The wine innovation that deserves more attention

Screwcaps and wine cans have offered consumers new and easier ways to get acquainted with wine. It’s time the Bag-in-Box got just as much respect, says Robert Joseph.

Bota Box from Delicato
Bota Box from Delicato

Putting wine in a can is the best thing to happen to this industry since… well, probably since the revival of the screwcap at the turn of the century

Cans are brilliant. They’re light, unbreakable and almost infinitely recyclable. They also facilitate the sale of simple wine in conveniently smaller volumes. Reliving the experience of the brewers 50 years ago, wine producers are having to adapt their sulphur regimes to this new form of packaging, but that was also true of the early adopters of screwcaps. Some of the wines that have been canned have been substandard, and prices have certainly been high – at least when compared with bottles on a cost-per-litre basis – but these issues will be addressed too, and in a few years most people will be as relaxed about seeing cans of Pinot Grigio, rosé or light red as they are about Sauvignon and Pinot Noir under screwcap. 

Of course, there will be reactionaries who’ll continue to maintain that anything other than a bottle and cork is ‘wrong’, and I’ll continue to tease them by asking how they’d feel about drinking their wine from the far more traditional botas made from goatskin lined with pine resin that were still quite widely used by Spanish peasants in the 1950s.

Yet despite my enthusiasm for the can and the screwcap, neither of these is really an advertisement for vinous innovation. The screwcap was a slightly more sophisticated version of a closure used for Coca Cola, and there’s nothing original in canning an alcoholic drink. In fact, beer from the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Richmond Virginia in the US went into a can in 1935, three years before the first soft drink, Clicquot Club Ginger Ale.

The truly imaginative innovation in wine packaging was the work of the Australian Riverland producer Tom Angove in the early 1960s. At the time, as his son recalled, Angove "kept on talking about the old goat skins and the flexible packages that they used to have when Adam was a boy". He found his modern equivalent in an entirely different industry. Battery-acid was already being sold and stored in metallised plastic bags housed in cardboard boxes; Angove simply adopted the format for wine. Originally his bag was simply sealed with a peg, but in 1967, Charles Malpas and Penfolds Wines introduced the patented tap with which we have all become familiar.

Australia and New Zealand embraced what they called ‘casks’ (a term Angove hated, by the way), using them for over half of their wine in the 1980s and 1990s, helping to triple wine consumption in Australia in three decades from 10 litres per head to an astonishing 30. This growth was boosted by the availability of purpose-built ‘esky’ cooling boxes that allowed the casks to be taken to barbecues and the beach, and by the readiness of producers like Yalumba and Brown Brothers to put good wine in attractively designed neat, two-litre versions casks.

Britain’s wine trade responded by using the same unromantic ‘bag-in-box’ term as the battery-acid sector and filling three-litre boxes (that did not fit in the average European fridge) with frankly ordinary wine. Sales rose to 10 percent of off-retail volume before slipping back to half that figure today. 

The US developed more of a taste for boxed wine later on, thanks to brands like Black Box and Bota Box, and in Scandinavia, where its environmental qualities are particularly valued, half of all wine is sold in this form in Sweden, Norway and Finland,.

The most astonishing recent phenomenon, however has been in France where, according to a Franceagrimer report the packaging the French call BIB, has grown its market share of super- and hypermarket sales from less than 10 percent in 2004 to 39.5 percent in 2017. The proportion of those chains’ online sales is even higher, at just under half of all of the wine sold in this way.

Specialist retailers in France have given BIBs the cold shoulder, but today there are chains like BiBoViNo with 20 shops in France, Switzerland and the Caribbean exclusively selling beautifully packaged, high quality boxed wine. Where French supermarket shoppers are paying €2.75 per litre for their BIBs, in BiBoViNo, a three-litre box of Bourgueil, or organic ‘Chateau le Tap’ costs around €30. 

The trend to premium bag-in-box is growing outside France too. My friend, the Master of Wine Justin Howard-Sneyd has just launched a new business called the BIB WINE Co that is selling good German Pinot Noir in stylish 2,250ml boxes, with a boxed Fleurie on the way.

Howard-Sneyd may prove to be a rare beneficiary of the Covid-19 pandemic, as boxed wines have seen particularly strong growth at a time when people have been doing more drinking at home. During March, for example, while the LCBO recorded overall sales 35 percent higher than in 2019, boxed wines shot up by 77 percent.

These are the kinds of stories that deserve a lot more media coverage than they get. So, yes, I’m excited by cans, but I’d also like to hear a lot more about boxes.

Robert Joseph

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