A heated discussion on boxed wine

I recently conducted an informal survey to determine what readers of The Hill want to know about wine. To my chagrin, a majority of you expressed a curiosity about the quality of boxed wines.  

There is perhaps no more current contentious issue among wine enthusiasts. I consider the subject to be the third rail of wine writing and I’ve diligently avoided it since the advent of this column. Now, in the spirit of public education, I will at long last address the matter.

Inexpensive boxed wines, first popular in the late 1970s, conjure cheesy “classy with a K” images of their contemporaries — the leisure suit and disco. Invented in Australia, casks or sacks were developed as inexpensive packaging for “economic” wines. Soon giant California producers Almaden and Franzia, infamous for their wines for the masses, boxed White Zinfandel (the polyester of the wine world, continuing the theme) and Chablis (an unforgivable bastardization of the famous French growing region), resulting in unparalleled commercial success. Unfortunately, Franzia remains the most popular table wine in the U.S.

Faithful readers of this column know that I champion the notion that any wine is good if it tastes good to you. That said, these aforementioned products should offend all of your senses.

If for any reason you have these “economy” wines in your possession, I implore you to stop drinking them. Instead, wash your windows with them, a task for which they are best suited.

Until recently, all boxed wines deserved their laughable reputation. But some respectable producers have begun using the packaging in place of or in addition to traditional glass bottles. These intrepid winemakers are doing so because there are several advantages to the non-traditional packaging. Boxed wine is a slight misnomer because the wine is actually in a vacuum-sealed bag made of aluminum film or plastic. It is sealed with a tap that protrudes through a corrugated cardboard box, which houses and protects the bag. This system eliminates two mortal enemies of wine, oxygen and light. It is important to note that corks allow a small amount of oxygen in a bottle over time, allowing complex wines to mature.

These modern taps do not allow any oxygen in before the seal is broken, so wines meant for aging (more than one year) should be bottled.

There are other advantages to the bag/box system. Unlike bottled wine, which spoils a day after it is uncorked, bags keep wine fresh for several weeks. As a result, there’s no need to drink or dump a bottle if you’re just in the mood for a glass or two. They’re also easier and safer to transport and perfect for activities like boating, picnicking and camping.

Again, I stress that most boxed wines in the market are, in a word, vile. However, the following selections are actually tasty values appropriate for everyday sipping. The prices are for three-liter boxes, equivalent to four bottles of wine.

  • Black Box Chardonnay 2006 (California, $18): Evocative of an apple pie made with Granny Smiths, this modest, medium-bodied white balances spice and acidity.
  • Stonehaven Shiraz Non-Vintage (Southeastern Australia, $19): More than half of all the wine sold in Australia today is in boxes. This offering presents subtle cherry, plum and pepper flavors laced with a hint of vanilla and oak.
  • Wine Cube Pinot Grigio 2007 (California, $17): Yes, I am recommending a wine made exclusively for Target. This is a respectable, crisp expression of pears and peaches. Serve well chilled.

Derek LaVallee is vice president, U.S. Public Affairs Practice at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and a certified wine buff. He can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.