Thinking inside the box: how cask wine became cool again

Cask wine, box wine, goon bag whatever you call it, wine in a box has a bad reputation. But wine enthusiasts are changing all that

Cask wine? I havent drunk that since I was in my 20s. So said a middle-aged customer, somewhat sniffily, to me upon being presented with a carafe of wine that had been freshly decanted from a three-litre bag-in-box cask. But the wine inside that cask a fresh and light blend of sangiovese, colorino and canaiolo from Tuscan producer Casale, made from organic grapes and with natural yeast was a far cry from the cask wines that customer would have quaffed decades ago.

The natural wine movement an umbrella term for the popularity of wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes, vinified with naturally occurring wild yeasts, unfiltered or unfined, and made with minimal additives or other trickery has already had a profound impact on how people around the world drink wine. The movement has made certain previously-neglected wine regions (such as the Jura, Georgia, and the Italo-Slovenian border) hot property, and brought ancient styles of wine (such as orange wines and lightly fizzy ptillant-naturel wines) roaring back into fashion.

This same movement is now challenging and changing one of the most fundamental aspects of modern wine production: the vessel the wine is stored and served in.

Beyond the bottle

Bag-in-box is a good vessel for pouring, because it keeps the wine stable for a few days, says Giorgio de Maria, a Sydney-based sommelier and wine importer (who also happens to bring the aforementioned Casale bag-in-box into Australia). It also makes the packaging cheaper much cheaper than using bottle and cork. Ive always loved the idea of having a good wine, packaged in bag-in-box, that people can enjoy at a lower price range.

Bag-in-box wines still have a lingering image problem, as de Maria acknowledges: People associate bag-in-box, or goon, with bad wine, he says. But despite this impediment, his bag-in-box wines have taken off. He has now completely sold out of the Casale (although he will be bringing more into Australia soon) and offers another bag-in-box in its place: a juicy and delicious barbera again made from organic grapes and wild yeasts from producer Carussin. A lot of venues are going hard on these bag-in-boxes Im bringing in, because they understand and are able to explain to customers that its just a vessel, and a good vessel for pouring.

Part of the appeal to venues is that bag-in-box wines come with lower shipping costs for the supplier, which means bars and restaurants can offer these wines at a much more reasonable price point for de Maria, its about 2l of bag-in-box wine for the same price as one 750ml glass bottle, with the same profit margin.

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The humble cask or box wine, is much maligned but can be better value and quality than bottled wine. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Put a tap on it

Melbourne wine bar and restaurant Neighbourhood Wine takes this insight a step further by offering a selection of wines on tap. According to owner and wine program manager Simon Denman, Neighbourhood Wines experiments with tap wine came from the same impulse as de Marias use of bag-in-box wines trying to get a high-quality product into customers hands at the best possible price.

Like any decent venue, were trying to serve the best-quality products for the most affordable price, Denman says. Personally, I dont like that culture of having an inexpensive house wine where the qualitys quite low but its seen to be not important because the people who drink it dont care its a very cheap product with high margins because venue owners know its going to move, and the qualitys quite low.

Rather than pursue this standard business practice at Neighbourhood Wine, Denman started thinking about ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality. It came back to two things: wed have to buy in volume, and to bring the costs down further, wed have to buy in large formats.

Denmans interest was piqued by KeyKeg technology essentially a large laminated aluminium bag inside an argon-filled plastic ball that he first encountered as a storage vessel for an imported Italian prosecco. While the technology didnt quite work out for the prosecco importer managing the pressure in both the ball and bag proved too much of a challenge with carbonated wine Denman quickly saw the possibilities for still wines.

I was having a chat with Dave Mackintosh of Arfion and he had some wine that hed made that he wasnt sure what to do with, Denman says. I made an offer to buy the whole lot at a decent price because I was buying the whole vintage and he knew someone in the Yarra Valley with some spare KeyKegs. So we filled up the KeyKegs with a whole-bunch, light, fresh cabernet franc, and ran it through our beer system, and it was a huge success.

That initial success lead to further collaborations with other winemakers, such as Jamsheeds Gary Mills and Barossa iconoclast Tom Shobbrook many of whom embraced the KeyKeg program because it allowed them to sell large quantities of wine without having to bottle, close and label it: You click one keg in, and within about two minutes its full. Thats it.

Like bag-in-box wines, kegged wines have their own image problems. In years gone by, kegged wines as poured in pubs were always basically cooking wines, Denman says. So there was some stigma attached.

When he rolled out the tap wine program, Denman was careful to make the fact that the wine came from a tap explicit on the menu, because some of his customers had point-blank refused to try any wine theyd seen come out of a tap rather than a bottle. But the reasonable price point of these tap wines normally these wines would be up around the mid- to high-end price points on a by-the-glass menu, Denman says is an argument in itself.

Because we were championing these good, small producers who were making a great product, people recognised that and would say Its awesome that youre doing their wines on tap, because theyre good wines. Now Neighbourhood Wine doesnt differentiate between its tap wines and other wines and if a customer sees the wine being poured from the tap and has a problem with it, a member of the team will talk them through the benefits of the program.

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A vineyard and stone barn near Montalcino, Tuscany. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Its better being green

These alternative formats are not just good for consumers hip pockets they also help reduce the environmental impacts of wine production and consumption. For Alice LEstrange who works as both a wine importer specialising in Chilean wines through her company Cultivar Wines and as a winemaker for soon-to-be-launched label George the environmental benefits of alternative packaging are the most salient reasons to reject the traditional glass bottle.

When we [LEstrange and her partner Lucy Kendall] wanted to start doing something commercial in wine, it was always with a responsible way of looking at the industry, she says. Both of us know how wasteful the wine industry can be with things like water and human resources all those finite things that dont ever come back again. Looking into it, it doesnt take long to find out that the biggest carbon footprint in a bottle of wine is the bottle itself even with industrial wine estates that use loads of petrochemicals, something like 75% of that footprint is just from the bottle. It made us feel super weird and guilty to put things in glass bottles that would be poured out and then chucked out.

LEstrange discovered that the lifecycle of a glass wine bottle generates quite a lot of carbon dioxide but not necessarily in the ways the average wine drinker might expect. Its more the energy intensity of making glass than the shipping, she says. The carbon footprint of shipping a bottle of wine is very, very minimal.

Its the production of the bottle itself that causes many of the problems, even though glass is itself recyclable. The glass that we put wine into is new glass there is a component of recycled glass in it, but our standards are quite high so it needs to be predominantly new glass. And even when you recycle glass, its quite an energy-intensive process, because you have to melt down the glass again.

Similar problems dog recyclable bag-in-box and KeyKeg technologies theyre still fundamentally single-use products that require energy to be recycled.

To avoid this wasting of energy and carbon on recycling glass, Cultivar is drawn towards working with Chilean producers who reuse glass bottles instead. In a lot of Latin American and European countries there are proper systems of reusing glass bottles, she says. There are big plants that will collect up bottles, wash them out, and sterilise them. Three of our producers put their wines in reused bottles. Its not necessarily cheaper, but you do get to feel great about yourself.

LEstrange has also investigated shipping the wines over in a gigantic polyeurethane bladder essentially a shipping container-sized bag-in-box but logistical challenges got in the way.

For Georges collaboration with a soon-to-be-opened Melbourne wine bar, LEstrange plans to reduce her wines carbon footprint by utilising another form of glass the demijohn or carboy, a large glass jug.

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Empty demijohns, also called carboys, on a wagon in Tuscany, Italy. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Our idea is to store the wines in 50 litre demijohns and, for service, decant the demijohns into smaller 15 litre demijohns, she says. Then it will be a process of using carbon dioxide every night to protect the wine as the volume goes down. LEstrange is also planning to create a refilling station for people to bring in used glass bottles and exchange them for a cleaned and sterilised bottle full of fresh wine sealed with a crown seal rather than cork. That way we can put cool labels on it and people can still have their 750ml bottle, but they just bring it back and use it again.

A natural progression

For LEstrange, one of the unexpected upshots of a shift towards non-bottle wine formats may well be their potential to add a bit of fun and immediacy to the stuffier elements of wine service think of the anxiety many people feel when partaking in the tasting ritual that accompanies wine service at most fine-dining restaurants.

Presenting wine in an approachable format is a great thing for the wine industry because it breaks down some of the wanky sommelier stuff that turns people off wine, she says. If youve got a demijohn sitting on the counter and youre drinking a $6 or $7 tumbler of wine you dont have to think about it too much or opine about it.

To that end, LEstrange doesnt care if not everybody is convinced about the virtues of alternative formats, or if certain kinds of wine drinkers still cling to the traditional 750ml glass bottle.

Young people want to drink wine and appreciate it, but there is a big barrier there the older white male generation, lets say, who have one way of thinking about wine and drinking it, and I think thats been detrimental to the industry for a long time. Things are changing and packaging is part of it it goes hand-in-hand with natural wine, and young people making wine. I dont really care if certain people dont dig it, because there are plenty of people out there who love this idea.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jul/07/thinking-inside-the-box-how-cask-wine-became-cool-again