In the posts Wine 101 through Wine 104, we tackled some important topics. They included the differences between wine grapes, a discussion of wine flaws, a method for tasting wine, and principles for pairing food with wine.
If you haven’t read Wine 101, 102, 103, and 104, I encourage you to have a look, because they provide a solid background for making good wine choices.
One wine choice not yet discussed is, “What about boxed wine? Is it any good? Which is better—boxed wine or bottled wine?” The best answer, like so much in life, is “It depends.”
Several years ago, a city magazine on the east coast asked The Sojourning Somm to write an article about boxed wines. The magazine had noticed that boaters who journey south for the winter, prefer boxed wines. Their question was, “Why?”
Since boaters who live on sailboats or cruisers traveling from, say, New England to the Florida Keys are often fairly affluent, clearly their preference was not just economic — i.e., boxed wines are cheaper. So, why did these boaters prefer boxed wines and what tips can help us choose the best boxed wines?
What’s so great about boxed wines anyway?
Boxed wines, like screwcaps, have a bad reputation. Their reputations were formed in the days when only very bad wine was bottled with a screwcap or put in a box. Today, that’s not always true. Here are half a dozen reasons to consider boxed wine.
First, boxed wine does not spoil soon after opening. Inside the box, the wine is “sealed” in an oxygen-free pouch—a plastic bladder. When you pour a glass of wine from the box, the pouch shrinks. No air enters the pouch, so the wine stays as fresh as when it was first opened.
In contrast, a bottle of table wine — the type of red or white wine we drink with meals — will go off-flavor in as little as 24 hours after it is opened and spoil in a few days because wine remaining in the bottle is exposed to oxygen. Boxed wine can survive for up to a month because of the design of the pouch.
So, boxed wines may be a good choice for you if you can’t finish a bottle the same day it is opened (or at least, a day after it is opened). Not everyone drinks wine daily. Others, who do enjoy wine daily, may not have someone with whom they can share a bottle. Most people cannot finish a full bottle on their own.
Second, boxed wines are safer for homes-in-motion, like boat and RVs. If a box of wine falls on a hard surface, the worst case is that the pouch bursts, and that’s unlikely. If a bottle falls on a hard surface, the most likely outcome is that both the wine and a lot of broken glass will go all directions.
Third, boxed wines are friendlier to the environment and a lot of RVers care about sustainable packaging to help preserve the outdoors we enjoy so much. Think about it: a 3-liter box holds the equivalent of four bottles. To produce the box requires as little as one-third the energy as a single bottle and a fraction of four bottles. There also is less weight to ship from the winery, to the warehouse, to the retailer, which reduces carbon emissions. Most of the weight is liquid.
Fourth, boxed wines are cheaper for the same level of quality — or should be. The energy and transportation savings should be passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices. It doesn’t always happen, so be a price shopper if looking at boxed wines. Divide the price of a 3-liter box by four. If that number is not less than the price of your favorite equivalent 750ml bottle, pass up that box. Energy and transportation costs aside, you’re buying in bulk (four bottles at a time, rather than just one). You should expect some savings.
Fifth, boxed wines are convenient. You don’t need a corkscrew. You also can pour as much or as little as you like from the spout. And the storage space required for boxes is less than bottles. As cubes, the boxes are more efficient to store than bottles and they don’t add unnecessary weight (glass) — important to boaters and RVers.
Finally, sixth, like wine bottles that use a screwcap, boxed wines face no risk of cork taint caused by TCA. TCA is a chemical that makes the wine smell and taste musty. See the post “Wine 102: What to Look for in a Good Wine,” if you aren’t familiar with cork taint and would like to know more.
Don’t rush out and buy a dozen boxes of wine just yet.
The old computer adage “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. If the wine that goes into the box isn’t good to begin with, then it doesn’t matter whether the pouch prevents oxidation or not. And if you don’t like the wine, then any costs savings are false savings. All you’re left with is convenience and safety.
So before we declare a winner to “Which is Better: Boxed Wine or Bottled Wine?” let’s talk about what’s not so great about boxed wines.
What’s not so great about boxed wines?
The first issue with boxed wine is selection. You won’t find as many wine types or wine producers from which to choose. There are only a few producers of boxed wine, although some of them are large companies. There are also only a limited number of wine types. Boxed wine producers focus on the best-known, best selling grape types — varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, for example. If you want something beyond the most popular six to eight grape types, you may have to look elsewhere.
The second issue with boxed wine is quality. While the overall quality of boxed wine has improved, boxes earned a bad reputation for good reasons. For example, until recent years, the box might not tell you what kind of grapes were used or where they came from.
Boxed wine producers also grabbed regional designations from Europe, like “Rhine,” when nothing in the box came from Germany and the wine didn’t taste like anything made along the Rhine River either. Proprietary names used today, like “Sunset Blush” or “Chillable Red,” don’t tell you much more.
Wine economics and boxed wines
Let’s stop for a minute to acknowledge that if you love “Sunset Blush” or “Chillable Red,” that’s fine. These wines are produced using solid wine science and good winery hygiene. The question of quality has isn’t whether the most inexpensive box wines are drinkable. The question is whether you might enjoy an even better wine experience by choosing more carefully or paying a little more.
Grapes are the only “ingredient” in wine and less flavorful grapes cost less than more flavorful grapes — often much, much less. For that reason, today’s boxed wine market is divided into “value boxed wines” and “premium boxed wines.” Let’s wrap up this post by offering three tips for finding more flavorful boxed wines and then mention several of the most respected boxed wine brands.
Finding better boxed wines
Tip 1: Value boxed wines most often come in the big 5-liter boxes. You may want to concentrate on 3-liter boxes and smaller. Even if the wine inside were of the same quality, wouldn’t a little variety in your wine consumption be a welcome thing? And generally, the wine in a 5-liter box will not be the same quality.
Tip 2: If you are genuinely interested in finding out whether boxed wine is for you, then shop around. Most retailers don’t carry very much boxed wine. That means wine enthusiasts are caught in a triple-squeeze: not many producers, producing not many types, with retailers failing to stock very much. You’ll have to search to find some of the better boxed wines.
Tip 3: A couple of very, very large California value wine producers are located where grapes are cheaper to grow, or to purchase. Tip No. 3 is not infallible and good wine is sometimes made in unlikely places. But if the back of the box says “Modesto, Calif.” or “Ripon, Calif.,” you may want to look at a few other possibilities before purchasing.
On the other hand, at least one value wine producer has established facilities in the southern part of Napa County, to be able to use the word “Napa” — so there is no substitute for trying a variety of producers and trusting your palate.
Boxed wine producers to consider
When I did the article for the east coast city magazine, I tasted boxed wines by several producers. These are everyday drinking wines, not wines intended to produce a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said, I’m pleased all of the producers I recommended then have survived and prospered, indicating, perhaps, a level of quality that is recognized by both casual and serious wine enthusiasts.
The list that follows includes some of those producers, along with a few others that have come into the market over the past several years. This list is not exhaustive, but points to capable producers. You almost certainly will not find all of these—probably not even most of them—at a single retailer’s premises. Grocery stores tend to carry only a few. Wine retailers like Total Wine will carry more. Some are available online, if you are located in a state to which wines can be shipped.
- Black Box. This brand is one of the most widely available of premium boxed wines. I prefer their dry white wines, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. But if you like a little sweetness, try their Riesling from the Columbia Valley—a wine region spanning the Columbia basin in Washington state and Oregon. Red Elegance is an interesting red, a blend of Syrah and Merlot grapes, and a little Zinfandel.
- Bota Box. You’ll easily recognize Bota’s recyclable cardboard packaging. Their Old Vine Zinfandel and Malbec offer red wine drinkers two of the market’s favorite varietals. Their Moscato is a good rendering of the popular, semi-sweet white. And although many producers, including Bota Box, offer Pinot Noir, I don’t find this red well suited to be a boxed wine. “Bigger” reds tend to do better.
- LOFT Wines. This producer has come into the market since my original article about boxed wines, but has received very positive reviews from a number of capable wine writers. As LOFT’s tagline on the box says, “Wine Elevated,” and that seems to be exactly what they have done with boxed wine.
- Bandit. Bandit has also entered the market fairly recently. Their wines are well regarded and the unique twist Bandit offers is 500ml and 1-liter “boxes.” It would be more accurate to say Bandit has replaced the bottle with eco-friendly packaging. You won’t keep these around on the kitchen counter the way you would a 3-liter box, but Bandit’s motto—“Good to go wine”—is an good description. 500ml provides 2 good-sized glasses or 3 average servings. That may be just the ticket at a beach dinner for two.
- Big House Wine Company. Big House offers wine enthusiasts the advantage of being available both in 750ml bottles and 3-liter boxes. If you are hesitant about boxed wine, or at least about Big House, you have the opportunity to try a couple of their wines in 750ml bottles before committing to a big box.
- Powers Winery. A decade ago, when I was working nightly as a sommelier in a fine-dining restaurant, Power Winery Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington State) was one of the best values on our wine list. Later Powers began to offer its Cab in boxes and was one of my recommendations in the east coast city magazine article. And if you are sensitive to sulfites (or think you might be), Powers’ sister label — Badger Mountain Vineyard — offers both an organic red and organic white in 3-liter boxes called Pure Red and Pure White.
And the winner is . . .
So which is better, boxed wine or bottled wine? The answer remains, “It depends.” If you are seeking a well-made, affordable, everyday drinking wine, the answer may well be a boxed wine. Try several — as many as a dozen — before deciding. Even among the best boxed wines, quality and styles vary.
On the other hand, if you are seeking an off-the-beaten-path grape type (remember we called grape types “varietals” in Wine 101), then you’ll almost certainly have to answer, “Bottled wine.” Tempranillo, Silvaner, Falanghina, Sagrantino, Assyrtiko, and hundreds more marvelous varietals are only available by the bottle.
Similarly, if you are fascinated by wine and interested in further study, bottled wines are your only choice. They needn’t be expensive wines, but you won’t find wines from all regions of the world or all important states of the United States in boxes.
Finally, if you hope to achieve one of those rare wine epiphanies—an extraordinary wine, with the texture of silk or velvet, the taste of which lingers on your palate for a minute or more, while revealing successive layers of emerging flavor—go for the bottle and hold on to your wallet!
Until next time, when The Sojourning Somm will take you on a tour of Texas wine, cheers! Whether boxed or bottled, share a glass with friends or someone you love.