880. The first was to ensure the casing is impermeable to light, in order to prevent lightstrike. Lightstrike occurs when a wine is exposed to blue and ultraviolet light, resulting in the transformation of amino acids into unattractive olfactory compounds such as dimethyl disulphide. First fruit flavours become tainted, then almost entirely obscured by aromas of damp cardboard, and sewage. I’ve taken this issue much more seriously since outspoken advocate of mitigating, Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber, brought it’s prominence to my attention. Sparkling wines and champagne are particularly susceptible to lightstrike due to their naturally high levels of amino acids and because the bubbles amplify the bad aromas.

Mitigating this issue is particularly important in the case of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blanc, which is bottled in clear glass. Under test conditions, the cellulose alone wasn’t sufficient protection, failing to filter out all light waves. This meant a new technique had to be developed in order to enrich the cellulose mix with a natural metallic oxide, reinforcing the opacity by adding a protective layer. Frédéric noted his satisfaction with the finished product, relieved that it will reduce the incidence of lightstrike, particularly in restaurants where he has in the past expressed upset at the presence of bright lighting in bottle cabinets.

The second challenge was to ensure that the packaging would protect and serve the wine right up until tasting, that its structural integrity was maintained. The case had to perform practically, under service conditions, meaning it could be retained in restaurant environments throughout the experience, storage to consumption. This meant the material must be water-resistant for several hours, even when fully submerged in an ice bucket. I tested this, albeit not under strict conditions, for several hours at home and the case retained almost all of its integrity. Interestingly the shape of packaging intends to resemble the serving towel of a classical restaurant setting, and so this is both a visual and functional feature.

Visually the packaging is sleek, absent from distinct edges, if one were to imagine this a simple achievement, they would be wrong. This sophisticated feature is achieved throughout a high-pressure waterjet cutting method. With sustainability in mind, the water which is indispensable to the cutting process is drawn from the site, 91% of this water is clean enough to be released back into the river. Half of the remaining 9% evaporates during the drying process of the pulped paper with the other half forming part of the natural humidity of the case.
The finished case, its cut inspired by the functional serving towel and its texture the chalk walls of the Crayères at Maison Ruinart, is visually seductive, hugging the emblematic silhouette of the bottle. Popping open the patented closure, imprinted with the Maison’s monogram, is somewhat reminiscent of undressing one’s lover. The packaging suggestive, what it hides beneath, crucial. I noted to Frédéric that I have in the past, and still do, find rectangular Champagne boxes clunky and ill-fitting with the essence of Champagne, lacking romanticism and visual appeal. With this disruptive solution, Ruinart has done away with those days, placing the bottle front and centre even when wrapped.

Devils advocate and the bigger picture

One could ask the question, as a number of my more astute Instagram followers and friends did, that if one were ultimately concerned so much with the sustainability of secondary packaging, surely they could simply remove it altogether. There’s certainly some validity to this question; however, it misses the mark to some extent, I asked Frédéric this question and can add my own perspective from prior experience.

Large brands face a conundrum when making decisions, they must balance commerciality and their commitments, and to some extent the two are connected. In order to enact change, they must remain market leaders, they must continue to generate revenue, and so if they make decisions which too quickly alienate unprepared consumers, they risk losing commercial standing, and as a result are less able to influence the global market positively.

For decades consumers have expected premium products, from champagne to perfume, to be gift-wrapped, removing that entirely may be a step too far at the current moment; however, Frédéric was clear when asked that this change marks a commitment to something larger in the long-term. What Ruinart has done is genius in a sense, they’ve made an enormous leap in sustainability, and reduced their carbon footprint all whilst retaining commercial interest and consumer appeal. What is perhaps most important is that there has been a great deal of interest from a number of other producers in the region, meaning were they to adopt similar solutions, the overall impact on the planet across the category is increased exponentially. Idealistic revolution is attractive but rarely successful, effective change is more often measured and well-paced. I for one commend this move.

Ruinart, having stood the test of time since their inception in 1729, has now turned sustainable development into a source of innovation, anticipating a shift in paradigm in coming years are ahead of the curve. Frédéric is certain that in several years we will look back at the packaging of old and ask why we ever thought it was a good idea, something with which I agree. This, alongside a broader commitment, including a zero air freight policy, water management, raw material saving and more, solidifies Ruinart’s position as a driving force for a much-needed focus on sustainability.

Many thanks to the team at Emma Wellings PR for the virtual invite.
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