Add to the plethora of grape types, producer names and esoteric geographical designations yet another consideration for the beleaguered Port wine consumer, the modern developments in packaging options for wine.
It used to be simple. Wine that came in bottles with screw caps or in boxes with mylar bags inside was “cheap” and forgettable. Then, the issues of corks became common knowledge among consumers and even high quality wine makers began using synthetic corks or screw caps to avoid the pitfalls of real cork. The weight and expense of traditional glass bottles has become another issue as fuel prices rise and shipping is ever more costly. Today we have more and more wines in bottles closed with screw caps, high tech plastic twist-off caps or glass plugs. We have wines sold in aluminum cylinders and boxes of various sizes and descriptions. Even the traditionalist Europeans are doing this? Is all this wine still cheap and forgettable? Is this the way of the future?
I’m a trained sommelier. I have a couple of cool wine openers that work really well and I’ve opened so many bottles with them that they seem almost to be an extension of my hand. I have bemoaned the possibility that my corkscrews may become obsolete, that the ritual of presenting and opening a bottle of wine may be reduced to the twist of an aluminum cap or a finger on a rubber spigot. But, I’m getting over that! I’ve opened many bottles of wine only to be disappointed by a reek of stale basement and damp cardboard. While I can’t say that all the bad wine I’ve experienced is due to a faulty cork, certainly a large percentage is, and I am ready to accept numerous wines, even the finest vintages, in bottles with screw caps if the number of flawed bottles is significantly reduced.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, that the international wine industry can be enjoying such enthusiastic growth even though as many as three in every ten bottles is flawed in some way, (estimates of the percentage of flawed bottles of wine range from 0.01 to 0.4 or higher) If 30% of all Fords were lemons that had to returned to the lot how successful would Ford be? And, how many other global products are being shipped and stored in a container that has changed very little since it was introduced 350 years ago? Maybe the old wine bottle with a cork is the best example of tradition repressing innovation. It seems to be changing as the 21st Century dawns. Screw caped wines are now accepted as being of potentially equal quality to fine cork-closed wines as some premium producers, who may charge $100 or more per bottle, are using them.
Now we must consider the box wines. Big jugs used to be the rule for generic blended wines. Remember “Mountain Riesling”, “Hearty Burgundy” and “Chablis” ? Pleasing, fruity wines that didn’t have any varietal character because they were composed of a blend of different grapes. They were given names like Burgundy or Chablis, to associate them with European models, even though they bore not the slightest resemblance to those European wines. By the 1980’s the American public was more aware of varietal wines, wines made from one or a couple of grape types whos names appeared on the label. Then, when the Europeans finally got us to stop using their traditional designations as marketing tools to sell our own cheap wines, the mask was off those jugs. “They’re cheap and forgettable, not real wine at all”. In the 1990’s, as boxed wine technology improved and more brands got involved, they retained the reputation of those generic jug wines.
To be sure, there is a place for this generic wine. To have wine for a big party, for the back yard or the boat or a camping trip, it works great. The price per ounce is a fraction of most bottled wines and that makes them an attractive alternative for casual everyday consumption. The bag-in-box is virtually indestructible, it goes places (like camping) where glass containers may be prohibited, and the sealed inner bag protects the wine from oxygen so it stays fresh for weeks rather than mere days. However, one universal rule of wine is that quality and individuality decreases as production increases. These box wines are, for the most part still made in very large volume. The boxes have up to 5 liter capacities (that’s equal to almost seven regular sized bottles) so, you have to figure they’re making a lot of wine. But, for many occasions what you want is a refreshing and pleasing beverage that can be enjoyed without any fuss and a box wine is just fine.
Is quality on the rise in the world of boxed wine? I think it is. As quality generally rises throughout WineWorld the quality of the boxed wines also rises. Although you will not see the French of Bordeaux putting their finest cuvees into mylar bags anytime soon, very competent wines from Australia and California, Argentina and South Africa, as well as France are now available in boxes. The “Black Box” wines from California are a case in point. They are fruity, juicy and innocent of real complexity but they possess aromatic and textural interest that make them better than boring. What’s more, tasted over a period of years they show vintage variation. Boisset, a very large wine making company in France offers the “French Rabbit” wines in 1 liter tetra-paks and they are very decent. They make as big a deal of their environmental dedication as they do of the quality of their wines but, they are vintage dated and sustainable farmed with varietal character that reveals their French origin. Can you say, “zees wine has dee terroir”? I have seen and sampled Cotes du Rhone red wines, Italian Pinot Grigios and Argentine Malbecs in boxes that all deliver enjoyment and a degree of vinous honesty at a fraction of the cost of bottled wines.