Boxed Wine 101
Wines sold in boxes are popping up in supermarkets and liquor stores everywhere. Are they the right option for you? And more important, how do they taste?
How does it work?
Bag-in-a-box wine usually consists of a 3- or 5-liter bag of wine inside a cardboard box. When it’s time to drink the wine, a hole is made along perforated lines on the box and a tap already attached to the bag is pulled through for dispensing. After opening, these wines stay fresh for 30 to 60 days.
Doesn’t wine start to go bad after you open it? How can it last so long?
Exposure to oxygen can cause wine to turn, and the speed can vary with the fragility of the wine, says Helene Hopfer, Ph.D., of the Department of Viticulture & Enology, at the University of California, Davis. “One major advantage of bag-in-box,” she says, “is that you can pour one glass at a time without opening the bag, like you would have to with a bottle.” The bag inside the box slows oxidization because as you use the tap to remove the wine from the bag, the bag collapses and limits the air inside. With a bottle of wine, once it has been opened, the exposure to oxygen means you usually have just a few days before air affects the flavor of the wine.
Why buy wine in a box instead of a bottle?
Value: Three liters of wine is about the same as four bottles of wine, and five liters is about the same as 6.7 bottles. You typically get more for your money when it comes to buying wines in a box. Lorena Ascencios, the head wine buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits, in New York City, says, “You can buy larger-size box wines and save a tremendous amount at the register. I’ll give you an example of a wine we carry in two sizes: Côtes-du-Rhône, Domaine le Garrigon from France. The 750-milliliter bottle costs $13.96 a bottle and the 3-liter box costs $38.99. If you were to buy four bottles, you would pay $55.84, versus $38.99 for the boxed version. You save $16.85 by buying the larger format.”
Convenience: Boxed wine is a great choice for picnics and parties. The wine can rest on a table or in the refrigerator and guests can dispense it easily into their glasses. Boxes of wine are also great for times when glass bottles aren’t ideal, like pool parties, camping trips, and sporting events. But even if you aren’t having a large gathering, a box of wine may be worth buying, especially since it typically lasts a month or longer and can fit easily in the refrigerator. And having a box in the kitchen allows you to use a cup or two for cooking without letting the majority of a bottle go to waste.
Environmentally friendly: Boxed wines are believed to have less impact on the environment than more traditionally packaged wines. The cardboard package is recyclable, and research indicates that the entire bag-in-a-box packaging system contributes less to global-warming potential and uses less water and energy than glass wine bottles do. Boxes are also thought to have a smaller carbon footprint than glass bottles, since they are lighter and easier to transport.
What’s the downside?
Stigma: Even though the quality of boxed wine has drastically improved in recent years and you can find a large selection of fresh, even organic wines in boxes, some people still turn up their noses at them. Possibly it’s because they can’t forget the box of sweet White Zinfandel or blush sitting in their parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen, says Brad Nugent, the beverage director at the restaurant Porter House New York. “The fact is, wine as a whole has gotten better. Producers, sommeliers, and consumers are all better educated and able to make, swirl, and sip higher-quality wine,” he says. “Looking at it from this perspective, it is natural to assume that boxed wine is being held to higher and higher standards and will continue to improve.” Does this mean that your neighbors won’t pooh-pooh your box of wine? Not necessarily. But they may change their minds once they taste what’s inside.
Palate exhaustion: What if you want to drink Sauvignon Blanc before dinner, Chardonnay with your salad, and a nice Pinot Noir with your lamb chops? Bottles of wine allow you to open and enjoy more than one varietal over the course of a meal. This is particularly important to people who like to pair wines with their food. In this case, large-format boxed wines are not ideal, says Nugent. “The problem with boxed wines for personal consumption [as opposed to for large gatherings] is that you can get tired of them. To finish a box of wine, you have to make it your go-to wine for a few weeks. Most people like a little more variety.”
Do all boxed wines come in such large packages?
No. Wine packaged in Tetra Pak cartons are another option for people looking for wine in alternative packaging. Tetra Pak cartons are like the boxes of juice or chicken broth you find in the grocery store. When filled with wine, they typically come in 1-liter or 500-milliliter sizes and have a screw cap for dispensing. Like bag-in-a-box wines, they are considered environmentally friendly and portable—perfect for tossing in a bag for a picnic. But unlike boxed wines, once opened, they don’t last any longer than wine in a bottle.
How do I choose a decent boxed wine?
There are more boxed wines on the market today than ever before, and more wineries are selling them. Nugent recommends the following wines:
- From the Tank Vin Rouge, a Côtes-du-Rhône with rich, ripe cherry fruit flavors; $40.
- 2012 Maipe Malbec, with notes of plum, fig, and chocolate; $30.
- 2011 Bota Box Pinot Grigio, with flavors of peaches and citrus fruits; $20.
- 2012 La Petite Frog Coteaux du Languedoc, a fresh and crisp white from France with hints of grapefruit and lime; $33.
Check out our roundup of the best boxed wines for more options.