In summer 2013, I visited the village of Roujan in the South of France. My small group of friends and a horde of strangers were hooting and hollering in anticipation of the Tour de France peloton’s surge through the narrow avenue like a beautifully contained tsunami. It was thrilling.
The chilled and crispy Picpoul de Pinet I was sipping made the experience all the more bucket-list worthy. Delicate and fresh, the wine boasted a wonderful lemon zing. It was cold. It was invigorating. It was exactly right for the experience. And it was from a box.
That wasn’t the only time we drank box wine while in France. It was ubiquitous, with 3-liter boxes openly dispensed from bistros and bars. Boxes of locally made wines were sold to keen residents at grocery stores. On more than one occasion, we remarked how we Americans need to rethink our view of box wines.
Tapping into box wine
When a friend texted recently to ask for recommendations on good-quality box wines available on American shelves, I felt that I had let down my French-summer self by not having a ready answer. Surely there had to be some pleasant options in the U.S. But back on home turf, I fell too easily into the mindset that box wine is bad wine and thus never bothered to investigate.
That isn’t fair. The technology behind box wine is sound. A bag within a box holds the wine. A plastic, airtight tap makes dispensing easy while ensuring that absolutely no air gets into the wine – that’s impressive. Plus, no glass bottles makes the wine ultra portable, and no cork means that you can open it with no tools required.
Summer is the season of outdoor fun, which is where box wines shine. Are you heading to a pool party? Need wine for camping, kayaking, big-crowd barbecuing? Bring a box or two. Store a box of red in the pantry and a box of white in the fridge for when the neighbors drop by on hot summer nights. Keep them out of the kitchen and they’ll never know your secret.
Penfolds, the dominant Australian wine producer, developed the airtight technology. Box wine continues to be popular in Australia, but in the U.S., the limiting factor is not the technology behind the packaging, but the quality of wine inside the box. But that is changing.
In my research, I discovered that the 5-liter box wines represent the poorest quality available in the category. The interesting segment of the market is the 3-liter box format. Conscientious producers make some of these wines. Three-liter boxes of wine generally hover around the $20 price point and hold the equivalent of four bottles of wine.
Ready to taste, I headed to K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, which sources amazing wines and sells them at great prices.
Assistant Manager Sarah Covey was informed, helpful and enthusiastic. She shared a useful tip right off the bat.
“Box wines are great wines to cook with because they are affordable and have long shelf lives,” she said. “It’s important to always cook with wine you’d actually drink – and our box wines are definitely drinkable.”
Covey showed me the four box wines K&L had in stock – all 3-liter bag-in-box options. After some discussion, I selected one red and one white.
The red was the 2012 Shania Monastrell from southeast Spain ($19.99).
“The vacuum seal used on these wines really works,” Covey said.
Covey said some of the K&L staff recently blind-tasted two boxes of the Shania Monastrell, an intense ruby-hued wine with lashings of black fruit.
“We noted that one had less vibrant fruit notes, but both were drinkable,” she said. "What we didn't know until after the tasting was that one of the boxes had been opened for six months. We were pretty blown away by that.”
Covey recommended the Shania Monastrell for a barbecue. She was right – I served it with ribs to guests who unanimously voted it “highly gulpable.”
Next, I sampled the 2013 Blason Isonzo Bianco ($19.99). I’m regretting that I didn’t buy several boxes. The white Italian wine, made with Pinot Bianco and a small amount of Pinot Grigio, is crisp with fresh herb aromas – wonderful with all things summer.
If you want to experiment with boxed wines this summer, visit K&L for a truly out-of-the-box selection. For more widely available options, friends have mentioned Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon and Pepperwood Grove Big Green Box Sauvignon Blanc.
Ultimately, box wine is made extra enjoyable by the environment in which it is drunk. It might not be the wine you buy to meet the parents, but when you receive your next evite to an evening beach bonfire, you can enthusiastically respond, “I’ll be there with box wine.”