Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES November 5 Release

John Szabo’s Vintage’s Preview November 5

By John Szabo, MS, with notes from David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato, and Michael Godel

Bag-in-box wines: Total Faux-pas?

I was asked recently whether I thought bag-in-box (BIB) wines are a good idea. My answer, after a bit of research, is a resounding yes. That is, at least, for eco-conscious consumers. Bag-in-box is the package of choice.

According to International Wineries for Climate Action, wine packaging and transport to market accounts for more than 40 percent of climate emissions from its member wineries — by far the biggest contributor to a wine’s carbon footprint.

Glass bottles, the current packaging of choice for most wines, have been around for a few hundred years. Glass has the ideal properties of being totally inert, and able to limit oxygen ingress, the enemy of wine, and thus preserve a wine’s aromas and flavours. (But this depends on the type of stopper used, another subject altogether.) Glass is also reusable and infinitely recyclable.

But the hard environmental reality is that most glass bottles in North America end up in landfills. According to a 2018 US Environmental Protection Agency study, only a quarter of glass containers used for consumer goods in America are recycled. Canada is no better.

There’s also the fact that making new glass bottles is extremely energy-intensive, while the energy requirements for recycling glass are also whopping.

The relatively heavy weight of glass bottles, up to a kilo or more empty for the stupidly heavy “icon” bottles, and their inefficient shape (lots of wasted space in packing), equate to high carbon emissions during transport. At the 2020 Porto Protocol Climate Change Conference, climate change expert Dr. Richard Smart cited Australian studies on wine carbon emissions from the vineyard to the end consumer. The research indicated that, “export of wine in glass bottles, their transport and limited recycling had the largest carbon footprint (68 percent).”


Wine bottles also break. And they’re in severe short supply worldwide — just ask any winemaker hoping to buy supply to bottle their current vintage. It seems to be a sign that change is due.

In the final analysis, glass bottles earn the worst score out of all available packages, beating out plastic PET bottles, Tetra Paks and aluminum cans as the packaging of choice for climate-destroyers. Bag-in-box, it turns out, is the most environmentally friendly. The format has long been popular in Scandinavia, thanks to its eco values as well as convenient size and shape. In Sweden, for example, 59 percent of all wines sold come in a bag-in-a-box. An analysis by Sweden, Norway, and Finland’s liquor monopolies, shows that wines in boxes, pouches, and Tetra Pak cartons have the lowest carbon footprint per litre, as does the analysis done by the Dear Group, a company based in Denmark that sources and distributes BIB wines.

Source: The Dear Group

Source: Alko (boxed wine not featured but calculated at 70 g CO2 e/L)

BIBs are also convenient, easy-to-carry, usually contain a generous 4 litres (just over 5 standard bottles), and the vacuum packaging and spigot mean that your wine won’t oxidize as rapidly once you’ve cracked the box – the bag collapses as wine is drawn out, limiting direct contact with oxygen – as it would in a partly finished bottle. There’s also of course the value equation: less packaging per liter and more efficient shipping add up to far less cost per liter of wine, a savings that can be passed on to consumers.

Where BIBs start to lose their luster is for wines destined for long-term ageing. For wines designed to age more than a couple of years, glass is still the container of choice, even if it’s becoming an environmental faux-pas. Unlike glass, the materials used to make the bags (also pouches, cartons) are not fully oxygen impermeable. Over time, oxygen works its way through the material, making the effective shelf-life of wines in such packages much shorter than wine in a glass bottle no matter what the closure.

But technology has advanced significantly, with more oxygen-impermeable bag materials, denser spigots that allow less oxygen in, and importantly, filling technology that limits oxygen ingress when the bags are first filled with wine. Nevertheless, most manufacturers recommend consuming BIB wines within a year or so of filling, and once opened, within about a month. The usual storage recommendations also apply — high temperatures will degrade wine in BIB as it does in glass.

Bottom line: for young, everyday wines that you plan to consume within a few months — i.e. the majority of the wine consumed around the world — bag-in-box is the way to go.

Part of the stigma around buying BIB in the past was certainly the quality of wine they contained: usually bottom-of-the-barrel sort of stuff. At home growing up, there was often a BIB in our fridge with some faux-German schloss name and an image of a make-believe castle, probably a blend of local and international juice bagged up nearby. Even my inexperienced palate could discern that this was not the world’s finest. In those days the association of BIB and bad wine was clear. No serious producer would touch that type of packaging.

But in recent years, I’ve seen a growing array of premium appellation wines in the BIB format, driven by groups such as the Scandinavian liquor monopolies, but also by the burgeoning demand of eco-conscious consumers who also value quality in the glass. The number of producers and distributors shifting to premium BIB wine grows daily, doing brisk business in Europe, the UK, Australia and the US, among other countries, though cracking the Canadian market has been a challenge. In Ontario, we’re woefully behind the trend.

Premium Appellation wines distributed by The Dear Group, Denmark

BIB at The LCBO lists fewer than 60 wines in BIB format, overwhelmingly inexpensive varietal wines of unknown provenance containing three or four liters, all under $50. Most are packaged by local wineries, likely international-domestic blends. While the carbon savings still applies (shipping bulk wine into the country is even less carbon costly than shipping from source in BIB), if these have been your exclusive exposure to BIB wines, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s all rubbish. Your options are currently limited.

Really, it should be the LCBO’s business to encourage the import of more sustainably packaged wines, as the Scandinavian monopolies have done now for years. But if change can’t be driven from the top down, perhaps it can be driven from the bottom up. It’s up to us consumers to demand sustainable options that also satisfy in terms of quality. The wines are out there. We need to see them on our shelves — in a box.

In the meantime, you might think twice about that thick glass bottle piled up in a landfill, and how much carbon was emitted when it was made and shipped and brought home to your table.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide November 5: White & Rosé

Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2018

Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2018, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara, Ontario
$39.95, Stratus Vineyards
Michael Godel – Always spooned in an off-dry style while the acids and sugars have had time to get to know one another. Many likes for the succulence and the attention commanded yet there are parts unknown, undiscovered and unresolved. The mystery vintage.
David Lawrason – Year after year this leads the riesling charge in Niagara. So classy, now maturing with medium yellow-gold colour. It has a lifted, complex nose of peach/apricot, petrol, candle wax, honey and lemon. It is medium weight, glossy and smooth but cut by excellent acidity and minerality.
Sara d’Amato – This riveting riesling is memorably nervy with notes of petrol setting in on the citrus dominant nose. Polished with great depth of flavour and concentration, surely due in part to this naturally low-yielding vintage.

There are 19 other VINTAGES Release recommendations this week that are currently only available to our premium members. This complete article will be free and visible to all members 30 days after publication. We invite you to subscribe today to unlock our top picks and other Premium benefits

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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Selections
Megha’s Picks

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