The old-school method was previously too perilous for bottles to survive the journey.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 14, 2019
china wine imports by train from europe
Credit: VCG / Getty Images

Looking for better ways to trade between Europe and Asia is something that’s been going since Marco Polo’s day back in the 13th century. And yet 700 years later, we’re still tinkering with the best trade routes. Shipping wine can be especially tricky. Beyond the inherent problem with breakable glass bottles, wine is (as we all know) notoriously fickle when it comes to temperature. But a new method for satiating China’s growing thirst for European wine actually turns to an older form of transportation: the railways.

According to Forbes, global beverage logistics brand JF Hillebrand and train operator Groupe InterRail just conducted a successful test of the first direct rail shipment of wine from Europe to China. Traversing from Duisburg, Germany, to Yiwu, China, the journey covered over 7,000 miles through six countries, arriving in Yiwu in 28 days – which is actually eight days less than the shipment would take by sea.

Though shipping by train might seem like an obvious method, getting wine between these two areas has a number of unique challenges – so JF Hillebrand and Groupe InterRail sent monitoring equipment along for the ride. First, the railways themselves aren’t always in the best condition, especially running through the rural areas of countries like Kazakstan. JF Hillebrand was worried this could put excessive stress on the breakable bottles; however, despite reaching maximum forces of around 2Gs, all of the bottles arrived unscathed. Meanwhile, temperatures are the bigger problem. Even in May, research showed that temperatures inside a shipping container can vary from between -2 degrees to 58 degrees Celsius along the route – a range wide enough to ruin wine on both ends. To counteract these issues, the shippers used a special foil liner, called VinLiner, which was able to keep the liquid in the wine bottles comfortably in the 20s Celsius.

Not only is shipping by train faster than by sea, but the prices are currently affordable as well, especially compared to the expense of sending by air. “This solution complements sea freight and air freight; it is by no means a replacement to these solutions,” Jannson Chan, JF Hillebrand’s director for China, told Forbes. “However, given the current difficult context for shipping lines — instability, unavailability, increasing prices — it not only means more options for big European wine makers but also for Chinese importers.” And hey, the way wine production is growing China, maybe in the future, China can even use these trains to send some of its wine back.