Liquid logistics: The fine art of wine transportation

The transport of wine and other liquids can be as complex as the bouquet of a fine Bordeaux. The logistics challenges are as old as the craft itself. To uncork this growing business, it’s vital to understand it all the way from the vine to the glass.

Wine logistics is an age-old problem

Since there has been logistics, there has been wine logistics. Or, for that matter, logistics for any liquid people want to buy or sell. Some of the most common archeological finds from Ancient Greece are amphora, ceramic containers used in vast amounts to store and ship oils and wine, among other things. The wine amphora even became a standard measure, holding about 39 liters (41 quarts).

Today, 8,000 years on, the challenges of transporting liquids have not fundamentally changed. How do we prevent temperature fluctuations, oxidation, and contamination? How can we move a much volume at a little weight as possible? Wine transportation is a specialist field in the logistics industry – one best left to those who know the supply chain from the vine to the vessel to the venue.

Growing and flowing worldwide

Wine logistics might be a niche in our industry, but it is part of a growth trend. The volumes for beer, wine, and spirits (commonly known as BWS) and bulk liquids are expected to increase by around 5-7% per annum in the coming years. And that’s despite the recent decline in the global consumption of alcoholic beverages. People may be drinking less alcohol these days, but they are reaching increasingly for pricier beverages. Non-alcoholic spirits are a good example. And plenty of wine is still consumed: about 23.4 billion liters a year.

There’s also a trend towards more international products. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) estimates that 45% of all wine crosses at least one international border on its way from producer to consumer. It is perhaps unsurprising that Europe, a great producer and consumer of wines, tops the chart when it comes to the sheer volume transported: nearly 16,000 kilotons are moved within the region annually. Trade within North America comes in second with around half that amount, followed by Europe to North America and Europe to Asia.

23.4 billion liters

consumed annually worldwide

16,000 kilotons

transported within Europe per year


crosses at least one national border from producer and consumer

Globalization is certainly a driving force behind the growing interest in and availability of different wines from different places. Indeed, the world of wine is rich – and only getting richer. So, while global wine consumption has plateaued, increasing volumes will continue to pour across borders.

The global village also makes it possible for nearly anyone to enter the marketplace. Businesses working with international wine shipping companies range from small local wineries to global players in the beverages industry. Downstream in the liquid transport supply chain we find retailers, airlines, hotels, and restaurants.

Transforming wine transportation

Liquid transport might be eight centuries old, but wine logistics experts continue to find new and novel ways to solve age-old problems. For bulk liquid transport, the latest innovation is the Flexitank, which uses a bag to basically turn a standardized shipping container into a bulk liquid receptacle. For liquids that need to be kept at a specific temperature, the solution is combined with a reefer container.

In a conventional twenty-foot container, you can fit around 13,200 bottles – the equivalent of 9,900 liters of wine. A Flexitank more than doubles the volume to 24,000 liters. That not only saves costs but is also good for the environment. Compared to conventional wine transportation, the use of a Flexitank can reduce carbon emissions by up to 40%, or around 2kg of CO2 per kilometer traveled.

The trend is also toward shipping wine in bulk. For example, some 40% of wine imports to the UK are bulk liquid transports, and 78% of all wine entering France in 2020 was in a bag, not a bottle.


Shipping liquids with confidence

24,000 liters

Flexitanks can hold twice the volume of conventional containers.

40% less

Liquid transport in Flexitanks reduces CO2 by up to 2kg per kilometer travelled.

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Why go looking for the latest logistics trends and business insights when you can have them delivered right to you?

Keeping it cool and clean

But what about wine still shipped in bottles? Innovative wine logistics solutions are always needed, whether liquid is transported in bags or bottles. For example, to counter the effects of “container rain.” This is when condensation (water droplets) form in airtight containers due to temperature fluctuations, literally raining down on the contents. This happens as ships move through the seas, travelling from day to night and across latitudes. It can be a real problem for temperature-sensitive goods like wine. Freight forwarders specializing in liquid transport have developed liners that can be placed within the containers to keep that rain away from the precious goods.

These liners are also used to minimize temperature fluctuations and avoid “thermal shock”. Extreme temperature changes are one of the biggest risks in wine logistics (or any bulk liquid transport, for that matter). Contamination from outside as well as humidity can also damage shipments. Beverages can lose their taste – or even acquire a different, unwanted flavor.

What applies to wine and other liquids also holds true for their containers. For example, even empty oak wine barrels need special care when shipped to avoid contamination from haloanisoles, a family of volatile chemical compounds that can cause musty or moldy odors.

Another lesser-known advantage of bulk liquid transport over bottles and other packaging is that the content is not as prone to sudden temperature changes, thanks to a physical property known as thermal inertia. Simply put, a 24,000-liter polythene bag heats up a lot slower than a one-liter bottle of wine.

Wine transportation – an intricate blend

The pandemic has poured additional challenges onto the already complex world of wine logistics. The current situation in the ocean freight market makes reliability and resilience in supply chains that much more critical.

Many of the world’s largest ports continue to operate above capacity. For example, ships wanting to dock at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles waited on average more than 30 days for a berth in late 2021. And short-notice shutdowns caused by COVID-19 outbreaks can happen at any time.

Flexibility becomes a key tool for tackling complexity and sudden disruptions. While much of the world’s liquid transports – at least for transcontinental stretches – are handled by sea, wine shipping specialists can quickly shift to air if speed is required. For example, some European wine producers turned to the skies to get their wines to the United States at the beginning of 2021 to avoid a hike in the European wine tax that went into effect on January 14, 2021.

The liquid logistics specialists

Wine transportation is a specialized business, which is why we acquired our subsidiary Gori – a wine and spirits logistics specialist – decades ago. Now we’re adding the expertise of Hillebrand  in the logistics of beverages, beer, wine, and spirits. Hillebrand brings extensive experience in liquid logistics and a global footprint in over 90 countries.

Hillebrand and Gori will work closely together under the new name ‘Hillebrand Gori – A DHL company’ and be part of DHL Global Forwarding (DGF). The integrated business will combine the strengths of DGF’s network with both Hillebrand’s and Gori’s liquid logistics solutions – tapping into synergies to develop even better liquid transport solutions.

Where does wine logistics go from here?

As we look to the future of wine transportation, the question is: where do we go from here? You could say the sky’s the limit. But is it really? Wine has already been transported into space. In 2019, 12 bottles of Bordeaux were shipped to the International Space Station, where they stayed, unopened, for 438 days and 19 hours, before returning to Earth – and then back to France – for tasting and comparison with identical vintages that stayed on the ground.

We may not be rocketing wines to the stars ourselves just yet, but all signs point to a continued rise in the market for international bulk liquid transport. So, you could say that when it comes to wine transportation and liquid logistics, this is one glass that is much more than half full – and getting fuller all the time.

Published: March 2022

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