Bag-in-a-box or “cask” wines are going mainstream. Although five-liter boxes of nondescript, generic wines initially gave boxes a bad rep, the arrival of upscale, vintage-dated varietal wines in three-liter packages has dramatically changed the playing field.
ACNielsen scan data identifies the three-liter boxed wines as the fastest-growing premium wine packaging segment. Volume sales have roughly doubled over the most recent three-year period, as has market share.
A standard three-liter package is the equivalent of four glass bottles. Unlike bottles, boxes are disposable, unbreakable, easy to stack, store and carry and they require no corkscrew to open (at least until the sommeliers figure something out). Once chilled, boxes hold their temperature longer than bottles, and offer extra protection from the damaging rays of the sun.
Most boxes are stamped with a “packaged on” or “drink by” date, a useful guarantee of freshness. They have explicit instructions (usually on the bottom of the box) for opening, and there is nothing cheap or cheesy about the functionality of the airtight bag or dripless spout. Because the bag collapses as it is emptied, the wine is never exposed to air. Freshness is guaranteed for a month or more. You can enjoy a small glass with dinner and it will be as fresh on day 30 as it was on day one.
The bag-in-a-box format is especially popular in Scandinavia (ACNielsen reports that almost two-thirds of the wine purchased in Sweden is box wine), but on the production side the trend first took hold in Australia. Hardy’s Stamp and Banrock Station are brands that offer excellent value; unsurprisingly, the Chardonnay and Shiraz are best in show.
These days, you’ll find wines from Italy, France and other formerly tradition-bound countries trying the box format. A South African brand, Rain Dance, is offering Chardonnay and Shiraz in three-liter cartons, emphasizing that the product stays fresh for weeks after opening.
In California, Black Box has introduced vintage-dated varieties such as Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon and Napa Valley Chardonnay. Black Box is part of the Pacific Wine Partners (Constellation Wines U.S.) portfolio, and talks up the value aspect of boxed wine: “The more you know about wine, the less you have to pay.”
Another California winery, Delicato, has succeeded with well-made, vintage-dated Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet in their three-liter Bota Box. And now The Wine Group’s Fish Eye brand is launching an ambitious network television advertising campaign that promises to do for the box what Aldo Cella did for the jug several decades ago.
Washington wineries have also begun to jump on the trend. The three-liter line of Washington Hills “is on fire as a brand,” according to its Seattle distributor. A project dubbed Revelry takes the bag-in-box idea, sizes it down to 1.5 liters, and offers Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a hip and colorful package. Same bag, but papa’s got a brand new box.
Gregutt closes with a very good point, the observation that the wines offered in these alternative packages are "drink now" wines, not intended for cellaring. And since the "drink now" category covers the lion's share of what's on the market these days, we'll likely see more and more of it offered in these packages in the next 5 to 10 years.