Modern wine packaging’s in the bag

30 August, 2017

Most studies suggest they're considerably better for the environment. They’re more convenient, too, if you want to keep your wine fresh for more than a couple of days.

And, given they are at least as good at storing wine for the first year of its life – and that most wine (between 70% and 90% depending on which study you read) is in any case opened within 24 hours of purchase – it really is baffling that the bag-in-box didn’t take over from the dear old glass bottle years ago.

In fact, some markets have always been keen on boxed wine. In Australia, where the package was invented (by Thomas Angove, who was inspired by the goat skins used to transport wine in the ancient world) the cask was in no small part responsible for the rise of wine as a mass-market beverage in the 1970s, and roughly one in three glasses of wine are still served from what Aussies still apparently persist in calling ‘goons’.

The Scandinavians, too, have never been fussy about glass. A hit from the moment it arrived on the scene in the 1970s, today around 50% of all wine sold in Finland, Norway and Sweden is sold as bag-in-box or pouch.

In other markets, however, it’s taken time to shake off an image that was cast in the 1970s and fixed in the 1980s – that the box is basically a synonym for bulk, and that this is a package that most wine drinkers will only countenance while camping or going to a barbecue.

And no wonder, since most wine sold in a box in the UK, US and southern Europe has, quite literally, scraped the barrel. In terms of quality of both contents and dreariness of packaging, it was the vinous answer to the catering wholesaler’s maxi-tub of margarine (or ‘yellow vegetable fat-based spreading comestible’) but sold without the same sort of price incentives. No wonder consumers went for the equivalent of bars of butter instead.

But there are signs of life in the boxed-wine market, a feeling that a new generation of wine drinkers, influenced by a mix of climate change fear and the packaging irreverence of craft beer, don’t have the same prejudices against bags, pouches and even Tetrapaks. They’ve seen all these packages (as well as kegs) being used in some of their favourite new-wave wine bars and restaurants with no impact on the quality in the glass. And they’ve begun to seek them out for drinking at home.

Meanwhile, enterprising producers such as the Rhône’s Famille Perrin, Portugal’s Esporão and Italy’s Araldica, have been putting wines that you might actually want to drink in boxes, while Australian Andrew Nielsen, of the brilliant Burgundy micro-negociant Le Grappin, has upped the quality still further with classy Burgundian wines filling his brilliantly named 1.5-litre ‘bagnums’.

The result has been considerable growth, with Nielsen showing a rise of 13.7% in boxed and pouch wine sales, and a 21.9% rise in Tetrapacks, during 2016 in the US.

That still only accounts for around 3% and 1% of the total market respectively. And too much boxed wine still gives the impression of being more about the pack than the contents. But in mature markets where wine’s growth has leveled out, you can see why many retailers are looking to send in the goons.

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