Cask wine is making a comeback, only this time it’s as good as the bottled stuff – and better for the environment.
This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.
Wine in a box has been around since the 1960s. While first popularised in Australia, it’s now omnipresent in fridges in the south of France, and dominates wine sales in many Nordic countries. Locally, however, the cask tends to be thought of as a relic of the 1980s and 90s, where it eventually earned a deeply low-brow reputation.
Central Otago winemakers Dicey Wines are attempting to challenge those undertones with their recently released version of a bag-in-(recycled cardboard) box wine, a pinot noir whimsically named Dice. And this absolutely isn’t the $26 box of unspecified “red wine” I purchase self-consciously every now and then to make sangria or mulled wine. In fact, it’s far from it.
“We’re old but new,” says James Dicey of Dicey Wines. He launched Dicey Wines alongside his brother Matt Dicey in 2020. And while the Dicey brand is relatively fresh, the brothers come from four generations of viticulturalists. Their father, Robin Dicey, was the first viticulturist of Corbans Wines and later, was instrumental in starting Mt Difficulty.
According to a study by the Wine Institute in California, 29% of the carbon emitted from wine-making comes not from agriculture, but rather from the bottles. Bag-in-box packaging leaves a softer footprint on the environment, as it reduces the carbon associated with glass bottle production, shipping and recycling. A New York Times article from 2008 said, “Switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars”.
While a bottle of wine can spoil relatively quickly once opened, the physics of box packaging “allows the wine to stay fresh, vibrant and delicious for up to a month,” Dicey says. That’s because the wine sits in a vacuum-sealed bag, which has an airtight spout that allows you to pour as much wine as you like. Meanwhile, whatever remains in the bag is safe from wine-spoiling oxygen. It means less vinegary wine, and less wastage.
So why the grimaces upon mention of box wine? Why does it get such a bad wrap? It’s less about the box and more about the wine that inhabits it, explains Tradecraft founder Morven McAuley, who worked alongside Dicey on developing the casks.
She recalls working for a winery that produced boxed wine “a long time ago” and how a “staggering percentage” of their total sales were wine in a box. What went into the bags was lower quality wine made from unwanted juice that would otherwise go to waste. “Initially that’s where boxed wine came in and so naturally it gained that reputation – which was fair, to be honest,” she says.
Breaking with tradition, Dicey’s boxed wine has been treated with exactly the same care as their bottled wine. The grapes harvested are either organic or sustainably certified, the wine is fermented in small format open top tanks, and aged in French oak barrels. “So it’s still a wine snob’s wine,” McAuley assures me.