Boxing on – bag or bottle?

Weighing in on the cardboard versus glass debate… 

This column was first published in Your Weekend magazine in The Dominion Post, The Christchurch Press and The Waikato Times on Saturday 7 June 2014.

Wine and glass have a long history together but could their future be in jeopardy?
Cue the count down to the next big wine debate. The makers of a new cardboard bottle plan to launch it in New Zealand next year, and founder Julie Corbett of Ecologic Brands says cardboard is better for the environment than glass.
It is lightweight. Weighing in at 862 grams when full compares favourably to over a kilogram for a standard glass bottle.
This means less fuel to transport cardboard bottles round the planet. That’s a big tick in the box of environmental friendliness.

But the name is misleading. Cardboard bottles would leak. They would also impart a flavour taint to wine and the same may be true of the recyclable plastic inside the cardboard, which the wine is in contact with.

Trials with synthetic corks made of food grade plastic show that plastic imparts a taint to wine and gradually disintegrates, making it unsuitable for long term storage.
The light weight and lower fuel costs of cardboard bottles are positive steps in wine packaging, but they are outweighed by the downsides. Traditional bag-in-box plastic is designed to shrink every time liquid is poured. Wine packaged this way deteriorates once open, due to the challenge of creating a 100% airtight seal around the plastic tap. And it needs more sulfur dioxide than bottled wine to stay fresh. Perhaps a 750ml bag in box will remain fresher once open because it is a smaller container.

But to claim that plastic is more environmentally friendly than glass does not ring true. Most glass wine bottles in New Zealand today are recycled and many companies are converting to 30% lighter weight bottles.

The pending arrival of cardboard bottles prompted me to taste test bag in box wines, which now account for 10% to 20% of wine consumed in New Zealand compared to over 50% in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The death knell was tax.

Excise on wine is now $2.79 per litre, which means that $8.37 of every $29.99 for a 3 litre bag-in-box goes directly to the government. GST is on top.

A 3-litre bag in box wine is portable, convenient and low in cost, but three bottles of $8.99 wine sealed with screwcaps costs $26.97, provides 2.25 litres of wine and tastes fresher because  screwcaps are a tighter seal. The quality is higher. Sulfur levels are lower. Of the nine bag in box wines that I tasted for this story, three were totally oxidised, deep yellow and undrinkable; four were passable, and two Australian reds were pleasant. The whites lacked freshness and the 2 litre boxed wines tasted far better than the 3 litre ones.

Wines of the week

Best box buy

Banrock Station Good Earth Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 litre, $24.99
This was my pick of the 9 bag in box wines I tried and its stable mates, Banrock Station Chardonnay and Shiraz, were nearly as good. The smaller sized plastic bag in the box is a key factor in its higher quality taste and quality once the wine is opened. The chardonnay puts its best Aussie foot forward for full bodied, fresh dry white wine. This cabernet is also full bodied, dry and smooth. But I would still opt for the bottled version at $8.99, which is identical, except it contains less sulfur dioxide.

Merlot marvel

2013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Organic Merlot $20 to $24
Merlot has had a bit of a bad rap over the past decade. Blame it on the b-grade film, Sideways, which slammed merlot. But the stunning wines from Hawke’s Bay’s 2013 vintage will change all that and they are starting to trickle out now. This wine is intense. Purple in colour, deliciously chocolatey and savoury in taste and winemaker Nick Piccone says it’s the best merlot grapes he has ever worked with. From liquor stores or online:

Reaching for the stars

2010 Penfolds St Henri $99.99

It’s mighty impressive now but this velvet smoothie is a keeper. It is always released when it’s four years old, and it still has a youthfully intense colour, deep black fruit flavours and a sensational lingering finish. From specialist stores.