Even Good Wine’s all Boxed-In Nowadays

I never thought I’d write this headline or piece, but these last few months I have bought and enjoyed wine in boxes. Never say never, as the expression goes. I have been happily buying and enjoying table wine out of boxes that were previously used only for 3rd and 4th rate, cheap-as-chips wine from the New World.

I know someone’s been at work and fixed the leaky tap that beset the first wine boxes. Others have noticed the upwards trend – one wine writer friend, Fiona Beckett, even posted a cartoon on Facebook exclaiming these boxes were now called ‘Cardbordeaux’.

According to the noted wine writer, Keith Reeves, this is all part of a process set off by the oak cork spoiling problems. As wine has become more popular, pubs sell huge volumes. Pubs in turn mostly employ students who care not a fig for wine and viticulture.  Drawing a cork, to those who care not a fig for the wine-makers’ art, is a chore. Opening a screw cap is easy. Screw caps also re-screw so the wine is kept safe from its arch-enemy, oxygen. Essential for us, but the death knell for wine.

I am one who would prefer the cellar tradition of the capsule and cork, but I’ve also been burnt by opening and being served far too many ‘corked’ bottles these last 15 years or more. Something had to break and thank goodness the wine trade has at last put its hands up and admitted there was a contaminant due to over-production of cork oak trees – and explains Keith Reeves, the main culprit was no more complicated than the washing of the freshly cut cork in less than fresh water.

Back to the wine box. I am amazed with what I find in the French supermarkets. The UK is yet to get there with this better quality wine in the box, although a few specialist shops have begun importing IGP wines from southern Italy and elsewhere. The signs in the supermarkets are that they are trying – some have even turned to the Doy Pack, those expensive, metallic bags with a natty seam at the bottom, developed by the Japanese for food storage back in the early 80s but which failed to grab the full attention from the Western food business marketeers.

According to Keith Reeves: “The idea that the languid pop of an oak cork could be supplanted by the metallic click of the screw cap was beyond contemplation for many of the old guard (ie me); those brought up on Latin declensions and weekend cricket, likened it to the thwack of leather on willow being replaced by the shake of a biscuit tin full of cutlery (ie not me).”

Reeves is no stranger to the task of employing bar staff as he opened, owned and ran one of the first and best in Norfolk – The Walpole Arms at Itteringham Common (NR11 7AR). From opening in 2001 to selling a couple of years ago, The Walpole gained a Michelin Bib Gourmand, winner of Les Routiers’ Regional Dining Pub for East Anglia, Harden’s finest Norfolk pub and plenty more. You get my point, Keith Reeves knows what he’s doing from the coal face as well as the laptop.



Disposing of spoiled wine hits hard on the weekly takings, so for wine-by-the-glass, he’s for the screw top every time.  A better bottle at table is another issue and the cork comes back into its own when the diners are prepared to pay for a finer wine.

On the wine box, Reeves explains:” Many wine lovers and commentators were led to believe that boxed wine contains only the cheapest plonk – odd to then to learn you may already have been drinking ‘bag-in-a-box’ wines for an age.

These ‘boxes’ are a polythene bag that carries 24,000 litres – or 32,000 bottles – in a sea container. Many leading supermarkets regularly import a proportion of their wines in these vast containers which are decanted into bottles once landed in the UK.”

Transport costs and consideration for a more green approach with their much trumpeted ‘carbon foootprints’ when moving goods around have led to these developments. Supermarkets know how to shave every last cent off their operating costs.  This time I reckon it’s for the good.

I cannot imagine any fine wine maker in the great regions of France and Italy, or Spain and Germany, will opt for the box system any day soon. So cork and capsule is safe for the while – less demand for oak corks is also giving the trees a chance to recover from whatever chemical attacked the cork and so spoiled too many bottles of these better wines.

Where wines are for cellaring for 10 years or more, the long cork remains safe as the best barrier to oxygen.

Says Reeves again: “wine is like a sponge when it comes to oxygen. It’ll draw it in like an asthmatic Olympic runner recovering from a hard fought race.”

In France, quality makers along the Loire and in the South West where, by volume, most grapes are grown and wine made, have taken to pack in 2.5-3 litre boxes. The same in Italy.  The common theme is the taps are near identical and efficient too. The longest I have left wine in an opened box is +14 days – a IGP Salentino red from Puglia (Italy). I give my word it drank well when I took the last 2 glasses with my supper on return from the hectic trip to Genoa of my previous article.

Evidence then that things are changing. As consumers, we should advance carefully but with open minds to these developments. When the economy recovers and we can return to finer wines, my treasured Laguiole waiter’s friend is at the ready.

Last word to Keith Reeves: “Oxygen is wine’s worst enemy and the passage of ageing requires near laboratory conditions. A perfect natural cork set in a well-cellared bottle will probably never be replaced.

But 80% of the wine we buy in the UK is consumed with twelve days of purchase – the bulk of which is drunk within twelve hours.”

“How do we want such wine delivered?” poses Keith.

His answer: “In perfect condition and ready to drink, coupled with a capability for faultless storage and a cocked eye to the effects of sizeable carbon footprint perhaps?  If it’s a yes, the ever resourceful wine industry has already provided the answer – Boxed Wine.”

Wine boxes and screw tops – don’t be sniffy Blue Collar Gastronauts – if anything, those technologists were at work near exclusively for our movement. And a good wine from the box, decanted into an elegant jug has a place on any table.

Salut. Thank you Mr Reeves for the explanations.

Now wine co-operatives in France and Italy – and others too I am sure – are putting better wines into 2.5 and 3 litre boxes and selling them at an envious price to reflect. One commentator on this piece wrote from France to tell me even 10 litre boxes were now a possibility.

I was cautious when I bought my first box of Rosé from the Loire in early summer – less cautious when I’d tasted the quality of the wine and found it drank as well on day 3 as on day 1. I bought more when I was back in France and still was confounded by the quality.  Inexpensive rosé usually tastes as you’d expect – ie dreadful.

Next came a No 2 Bordeaux from Chateau de By. Again, success. The prices are a good 30% cheaper than the same wine in bottle.

I’m now on a mission to find more liquid charmers and to try and persuade retailers in the UK to upgrade from boozers’ boxes to wine boxes that we’re all proud to display in our ‘fridge or on the kitchen counter. Please note dear readers, this jug was paid for even though it is the original Harry’s Bar vessel – they sell them in the glass shop next door in Calle Vallaresso. In Harry’s, they often sit them in a larger glass bowl of crushed ice when the contents are white or rosé – but this is the home of simple elegant chic.

Il Salentino is my newest discovery – a rich red from Apulia made from the local Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes. This IGP Rosso del Salento sells at a penny short of £10 for 3 litres – quite amazing value.  The makers claim the box when opened is good for 30 days – that’s how confident they are about their tap technology.

This and a white from Puglia are my first finds in the UK.

Nothing stands still it seems. A recent spin around Leclerc, quite one of my favourite fascia’s, had me photographing whisky in a box (above). Whatever next?