Head to a dinner party in Sweden, Norway, France, or the U.K., and you may find that your university staple — the wine box — has taken a starring role. And that’s not an offense to your palate. Around the world, boxed wine is no longer synonymous with Franzia — and in fact, many premier wines are now being sold in this format across the globe.
Part of the rise in popularity of alternative wine containers comes down to an ever-growing concern for the industry’s carbon footprint. In a typical 12-bottle case, glass accounts for about 60% of the total weight, making the transport of wine a major climate concern. And what’s more, despite popular belief to the contrary, recycling glass isn’t all that green a venture. Not only is glass difficult to recycle in many markets due to a range of issues including low demand, possible worker injury, and human error regarding sorting, but studies have shown that recycling glass doesn’t actually save much energy or reduce pollution. Overall, nearly 70% of the climate impact of wine comes from the hefty glass bottles alone, according to Australian research.
Of all the alternative packaging solutions, one of the most environmentally friendly is boxed wine, formally known as the bag-in-box (BiB). A plastic pouch with a tap sealed within a cardboard box, it was invented by Angove’s in Australia in 1965 under the name cask. It was first marketed as a bag-in-box, or BiB, in 1973.
Boxed wine has a number of benefits as compared to bottled, only a few of which are that 70% of its packaging is easily recyclable corrugated cardboard. One 2009 study in the U.K. found that £450 million ($613 million) worth of wine is wasted each year, with much of that loss due to oxidation: A bottle opened and forgotten for just a few days is going to be undrinkable. The box, on the other hand, is hermetically sealed. As it empties, it contracts, ensuring that the wine is kept fairly safe from contact with oxygen. The result? Wine that stays fresh for up to a month or more, even in an open box at room temperature. The box, meanwhile, creates a naturally dark environment, keeping the wine safe from sunlight, and it’s easily stackable for transport.
Scandinavians love them
While Australia may have been the birthplace of the BiB, it was in Scandinavia that this wine conveyance really came into its own. Today, more than half of all wine sold in Norway and Sweden comes in a box, according to a report from CBI Market Intelligence, for reasons far beyond mere environmental benefits. While Scandinavian countries are indeed some of the most climate-conscious, regularly ranking highly in international comparisons and setting goals to achieve climate neutrality that far outpace the global norm, market research shows that Swedes clamor for them due in large part to their convenience and value for money. Indeed, laws pertaining to the import of wine in bulk versus bottle form have paved the way for top-quality wines to be sold in boxes at significantly lower prices. Ever attentive to aesthetics, Scandinavian wine distributors have even put their own twist on them, introducing modern, appealing alternatives to the boxiness of, well, a box.
But what about the wine?
It’s all well and good to clamor for greener, less expensive packaging, but if the wine inside is swill, what’s the point? Luckily, that’s far from the case these days, when winemakers and distributors across the globe are ever more willing to siphon precious crus into plastic bladders in lieu of traditional glass bottles, thanks in large part to ever-improving tech.
Since Angove’s first casks, which required consumers to cut the corner off the bag to pour out the contents and reseal it with a peg, wine boxes have evolved to include a specially designed tap, which maintains the vacuum seal within the bag. Indeed, most recent innovations in BiB technology come down to this little gadget: companies like Vitop have developed a leak-free tap, while TopFlow uses two polypropylene plates attached to steel springs to facilitate the flow of wine from, well, the top.
Still other companies are focusing on ways to make the boxes even more eco-friendly. The U.K.’s The BIB Wine Company has developed its own closed-loop recycling system to reduce waste and break down the bags using pyrolysis. Last year, after two years of research and development, Les Grands Chais de France launched a wine box with a detachable tap, rendering the remaining packaging recyclable, and this year, market leader Smurfit Kappa even introduced a 60-micron compact film in its bag that allows for a 16% bag weight reduction and 12% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than a traditional plastic pouch.
With this evolution comes an increased willingness to bottle better wine. Jean-Paul and Sophie Lafage were some of the first in France to take the box seriously; they began boxing Bordeaux back in 1997, much to the chagrin of their AOC, or regional body. Today, however, the French have by and large accepted the format, with 44% of wine sold in supermarkets coming in a box and chains like BiBoViNo peddling a wide range of top-quality wines in boxes — from Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu to organic and biodynamic Bordeaux, Sancerre, and more.
“The uptake among farmers is actually easier than one might expect,” says The BIB Wine Company founder, Oliver Lea. “They are seeing first-hand the downsides of continuing to ignore the impact on the climate.”
He’s finding that not only are fewer consumers hesitant when faced with boxed wine than ever before, but they are also willing to pay more. These days, boxed wine can even be found on the Michelin-starred wine list at London’s St. JOHN, which has poured boxed Languedoc since 2014.
“It’s not just about saving the planet,” says Trevor Gulliver, CEO and co-founder of St. JOHN. “It’s about fun and common sense. But, horses for courses, the bottle of wine is still very much alive.”
And the bottle is not going anywhere. But it’s time to consider the box as well.
3 bag-in-box wines to try:
This ultra-drinkable Provençal rosé is fresh, crisp, and refreshing — pretty much everything you could ask for in a glass of pink wine. It hails from the third generation of Provençal winemakers, growing Syrah, Tibouren, Cinsault, and Grenache grapes.