What are the first things you think of when you hear the term “Boxed Wine”? If you have memories of sweet or poor-quality wines and long hangovers, you are not alone. But boxed, bag-in-a-box (BiB), or cask wines have come a long way since those days, and for good reason.
Casks as we Knew Them
In the early days of cask wine, producers often used bulk and low-quality juice, utilizing product that was not good enough to bottle as a way of recouping cost. In turn, the price positively correlated with quality; cheap price reads cheap product. Nowadays there is a burgeoning market for cask offerings driven but several factors including consumer demand for excellent wines at a great price, environmental awareness, and accessibility. Some European and Oceanic nations have been producing and selling superior wines in this format for years, chiefly Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavian nations of Norway and Sweden. For all intents and purposes North America is slow out of the gate, but this is quickly changing.
The Evolution of the Cask
The first BiB system was invented in 1955 by William R Scholle, an American Chemist, to safely transport and dispense battery acid. This system was improved upon and patented by winemaker Thomas Angove in 1965 as a “wine cask” for the storage of wines. His product saw 4.5L polyethylene bladders of wine housed in corrugated boxes. In turn, consumers would cut a corner from the polyethylene bag to pour out a quantity of wine, then they would reseal the bag with a special peg. This idea was further improved upon in 1967 when Charles Malpas and Penfolds Wines registered the patent for a plastic, air-tight tap that was welded into an aluminized film bladder. This improved storage while further reducing oxidization buy cutting off the air source to the wine. Fast forward 50 years and all modern consumer wine casks present some sort of plastic tap attached to an aluminized or polyethylene bladder, housed in a cardboard box or tube.
Keep it Fresh
There are some major benefits to cask wine but first and foremost is the physics of the cask itself. When you pour a glass of wine from a bottle the space inside is displaced by air, and as we know air causes oxidization. Once air is introduced to wine the clock starts ticking on its shelf life, that timeframe can be anywhere from a couple of days of freshness to only a couple of hours; Whereas; when you pour a glass of wine through the tap on a cask the there is no air displacement inside the bag. The product is gravity fed drawing out the product and in turn the bag collapses in on itself, leaving no surface contact with air while still in the container. This ensures the condition of the wine is the same from first to last glass, if it is consumed within a maximum of six weeks once opened. In addition to oxidization, cask wine will receive little to no light exposure if it is sealed in its cardboard housing.
Another key freshness factor is the extraction and filling method from tank to bladder. As technology advanced so did the transfer systems to prevent external exposure in the filling process. Unlike filling a glass bottle or canned product where liquid either free flows or pressure flows into the vessel, the filling system creates an air-tight seal then pumps product into the bladder. In turn, providing the end user with product preserved in perfect conditions, as the winemaker intended. Wine can then be consumed in optimal conditions with all its properties intact.
Packaging truly is a necessary evil. Look around and imagine your everyday life, it is hard to think of a produced good that is not sold in some sort of packaging. As cask wine gained popularity around the world the North American consumer has been slow to pick up on the trend. From the impact of glass usage, to recycling options, to transportation, there is an increasing concern for sustainable packaging solutions and casks are doing their part to reduce the overall carbon footprint in the industry. An article in the NY Times outlines the affect of glass versus cask packaging in transportation on the environment,
“A standard wine bottle holds 750ml of wine and generates about 5.2 lbs of carbon-dioxide emissions when it travels from a vineyard in California to a store in New York. A 3L box generates about half the emissions per 750ml. Switching to wine in a box for the 97% of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.”
These emissions equate to the shippability of casks over bottles. Casks provide a weight savings of approximately 40% over glass bottles; further, 96% of the overall volume of casks belongs to wine, the same which cannot be said for the glass, corks, tops, and foils that make up conventional bottles.
Go for Convenience
Anyone who has spent time in a liquor store has overheard customers contemplating which wine product to purchase based on if they have a corkscrew available where they are going. We live in a world of convenience, so it makes sense to offer products that are convenient for the end user. Why pick up four bottles of the same product when you can grab one cask, at a fraction of the cost, and not worry about awkwardly dropping one or having it fall and smash? Casks are extremely easy to store in a refrigerator or in a pantry, they do not require any special tools to extract the product, and there is a significant reduction of potential waste. As more producers move towards cask offerings and consumers start seeing greater availability of quality products in this packaging format, the normalization of casks will make it easier for consumers to accept.
By no means are casks viewed as the answer to all wine industry woes. Casks are excellent for fresh, vibrant wines that do not require further aging. This is a packaging solution for “now” wines, those that you purchase and enjoy year-round. Whereas there is no cork that could fail and allow cork taint, there is also no cork to allow a slow aging of a juicy Meritage or bold Cab. Additionally, the bags themselves will not last forever. Although polyethylene is the safest, most non-toxic plastic available and it does not influence the flavour, colour, or scent of the wine within, many boxes will have a shelf life of 12 months before components of the container could start to fail. With all things considered, one of the greatest opponents to cask wines may be the industry itself. All the pomp a circumstance that we all know and love about the industry may be one of the greatest contributing factors to the slow rise of the cask in North America. But, there is room for tradition and change to dance on the same floor… when was the last time your heard someone in the industry balk at a bottle with a Stelvin closure? And that general education is making its way to the consumer level, it really is just a matter of time.
We have surpassed one full year of the Covid-19 Pandemic and in that time we have seen our local industry make great concessions and gains to pivot business to fit our temporary norm. In response to this we have seen the rise of several great cask offerings from local producers. Kalala Organic Estate Winery in West Kelowna came out strong with three cask varieties in their flagship wines Harmony White and Harmony Red, as well as their runaway hit Rose. All 100% organic, these wines are a slightly updated version of their namesakes to give an additional contribution to their already strong line-up of estate wines. Lang Vineyards on the Upper Bench of Naramata released a new take on their flagship white the Bravo White by offering a 3L of Riesling/Gewurztraminer. And the esteemed Bordertown Vineyard and Estate Winery released two contenders in their Desert Sage line including a Cabernet Merlot Red and Pinot Gris White. Utilizing some of their best grown and most popular grapes, these wines offer incredible value.
Next time you are in the market for wine or are suggesting them to clients, consider casks as a more than viable option. Exceptional quality, environmental stewardship, affordability, and convenience make them a great option year-round.