For your next wine, think outside the bottle

Would you bring boxed wine to a dinner party? Although better wines are appearing in boxes these days, the answer is probably no. Why?

Boxed wine is still considered cheap booze, good for college drinking games. Bottled wine, instead, is what adults sip at the dinner table, or in front of the fireplace.

RELATED: Twenty Italian Wines You Should Try, One for Each Region

Sure, some of the boxed wines on the market deserve such a bad reputation. However, if you decide only based on the packaging, you will miss out on some interesting and affordable wines. Depending on the type of wine, your budget, and how you are going to consume it, you may actually prefer to go with the box.

boxed wine

Photo: Raffaele Asquer

Boxed wine: let’s get the facts straights

Let me walk you through the differences between a regular bottled wine and a “Bag in Box,” which is the most common technology used for boxed wine. If this a bit too technical, feel free to jump straight to the conclusion 😉

  • Bag in Box (BIB): It‘s a plastic or aluminium bag, supported by a cardboard box. The bag consists of different layers of polyester and polyethylene. It protects wine against oxygen, which would damage it, and prevents the wine from spilling. On the box you’ll find a tap to pour the wine out.
  • Glass Bottles: Glass has many virtues. It’s solid, recyclable, waterproof, and chemically inert. On the other hand, compared to a BIB, it is also fragile, heavy, and expensive. The best type of glass for wine must be treated to protect it from light and heat, and that’s how it gets the typical deep green color.

Other non-glass packaging options include PET (a polyester material, usually called “plastic”) and Brik (such as Tetra Pak, which is made of paper, aluminum, and polyethylene). Both are light and recyclable. For various technical reasons, however, the wine industry prefers to use the BIB.


When and why should you go for boxed wine?

Let me compare boxed wine and bottled wine on a number of aspects:

  1. Price: BIB is 80% cheaper than glass. Lower production costs translate into lower prices for the consumer.
  2. Weight: BIB is much lighter than glass bottles. Lower transportation costs mean, again, lower prices for the consumer.
  3. Loss of carbon dioxide (CO2) and SO2: The BIB doesn’t prevent enough against the loss of CO2 and SO2, or at least not in the long term. SO2 is an important antioxidant that gives wine a longer shelf life. CO2 also is important for shelf life. More importantly, it is key for sparkling wine. Would you like a sparkling wine without the bubbles?
  4. Oxygen flow: Oxygen compromises wine quality. Oxygen intake is faster in boxed wine. BIB is better than PET or Brik, but glass bottles do an even better job.
  5. Shelf life: BIB shelf life is less than six months, compared to many years for glass bottles (See points 3 and 4). On the BIB, you will find an expiration date but, be careful, because glass bottles have one too!
  6. Resistance to pressure: Sparkling wines are only bottled in glass, because BIB is not strong enough to hold the pressure. Sorry guys, no boxed Prosecco.
  7. Type of wine: As of 2008, Italian winemakers can use BIB for DOC wines, i.e. wines produced in specific areas with well-defined quality standards (see here). This means that not only glass bottles, but also BIB can contain “high-quality” wine!
  8. Daily usage: With BIB you can drink just a glass of wine, and put it back to the fridge without worrying that it will oxidize. In fact, you can enjoy boxed wine for several weeks. That’s because when after you pour the wine, the bag squashes down and the tap doesn’t let the air in.


Just give it a (second) chance

As you can see, there is no single answer to the “box or bottle?” question. Different types of packaging work better under certain circumstances, depending on what you are looking for. 

Yes, certain wines have to be bottled. Sparkling wines are one example. A box is not good packaging for a wine that needs to age (for Barolo, we are talking decades). In that case, glass is necessary to preserve the hard work that goes into the wine. Glass bottles definitely have a “traditional” feeling to them, but then again the equation boxed wine = bad wine simply doesn’t hold.

Because of the cost of glass, bottled wine is probably too expensive as an everyday wine. As a result, people buy wine bottles only for special occasions and dinner parties, drinking less wine as a result. Or they drink poor quality wine in poor quality packaging.

Boxed wine, especially “bag in box” wine, can be a good compromise between price and quality. At least, it allows winemakers to cut their costs, and pass the savings on to consumers. As for the quality, try some of the better boxed wines yourself and make up your mind (here’s a professional sommelier doing it). You will probably find a simple, but nice wine to bring to your table every day.

And for that special dinner, of course, you can always buy a fancy wine bottle. Wine shops are waiting for you!