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Stinky Situation: The Rotten Egg Smell in Canned Wine Explained

Stinky Situation: The Rotten Egg Smell in Canned Wine Explained

Aluminum cans are quite versatile. They are cheap to manufacture, convenient, and recyclable. Various winemakers have adopted this century-old packaging technology and are now feverishly using it for their wine. However, it has recently cost them more than they bargained for. Some cans were returned due to an unpleasant rotten egg smell, a stench that generated the stink-eye from lots of consumers. How did this happen? Is there a solution? Are we done with canned wine? Let’s ponder!

Researchers identify the cause behind the rotten egg smell in canned wine. It’s a stinky situation and the solutions are far from acceptable.

Canned Wine

I am not a huge fan but I just can’t ignore the ever-growing popularity of the aluminum can and the aluminum bottle in the wine industry. They are cheaper to manufacture, 80% lighter than glass, far more stock efficient, more cost effective, more storage proficient, and a transportation dream for freight companies… In short, they reduce the overall carbon footprint of the end product by a ton! That’s pretty hard to ignore. Especially since we see them everywhere… Even in the most reputable wine stores! They are slowly becoming a new way to drink and enjoy wine, and winemakers are using them to attract younger consumers who don’t have my silly preconceived notions.

The U.S. canned wine market size is estimated to triple by the year 2030. All that said, that growth is being reconsidered due to a recent –uncanny– situation…

Rotten Egg Smell In Canned Wine

Though it is the fastest-growing packaging method of the wine industry, canned wine is facing a few hurdles. It is certainly not as elegant as a wine glass bottle, not as festive as the unavoidable box wine, and well… It kinda stinks!

If you’ve had wine from a can before, you might have noticed a strange wine smell, reminiscent of a rotten egg. Though the average shelf life for canned wine is 12 to 18 months, some people have noticed a bad smell after just a few months from buying the cans. A team of professors and researchers from the Cornell University are actively working with wineries and manufacturers to find a fix once and for all.

The Rotten Egg Smell Culprit

The collaboration started several years ago, when two professors Gavin Sacks, PhD. and Julie Goddard, PhD. were approached by winemakers who had occasionally encountered quality issues such as corrosion, leakage, and the smell of rotten eggs amongst the conventional floral notes of the wine varietal. After months of conducting extended tests, the two professors and their team have come to a unanimous conclusion: the compound responsible for the can failure and off aromas was the sulfur dioxide (SO2 for scientists).

Simply put, the plastic liner inside the can is too thin and doesn’t prevent interaction between the sulfur dioxide and the aluminum, which results in the production of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), the source of the rotten egg smell. I’m no scientist, but this makes perfect sense to me. Great job everyone. Let’s crack open a can of Champagne and celebrate! Well, not so fast…

The Solutions To Our Stinky Problem

Researchers identify the cause behind the rotten egg smell in canned wine. It’s a stinky situation and the solutions are far from acceptable.We may have found the culprit but we just have one teeny tiny problem… That compound is used by winemakers as an antioxidant and antimicrobial to protect the wine during the aging process. So scientists are asking winemakers to use less than the recommended 0.5 to 1 part per million – “We’re suggesting that wineries aim on the lower end of what they’re usually comfortable with.” Sacks said.

But it isn’t that simple. They found variations in the results, not so much due to wine composition, but due to can manufacturing style. Manufacturing companies claim to be using the same type of polymer but not necessarily the same quantity. So the other solution would be to thicken the plastic liner inside the can, hence giving the wine more separation and protecting it from potential oxidation. Once again, the solution is far from perfect. Cans would become more expensive to produce, and less environmentally friendly.

Though this whole canned wine idea may look like a bust, winemakers and manufacturers are not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Rather than simply diagnosing the problem, the two professors are now working with Héctor Abruña, a Professor of Chemistry, to design more robust liners using food-grade materials that can prevent corrosion. Now, let’s not get too excited. Food-grade means non-toxic material permitted to come into direct contact with food. That doesn’t mean it is recyclable or made out of cheese! Wait a minute… Cheese as a liner to protect the wine from smelling like a rotten egg! Seems like a no brainer. Wine… Cheese… I mean, it’s a great day for everyone.

I’m being facetious, obviously. It just feels like we are trying too hard to make something work, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Will Canned Wine Be The New Standard?

Let’s not kid ourselves. The one reason we are putting this much effort (and money) into fixing this problem is to sell more wine. This isn’t replacing the glass bottles by any means, but rather creating a new additional source of wine sales. The wine industry is targeting the non-wine drinkers with marketing and packaging schemes that are more appealing to that demographic. This new market is estimated to reach 700 million dollars (annual sales) by 2030. Not too shabby, is it?

So to answer the question, will canned wine be the new standard? Maybe… Perhaps the same way that cassettes, CD’s, and mp3 files became the new audio standards after vinyls. But guess what’s been coming back in recent years, or maybe never really left if you ask a true audiophile? – I think you have your answer to the above question ;)


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