In recent years, the quantity of wine that is bulk-shipped in giant tanks from its country of origin to markets where it is bottled and sold has increased significantly. Most of this wine is transported in giant “plastic bags” known as flexitanks. To learn more about how flexitanks work, VINE TALK interviewed Alex Norton, Global Marketing Manager of JF Hillebrand Group, a leader in beverage logistics.
VT: What is a flexitank?
AN: A flexitank is a large polyethylene bag that transforms a regular 20ft shipping container into a liquid transportation system. Think of a giant “wine box” that fits on the back of an 18-wheel tractor trailer or a rail flatcar and can be used to move liquids securely and cost effectively.
Flexitanks come in various sizes/capacities (the most commonly used capacity is 24,000 liters) and can be used for shipping a huge variety of liquids. When shipping wine or other sensitive liquids, special types of flexitanks are used to provide extra protection to the wine.
JF Hillebrand’s “VinBulk” flexitank is made from a lightweight, 100% virgin polyethylene material which is fully compliant with FDA & EU Food Contact regulations. They are fully recyclable, meaning that after one use they can be collected, washed, recycled and made into other products. VinBulk is designed specifically for the transport of wine and other sensitive liquids and differs from other flexitanks on the market in that it has an extra, external barrier layer formulated to provide the highest possible level of protection to the wine. This barrier provides protection against taint pick-up during transportation and also provides protection against oxygen ingress through the tank materials. This ensures that wines arrive in optimum condition, ready for bottling.
VT: What types of wines can be bulk-shipped in flexitanks?
AN: All types of wine are suitable for bulk shipping in flexitanks, except for sparkling wines. Because of the bubbles in sparkling wine (and indeed beer), the liquid is not stable, which can cause the flexitank to expand.
In addition, high-alcohol beverages and spirits such as vodka, rum and whisky cannot be shipped in flexitanks. Such high-alcohol content makes the liquid hazardous/flammable. However, wines do not have a high enough alcohol content to be hazardous.
VT: How is wine loaded into and unloaded from a flexitank?
AN: Prior to arriving at a loading site, a container is selected and prepared. Containers must meet specification requirements and are inspected to ensure they are clean and free from damage. Then, the flexitank, bulkhead, and value are installed within the container—a process which takes no longer than 45 minutes on average.
After the flexitank is installed, the container is then transported to the winery and the loading of wine can begin. Before the supply line and coupling is attached to the flexitank valve, the entire area is sanitized. This is particularly important for food-grade products such as wine.
Wine is pumped through a hose directly into the flexitank. The loading process can take between thirty minutes and three hours, depending on the pump and hose equipment being used. It also depends on other variables such as the distance between the flexitank and the holding tank. During the loading, photographs are taken of the container and the flexitank so that the entire process is properly documented to ensure compliance with quality control and health and safety requirements.
Once the flexitank has been loaded to capacity, the hose and coupling is disconnected. Samples, if required, can be drawn directly from the loaded flexitank at this stage. This is achieved by using a custom-made valve cap with a built-in tap. Final checks and photographs are taken before the container door is finally closed and sealed, ready for departure. The container is now ready for shipping and can be transported on a container ship or via rail/truck as any normal container would.
On arrival at destination, the discharge and unloading process is a mirror image of the loading process. The wine can be pumped out directly into a storage unit, ready for bottling, or the flexitank can be used as a temporary storage facility.
VT: What does a winemaker/importer have to consider to determine if bulk shipping makes sense?
AN: The main considerations would be:
• The cost and availability of bottling facilities at destination (against the extra cost of shipping bottled product).
• Whether the wine itself is suitable for bulk shipping. Sparkling wines, as we have seen, are not suitable for bulk shipping. In addition, in some wine regions, estate bottling is very important to the brand and the tradition. For example, high-value, prestige wines, such as Bordeaux grands crus, will not be shipped in bulk!
• The geography involved. Bulk shipping is available worldwide and for all shipping routes, but there may be times when it is not as viable. For example, if transporting wines within the same country, it may not make commercial sense.
For more on bulk wine shipping trends and the benefits of bulk wine shipping, see our blog: Bulk Wine Shipping.