In the not-too-distant past, box and screwtop wines held roughly the same ranking in the wine pantheon as barely drinkable jug brands—the perfect choice for college kids. Screwtops have already made the leap to respectability—plenty of high-end vintners have forgone natural cork in favor of screwtops that assure predictable quality. But is box wine really ready to undergo a similar Cinderella transformation? The answer is unequivocally “yes”—and the revolution has already begun.
The convenience and lower prices of box wine, now called “cask wine” to help spruce up its image, are helping to convert legions of buyers looking for an attractive balance of price and taste.
Box wine stays fresh for over a month after it’s opened so if all you want is one glass, there’s no need to worry about wasting the rest of the bottle. It’s easier to carry and store; one 3-liter box barely takes up more room than one bottle even though it holds four times the wine. Without the breakable glass it’s perfect for outdoor activities like softball games or barbecues. There’s little chance of opening the wine only to find it musty and ruined or “corked.” And most important, the packaging saves producers up to 80 percent of the usual cost of glass bottles, savings they pass along to consumers.
Inside the Box
The packaging is actually a high-tech bag with a spigot inside of a box. The bag, made of several layers of very thin plastic, was originally developed in the 1950s to dispose of battery acid. Thirty-five years ago, some Australians seized upon the technology, filled the bags with wine and put them in a box. The box is primarily for aesthetics and portability. The essential part is the bag-and-spigot system. As wine is poured, the bag collapses on itself, keeping air away from the wine and thus thwarting spoilage. The bag is not entirely impervious. Tiny amounts of air will pass through the plastic membrane over time, which will slowly deteriorate the wine. (The same is true of unopened bottled wine, although it happens at a slower pace.) Don’t plan on aging box wines; plan on drinking them reasonably soon after purchase.
An Explosion of Boxes
In Australia, where there’s been more time to embrace it, box wine commands 50 percent of the market. The 3-liter offerings are exploding in U.S. supermarkets, and sales grew at an astonishing 77 percent (nearly nine times faster than the overall wine category) for the year ending July 30, 2005, according to ACNielsen. The pricier bracket is experiencing the most significant growth, 61 times faster than the overall wine category. Much of this growth is driven by new brands, like Black Box Wines, just released in the last few years. According to Danny Brager of ACNielsen, “Wine marketers are driving renewed interest in boxed wine by focusing on the smaller 3-liter package and by offering premium varietals, such as Shiraz/Syrah and Pinot Grigio—neither of which is available in a 5-liter box.”
The box-wine category has come a long way in recent years, even occupying distinct shelf space in many supermarkets to separate it from the lower-end box wines of the past. New entries don’t use the larger 5-liter format, which is still reserved for the old-guard-type value wines like Franzia and Almaden. (Those wines are less expensive, usually in the $10 range for a 5-liter box, and tend to be of lower quality.) To be fair, we did include some of the value wines in our tasting. (We were pleasantly surprised by the Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon in the 5-liter box, though it didn’t make our Top 12 ranking.)
The Bottom Line
We tasted over 40 wines in several tasting sessions and have selected our Top 12 favorites from the group. All our picks in the white category were Chardonnays, which was primarily a function of availablility; of the 17 whites we found, five were blends, two were Pinot Grigios and the rest were Chardonnays. There were more varietals available in the red category. While we are not ready to give up bottled wines, there are some eye-opening discoveries to be made in boxes. The joy of uncorking a nice bottle of wine is deeply ingrained in many of us, but the days of judging a wine by its cap or container are clearly numbered.
(California) 2004 $16
This rich Chardonnay is full of tart apples and pineapple mellowed in young wood with a hint of vanilla.
(California) 2004 $17
Tropical fruit, bananas, vanilla and a bit of oak burst from this golden-colored wine. Light bitter and sour tastes balance out the big Chardonnay flavors.
(Australia) NV $17
Butter-yellow-colored wine, with soft oak and warm Golden Delicious apple scents. This smooth wine is medium-bodied with just a hint of acidity for balance.
(Australia) 2005 $18
Straw-colored with a heady aroma of gardenia, melon and fig, this full-bodied and syrupy wine bursts from its box to fill the glass with heavy tropical fruit flavors of pineapple and mango. A rather hot finish.
Black Box Wines, Chardonnay
(California) 2004 $22
Pale color and a rather delicate aroma characterize this crisp, clean Chardonnay with just
a subtle suggestion of oak. It has a sweetscent of honeysuckle and sun-warmed fruit with nicely balanced splashes of golden apple and pear.
(France) 2004 $37
We tried to stick with wines available nationwide but this one was so good we had to break the rules; it’s only in New Jersey, New York and Maryland stores to date, but distribution will be expanded across the U.S. in the next year. This light, crisp wine has green apple, mild vanilla and light yeasty flavors.
(California) 2004 $16
Redolent with berry and dark plum, this deep-colored wine smells like a bowl of fruit, rounded out with light oaky notes.
(California) 2002 $17
The rich garnet color foreshadows its deep fruit tones of raisin, black cherry and blackberry with hints of roasted coffee, clove and cedar. Fruit and spice play off one another so surprisingly well, you’ll want to pour another glass.
Voyage by Origin, Cabernet Sauvignon
(California) 2004 $20
Dry, but not dry enough to strip your mouth, this sophisticated wine has bright black-cherry flavors and a whiff of sea air.
Washington Hills, Rainier Red
(Washington) NV $20
A red blend full of flavorful fruit balanced by powerful tannins and just the lightest hint of sweetness on the tip of the tongue.
Black Box Wines,
(California) 2003 $22
A robust-colored red with tastes of cherries and a touch of smokiness. This full-bodied wine has a pleasant lingering finish.
Black Box Wines, Merlot
(California) 2003 $22
Bakery-aroma wine that entices you to enjoy it with crusty pizza or grilled vegetables. Surprisingly complex with a nice balance of berries and a touch of fresh herbs and green pepper.
Tasting Panel: Jessie Price is EatingWell’s associate food editor. Susan Buchanan is a lawyer and cook. Lindsey Bolger is director of coffee sourcing for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.