It wasn't easy, but I managed to tour the country in a box last week. I'm speaking figuratively. The "tour" took place in my kitchen and involved a sampling of imported boxed wines sold in various provinces. I'm pleased to report that I survived. The Advil bottle I kept at hand was unnecessary. I even liked some of the wines.
If you're like most consumers, you may scoff at the idea of wine in a box (insert your favourite cardboard-cuvée joke here). But the quality has been improving.
While the selection of premium products here remains dismal compared with that in, say, the United States and Australia, entirely new products, such as Bota Box and The Big Green Box, as well as decent wines that have crossed over from bottle to box formats, such as De Bortoli and Concha y Toro Frontera, are redefining a once-dreadful category.
Producers around the world have embraced the alternative format, which offers several advantages over glass. The 1.5-, two-, three- and four-litre boxes sold in Canada are environmentally friendly, cost less to produce and ship than bottles, and keep wine fresher than glass after you tap your first pour.
Why was my tour not easy? Because I live in Ontario, where, thanks to an unfortunate government policy, imported boxed wines, commonly known as bag-in-box, are banned from Liquor Control Board of Ontario shelves. I had to source them from outside.
Yes, there are about 40 domestic selections on offer at the LCBO, but they're all supplied by just three companies, Constellation Brands (based in the United States), Peller and Colio. And they all fall into the much-maligned "cellared-in-Canada" category that includes such frightful fare as Brights House Dry White and Hochtaler. We're talking jug-quality wine typically made with 70-per-cent imported bulk juice blended with 30-per-cent Ontario content. Not my thing.
Before I get to the outdated rationale behind the absurd ban and the reasons it should be lifted without delay, let me elaborate on boxed-wine's virtues. The cardboard is merely a protective shell. Inside is a plastic sack outfitted with a spout that protrudes from the side. Squeeze the spout and the bag shrinks. Air, wine's great spoiler, can't get in, so the wine stays fresh for four to six weeks, versus a few days in a half-empty bottle.
It's not a perfect seal, truth be told. Some air creeps in even before you first tug on the tap, which is why many producers stamp an expiration date on the exterior. Gail Becke, advanced-film development manager for Scholle Packaging of California, the largest manufacturer of bag-in-box containers, which invented the format in the 1950s as a disposable container for battery acid, says that a sealed three-litre box should remain intact for nine months. And, no, she adds, none of Scholle's bags contains bisphenol A, the toxic substance banned for use in baby bottles in Canada after it was linked to higher risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
Boxed wines are ideal for outdoor use, especially picnics and camping (where alcohol consumption is legal, of course). At home, you need not worry about wasting a full bottle to have a glass or two or when you want to use a splash in cooking.
Besides convenience, there's a green dividend. Cardboard and plastic weigh much less than glass, and the boxes can be stacked densely, so there's a more benign carbon footprint associated with shipping boxed wine.
Paradoxically, environmental concerns were the reason Ontario shut out most players from the marketplace two decades ago – in the early 1990s, recycling facilities couldn't handle the plastic bladders.
The province, in conjunction with the LCBO, ordered a moratorium on new entrants. That left just the existing producers, which had been offering nothing but cellared-in-Canada plonk at the time, with a grandfathered monopoly on boxes (one-litre Tetra Paks were exempted). Oddly, those three producers have been allowed to swap poor-selling brands over the years with new cellared-in-Canada offerings (hello, Naked Grape and Copper Moon), which strikes me as not in keeping with the spirit of a moratorium.
"There's been a sea change in recycling capabilities," says Ian Campbell, executive director of Drinks Ontario, the trade group representing more than 100 Ontario importers. Many blue-box programs now accept bag-in-box containers, and the market for recycled glass is less robust than it used to be. "The rationale [against boxed wine] was for environmental reasons," Campbell adds, "and it's for exactly that reason that the moratorium should be rescinded."
In the meantime, bargain hunters across Canada and around the world have been treated to a growing selection of higher-quality boxed wines. In Australia, the "cask wine" segment (another name for bag-in-box) represented 38.7-per-cent of total wine volume in the 12 months ending last May, according to Aztec, a market-research firm. Scandinavia is another hotbed. So is Manitoba, where one can find 114 boxed products at Manitoba Liquor Marts, including 45 imports.
For consumers, there's another serious advantage. The savings can be substantial. In Manitoba, Banrock Station Shiraz from Australia costs $35.49 for a three-litre box. That's equivalent to four 750-millilitre bottles. The same volume in glass costs $53.96, a difference of $18.47.
A highlight of my cross-country tasting is the crisp, citrusy Concha y Toro Frontera Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Chile, priced at $33.79 in New Brunswick for three litres, a $6.17 savings compared with four bottles. I also liked the round, pear-like Bota Box Pinot Grigio from California ($39.99 for three litres in Saskatchewan), juicy De Bortoli Premium Reserve Merlot from Australia ($24.99 for two litres in Manitoba) and silky-spicy Vernissage Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.75 for three litres in Quebec).
The latter is a French red sourced by a Swedish company, its box designed to resemble a woman's purse. It's part of a growing trend toward alternative box formats. Some now come in tall tubes, which, depending on your aesthetic tastes, can seem a little less lowbrow than a plain carton. I also especially like the flavour as well as the look of jammy-earthy Mauro Zinfandel from Italy in a tall, curvy box, but it's not yet available in Canada. Banrock Station Shiraz from Australia (another wine widely available in bottle) wasn't bad and comes in a square box in environmentally friendly brown craft paper.
I didn't like everything I sampled, to be sure. While Bota Box's pinot grigio excelled, the cabernet sauvignon was too sweet for my palate, a red seemingly geared to newbie wine drinkers.
Imports are not the only boxed products shut out of Ontario, sadly. Until last year, the Vintners Quality Alliance, which oversees most higher-end domestic products made with all-Canadian juice, prohibited producers from using the VQA designation on anything but bottles. That exclusion, though lifted in July, sealed the fate of would-be VQA entrants. They're simply not allowed on LCBO shelves because they're not covered by the grandfathered Canadian exemptions.
"We have no plans to change the existing bag-in-box category," says LCBO spokeswoman Heather MacGregor. "If we were to consider changes, we would consult with and seek the support of government, Ontario industry trade groups as well as the wineries currently selling the products."
In other words, an environmentally friendly, cost-effective package designed to promote moderate consumption (or at least discourage wine waste) is not a priority for Canada's most populous province. For shame.