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How European Wine Is Now Going To China Aboard Silk Road Trains by Wade Shepard 27/07/2017  

A China Railway Express shipping container being loaded.

The first direct rail shipment of European wine has successfully crossed the expanse of Eurasia and arrived in China, opening up a new way for the wine producers of Europe to get their bottles onto the tables of the world’s fastest growing market for wine consumption.

This first shipment of European wine by rail to China was ultimately a test conducted by JF Hillebrand, a freight forwarder that focuses on alcoholic beverages, and Groupe InterRail, an operator of container block trains between Europe and Asia, to determine if the wine could be securely transported without damaging the product or its packaging. The train departed on the 5th of May from Duisburg, Germany and arrived in the Chinese city of Yiwu 28 days later; traversing six countries and 11,400 kilometers in eight days less than it takes to get between these two points by sea.

One of the main challenges for shipping a sensitive product like wine by rail across Eurasia has to do with climate. Central Asia is prone to extreme weather fluctuations, and containers moving across such open expanses can be prone to heating up like a closed car on a hot summer day or freezing solid, depending on the season. So this initial test shipment was very focused on monitoring temperatures throughout the entire journey, to ensure that the wine was neither becoming too hot or too cold.

Researchers had found that in the middle of May, the temperature outside a typical container throughout the journey varied from 6°C to 35°C, while on the inside it ranged from -2°C to 58°C. Wine cannot be successfully shipped at these temperatures.

However, the containers that JF Hillebrand and Groupe InterRail used were equipped with a special foil liner, called VinLiner, which regulates the temperature and humidity of the contents inside. It worked, keeping the temperature inside the liner between 9°C and 32°C and the temperature of the wine not going beyond 29°C.

The result: no damage to either the wine or the packaging. Success.

However, the foil liner that was used for this shipment can only be reasonably utilized for wine shipments in the spring and autumn months. For year round service, European wine producers would need to rely on temperature controlled reefer containers — such as those made by Unit 45.

Another thing that JF Hillebrand and Groupe InterRail were monitoring in this test shipment was how much force the bottles of wine would be subjected to along the 11,000+ kilometers to China — a trip that would require two rail gauge transfers and use tracks of varying quality. They found that the maximum force exerted on the containers was in the ballpark of 2Gs — or about the same as a rollercoaster. This was attributed to poorly constructed rail lines in Kazakhstan and China, but it ultimately had no adverse impact on the shipment, as the bottles were packed with adequate protection.