“You mean the two bottles of wine we sell in the gift box?” she asks, peering into my dark sunglasses.
“No, the stuff that comes as a bag in the box,” I snap back. (I’ll throw away pretension, but not my reputation.)
“Ah, follow me” she says, taking me to the back section that has the same social approval as where they keep the adult flicks in video stores.
In 1967, an Australian invented the cardboard box with a spigot to drain the plastic bag inside. As the wine was drawn off, the bag shrank, reducing the wine’s contact with the air, and theoretically, preserved freshness.
The boxes captured 75% of the Aussie market by the early 1980s, and still account for 50% of the country’s wine sales.
In Australia they’re called “casks,” which summons images of rustic cellars and barrels, compared to the unfortunate North American tag “bag-in-a-box” which brings to mind a mobile intravenous drip.
Nevertheless, in the past year, two producers have launched premium boxed wines: Australia’s Southcorp, under its Lindemans label, and California’s Black Box Wines is offering Napa Valley chardonnay. It’s too early to tell if the wines are successful, but some see the move as a smart strategy to cope with the pending grape glut.
But I look for best-before dates on milk, not on wine. In fact, the label on the boxed wines in the store says “best enjoyed young.” (Though I’m not quite sure if that refers to the wine or to the drinker.)
This also goes against what I know about fine wine: it gets better as it ages. But we’re not talking about fine wine.
Rather, to appreciate wine from a box, the discerning drinker must set the right expectations—low ones.
Not enough wine to fill the frat house bathtub? Just add water. Some boxed wine producers do to increase profits while reducing costs.
Many boxed wines have a small amount of wine, and a whole lot of water, fruit juice, distilled grape alcohol, flavourings and sugar to make them accessible.
But residual sugar with yeast can cause a secondary fermentation—that’s how champagne gets its pressurized bubbles. Left uncontrolled, the bladder boxes could explode at inconvenient times, such as when you’re drinking from them.
So most of the yeast is filtered out, along with whatever character the wine might have had. Then sorbic acid is added to kill any remaining yeast—and flavour.
That’s not to say that box wine doesn’t have any advantages. The obvious one is price: one five-litre box can cost as little as $25, a considerable saving over the price of seven bottles.
You don’t have to make as many trips to the wine store—ideal for those who like Price-Club-sized Saran wrap so they can insulate the attic or convert their empty margarine container into a swimming pool.
These sturdy bags have second lives too: waterproof a decorative planter with one, or inflate it for a Jacuzzi pillow.
And vino collapso crumples up nicely, so the amount you’re knocking back can be more easily disguised from nosy neighbours in the recycle bin.
Back home, I decide to give them a fair shake, so I open a chardonnay. The label suggests drinking the wine while watching a sunset—but it’s raining, so I drink it while watching the Weather Channel.
Under an initial layer of over-watered vineyards, I detect the distinct aroma of soggy point-of-purchase sales materials.
Twelve boxes later, I’m feeling liberated. Perhaps this is from leaving snobbery behind, but I think it’s because all that sugar has loosened my molar fillings.
I won’t be putting away my corkscrew any time soon.
More stories about boxed wine here.