Boxed Wines

It’s in the Bag, uh, Box, uh Both.

First they take away the cork from the wine bottle. Now they’re taking away the bottle. What’s next, intravenous?

Bag-in-the box wines (known as “bib” in the trade) are exactly what their name says, wine, typically three liters, in a collapsible plastic bag inside a cardboard box. They’ve long been popular in places like Australia and the UK but have started to take off in the United States in the past few years, up 31 percent in 2008 according to The Nielson Co. And, says Nielson, those numbers are likely to get even better as consumers look for value in the current economy.

Are Americans dumbing down their wine drinking? No, wines, or at least wine makers, are smarting up.

Just as screw capped bottles are gaining respect because we see them increasingly on better wines, we are seeing more and more quality wines in boxes. (There are limits, however. You’re not going to see bib Chateau Margaux in your lifetime, though the French, surprisingly, buy more than 20 percent  of their wines in boxes.)

At the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Corbett Canyon non-vintage three-liter Premium Cask Merlot, which sells for $10 to $14, won Best of Class for Merlots below $15. At home,  it was better than an $18 750ml bottle of 2004 Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Merlot. Crisp and clean with decent fruit, though on the light side. And it’s hard to beat the price, which works out to $2.50 a bottle. (The cask holds the equivalent of four 750ml bottles.)

As with bottled wines, higher quality in boxed wines usually comes with higher prices. The best boxed wine I’ve tasted so far, Four Wines 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, costs about $40 and actually comes in a tube (as is the most celebrated bib, Dtour, a collaborative effort between vintner Dominique Lafon, sommelier Daniel Johnnes and chef Daniel Boulud, which I have not tasted). The Four Wines Cab has rich, ripe fruit but isn’t one of those blowsy California fruit bombs. There is plenty of structure there. Grapes are sourced from Paso Robles, Monterey and Lodi and the wine spends 14 months in French and American oak. Even though this three-liter tube is the equivalent of four bottles costing about $10, Four Wines Cab is better than many Cabs I’ve had at twice the price.

With a nice balance of fruit and acidity, the 2008 Fish Eye 3L Pinot Grigio ($24) is another wine that’s better than quite a few of its bottled competitors. I’ve also liked Herding Cats’ 2008 Merlot (80%)-Pinotage (20%) and 2008 Chenin Blanc (80%)-Chardonnay (20%), both $15.

Price is certainly a major reason for the increased popularity of boxed wines but here are a few more:

  • The wines stay fresh for anywhere from four to six weeks after they are opened. The bag that holds the wine inside the box deflates as wine is poured, which minimizes contact with air and slows oxidation.
  • If you just want one glass of decent wine, you don’t have to open a bottle.
  • No need for a corkscrew. Just pull out the spigot attached to the bag and pour. This makes bib wines especially good for parties.
  • Bag-in-Boxes are more environmentally friendly than bottled wines because they take less energy to produce.

So get smart, bag one of those boxed wines soon.

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